It’s been 20 years since Croatia’s set France 98 alight on the way to finishing third at their first-ever World Cup.
Things have not quite been as successful in tournaments since, but expectations are as high as ever as Zlatko Dalic’s side prepare for Russia, where they have been drawn in a very tough group along with Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria.
We caught up with Slaven Bilic, who managed Croatia from 2006-12, to discuss, among other topics, their hopes for the tournament, their key players and any youngsters to look out for…
What are expectation levels for Russia?
Our first tournament after we got independence was Euro 96 and straight away expectations were high. It was the same at France 98.
People expect you to qualify in the same way as the likes of Germany, Spain, Italy and England, and then when you get there they expect you to at least get out of the group stage. We have only ever missed a couple of tournaments.
We’ve always had good players and good teams. I was manager for six years and in about 60 games there wasn’t a single time where the media or fans said about the opposition: ‘Oh, they are better than us we have to be lucky and get a point’. On the one hand it’s good but it puts some extra pressure on the players.
You need every for player to have a really good tournament, then you need to do something extra and have a couple of players who play the football of their lives. If that all comes together then you can do something major, like we did in 1998.
Everyone talks about how good we were but we had luck in a couple of games when we needed it. Even then we still need Davor Suker to be the top scorer and our goalkeeper to be the best at the World Cup.
Who are the key players?
We have a great team on paper. If you look at the players and where they’re playing, even in 1998 when we came third we weren’t this strong and with so much experience.
Luka Modric is a key player at Real Madrid, Ivan Rakitic is very important at Barcelona. Mateo Kovacic is younger but also at Madrid. Then we have Ivan Perisic and Marcelo Brozovic at Inter Milan, Mario Mandzukic at Juventus, Nikola Kalinic at AC Milan and Sime Vsraljko at Atletico Madrid. They’re all playing at big clubs.
The likes of Vedran Corluka, Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic have also been going to tournaments since Euro 2008, so they the experience of how to deal with it all and what to expect. There are also younger players like Andrej Kramaric, Marko Pjaca and Marko Rog. It’s a really good mix.
You don’t have to be a football expert to see that Modric is the key player. On and off the pitch he matured and became a leader. He’s a captain. He is the main player on the pitch. I have had the privilege of working with really good players with Croatia, Besiktas and West Ham but if I had to name one as the best it would be Modric.
What is the manager like?
When I was in the youth team at Hajduk Split he was also at the club. He made his name in the Middle East, he did really well in Saudi Arabia and then the Emirates, where he got to the final of the Asian Champions League with Al-Ain.
Croatia very rarely qualify like Germany with 10 wins, and most of our groups generally come down to the last couple of games. People were expecting us to qualify more quickly and that’s why they sacked the manager before the play-offs.
We had a few bad results, lost to Iceland, drew at home to Finland and lost to Turkey, which made it really difficult. But the new manager came in and he did a really good job.
He’s done it the hard way and he’s a good, honest man who is in his prime. He took the team in a bad moment and started really well, now he deserves his chance. The whole country will be behind him.
Any youngsters to look out for?
Nikola Vlasic is from my hometown of Split. He comes from a sporting family and his sister, Blanka, is one of the biggest sportswomen ever in Croatia. She was a high jumper and won Sports Personality of the Year for five or six years in a row, she won silver at the Olympics in Beijing and was a world champion.
Vlasic also trained with my son and I wanted to take him to West Ham, but it was too late. He is going to be a really good player. He started well at Everton but was unfortunate because they changed their manager and now he’s not playing. But every time he gets a chance he has done well. He’s young but he’s very prepared and mature.
There’s Pjaca who is at Juventus and Rog at Napoli. The expectations were also very high for Alen Halilovic but he went abroad too early and went to Barcelona and it’s difficult to play there. He got lost a bit going from Hamburg to Las Palmas, so his career hasn’t gone like it was supposed to, but he is still young and can make it. He is playing in La Liga and has every chance still.