France 1998. Super Suker and the Charming Croats.
The Croatian kit is one of football’s most distinctive outfits. Covered with red and and white chequered squares, it could easily pass off for a suitable surface for playing chess. Croatia do have a collection of players who have displayed mental dexterity on the football pitch, on par with the type exhibited by chess grand-masters.
Zvonimir Boban (a key player with AC Milan in the 1990s, winner of 4 Italian Serie A league titles and a Champions League trophy. Currently Deputy Secretary General of FIFA), Robert Prosinecki (a talented midfielder who played for Real Madrid and Barcelona, manager of Azerbaijan for the past 3 years) and Luka Modric are examples of Croatian maestros over the years.
However, there is one player who made the biggest contribution to Croatia’s recognition on the football map: Davor Suker. When his newly independent country made its first ever World Cup appearance in France 1998, Suker was already an elite striker banging in goals for Real Madrid.
Two years earlier in the European Championships in 1996, Suker had played a big role in helping Croatia to the quarter finals. He scored a memorable chip over Peter Schmeichel in a surprise 3-0 win over defending champions, Denmark in the group stages. No one was however prepared for the even greater shock of Croatia getting a bronze medal in their debut world cup campaign.
Drawn in a group with Argentina, Japan and Jamaica, the Croats grabbed their opportunity. They jammed their way past the Jamaicans in a 3-1 win with goals from Suker, Stanic and Prosinecki. The goal by Prosinecki was of particular significance as he became the first footballer to score in a World Cup for two different countries. He had scored earlier for Yugoslavia in Italia 1990 against the UAE.
A lone goal from Davor the Sukerman then put Japan down the pan. This guaranteed them qualification to the next round despite a later defeat to Argentina in the third group game. In the second round, Croatia roamed past Romania courtsey of a Suker penalty. Onwards they went to the quarter finals where they had to face the European Champions, Germany.
Germany had eliminated Croatia two years earlier in the quarter finals of Euro 1996. This was a chance for revenge. Suker and co took it with glee. They pulled the plug on the German Machine with an emphatic 3-0 victory. Many neutrals enjoyed this surprise win, including French fans who would have been delighted to avoid meeting Germany in the semi finals.
Suker however showed that Croatia were every bit as dangerous as the Germans would have been. In a brilliantly entertaining game, he gave his team a 1-0 lead which was only overturned by a surprise french toast double from Lillian Thuram. (Those were actually the only two goals Thuram scored for France in 142 appearances !)
After their 2-1 defeat to France in the semis, Croatia went on to face the Netherlands in the third place match. They showed Dutch courage and triumphed 2-1 with Suker scoring his sixth goal of the tournament. He ended winning the golden boot, which he probably has somewhere in his office where he resides as the current president of the Croatian Football Federation.
A remarkable debut world cup run for a remarkable footballing country. They would be hoping to checkmate Nigeria, Iceland and Argentina in Group D of the 2018 World Cup.