On the 29th March 2019, the United Kingdom is (currently) scheduled to exit the European Union. To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. Today we’re looking at one of the youngest countries in the European Union, who flew out of the traps to make a big impression on the world stage. Get your red and white chequered shirts at the ready – it’s Croatia.
The Player: Robert Prosinečki
The political tension that led to Croatia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 had an unforeseen knock-on effect to the sporting success in the Balkans. Whilst the anti-bureaucratic revolution was talking place in the late eighties, a raft of exciting young footballers were making waves on the other side of the world, as Yugoslavia won the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championships in Chile. Among their ranks were the scintillating strikeforce of Predrag Mijatovic and Davor Suker, who would later be reunited at Real Madrid, along with future Croatia stars Zvonimir Boban and Igor Stimac. The star man for Yugoslavia, and the eventual winner of the Golden Ball for the best player of the tournament, was a mercurial midfield talent with a shock of blonde hair and a face only a mother could love – Red Star Belgrade’s Robert Prosinečki.
Aged 18, Prosinečki arrived at the tournament having just signed his first professional contract with the Yugoslav champions, after his coach at Dinamo Zagreb had allowed him to leave for free, claiming he would eat his coaching diploma if the midfielder ever made it as a professional footballer. That coach happened to be Miroslav Blažević, the man that would trust Prosinečki as his creative force when he led Croatia to the World Cup eleven years later. The German-born playmaker was immediately installed into the Red Star first team upon his return from Chile, with his club having sought dispensation to allow him to return to Belgrade after the group stages of the tournament and play in their UEFA Cup match against Club Brugge. FIFA President Joao Havelange refused to demure, but the teenager’s return was worth the wait. The first of three Yugoslav league titles arrived at the end of that season, and Prosinečki’s crowning glory was leading Red Star to a European Cup win in 1991.
By now he’d already proven himself at a major international tournament, joining up with the Yugoslavia national team at Italia ’90, and scoring against the UAE as his side reached the quarter-finals and winning the award for the tournament’s Best Young Player. This, combined with his role in Red Star’s success in Europe, put the world’s biggest clubs on high alert, and Real Madrid coughed up the equivalent of €15m for his services. Sadly his stay at the Santiago Bernabeu was blighted by injury, and he managed just 56 league appearances across three seasons before joining Real Oviedo for a season. Having rediscovered his form, Prosinečki was called up to the newly formed Crotian national team for their first qualifying campaign for Euro ’96, and his dazzling displays earned him a move to Spain’s other giants, Barcelona. Another two injury-hit seasons followed, and after joining Sevilla for the end of the remainder of the 96/97 season, Prosinečki returned to Croatia and rejoined Dinamo Zagreb.
In the meantime his international career was blooming, as Croatia reached the quarter-finals of Euro ’96, and Prosinečki inspired them to qualification for the World Cup in 1998. Once there, his goal against Jamaica in the group stage made him the first and so far only player to score for two different nations at a World Cup finals. An incredible campaign would have a bittersweet end as, having been left out of the semi-final against France by old adversary Blažević, Prosinečki opened the scoring in the playoff that earned Croatia a bronze medal.
Having found himself in a dispute with Dinamo Zagreb (at the time christened Croatia Zagreb as part of a state sponsored propaganda programme) over unpaid wages, Prosinečki began to wind down his career with a nomadic period. A season in Belgium was followed by a year in the English First Division with Portsmouth, where the Croatian gained cult hero status (notable Pompey supporter Luke Moore of Football Ramble fame cites Prosinečki as the best player he’s ever seen at Fratton Park), with a season each in Slovenia and back in Croatia bringing a close to the maverick’s career. Prosinečki has since moved into management, winning the Serbian Cup with Red Star in 2012, and is now the head coach of the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team.
The beauty of Robert Prosinečki was the languid, lazy and seemingly effortless way in which he played the game. Often found treating himself to a ciggie after training, Prosinečki was a fan’s footballer. All moments of magic, without ever being a big time charlie. Though he may have only flourished as a big fish in a small pond, it’s difficult to dispute the waves he made in the game. File under: Doesn’t Look Like He’d Be A Good Footballer But Is Actually Bloody Brilliant.
The Game: Germany 0-3 Croatia, 1998
Croatia’s success at the 1998 World Cup shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. After all, the Yugoslavia U20 side that had won the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1987 featured five of the side’s key players, and boss Miroslav Blažević could call upon talent from such European luminaries as Real Madrid, AC Milan, Parma and…Derby County. They’d also put in a decent showing at Euro ’96, hammering holders Denmark before falling short in a bruising encounter with Germany. In short, this lot were a decent side.
After squeaking past Greece in qualifying and cruising the playoff against Ukraine, a group containing Argentina, Japan and Jamaica offered little for Blažević’s men to fear. When Robbie Earle headed in an equaliser for Jamaica in their opening game, however, heavy weather began to gather. Second half goals from Prosinečki and Suker limited any embarrassment for The Chequered Ones, and Suker’s late winner against Japan secured progression from the group. Against the bleached blonde hair of Romania in the last sixteen, another stuttering performance was saved by the trusty foot of Suker, as his penalty on the stroke of half-time earned another hard-fought win for Croatia. Next up, Revenge.
As in 1994, Germany had arrived in France with an ageing squad. The European Championships win in 1996 had papered over the growing cracks of the nation’s inability to produce talented youngsters, and seven of the first team regulars in qualifying had been part of the squad in 1990. Of those fresher faces, Oliver Bierhoff was 30, Andreas Kopke 36, and Ulf Kirsten and Olaf Marschall both 32. For once time was not on the side of the Germans. Even so, they breezed through qualifying unbeaten, and took their customary seven points from the most politically charged group in World Cup history, alongside the United States, Iran and Yugoslavia. Coming back from a goal down against Mexico in the second round was typical German fare, and few would expect Croatia to overcome the inevitable.
Germany, for their part, came out like a steam train, dominating a nervous looking Croatia side who’s spent much of the tournament struggling to reach their potential. Drazen Ladic was kept busy in the opening half an hour, particularly by diminutive schemer Thomas Hässler, while Oliver Bierhoff’s header from point blank range required a strong save from the Croatian custodian. The momentum would shift dramatically five minutes before the break. Suker, kept relatively quiet so far, went scampering towards goal to latch onto a long ball, at which point Christian Wörns stuck out a boot to forcefully stopped him in his tracks. A straight red for the young German defender, and advantage Croatia. That setback was compounded before Wörns’ teammates could join him in the dressing room as, in first half stoppage time, full-back Robert Jarni (who would go on to join Coventry City for a total of five minutes later that summer) received the ball from Mario Stanic and fired a wicked shot into the bottom corner for his first and only international goal.
Germany continued to put pressure on the Croatian goal after the break, and Bierhoff’s volley from a corner should have levelled the scores, were it not for Ladic’s lightning reflexes to palm the effort away. With time wearing on, the sight of Hamann’s long-range free-kick glancing off the post may have had Berti Vogts wondering if it was going to be his night, and with ten minutes left it became apparent it wasn’t. Having seen his side break quickly, Goran Vlaovic sized up his options before lamping one into the bottom corner to seal his side’s place in the semi-final. Vogts then threw on two strikers in the vain hope of his team clawing their way back into the game, but with five minutes to go some Suker magic put the result beyond any doubt, jinking his way into the area from the byline before sliding a shot beneath Kopke. Not just a victory, but a total humbling of one of the favourites. Having not even existed as an independent nation eight years previous, Croatia were now in the final four of a World Cup.
Their run would of course end against France in the semi-final. Suker’s fifth goal of the tournament giving Croatia a second half lead that their supporters could only enjoy for sixty seconds – the amount of time it took for the hosts to go up the other end and equlise through Lillian Thuram. The right-back’s second spelled the end of the road for Blažević and his team, but victory over the Netherlands meant third place in their first ever World Cup. Not a bad effort, and one that wouldn’t be bettered until 2018.