Thursday, October 12, 2006

Croatia

I'm not going to dwell about England's pitiful performance on Wednesday (though - seriously - Paul Robinson? HA!). Instead, I will take the opportunity to explore the reasons why Croatia are so good and arguably have deserved even more footballing success than they have managed to achieve in their brief existence as a country. This was not a team that McClaren and co. should have underestimated.

Croatia were, after all, just one freak performance away from a World Cup final appearance in 1998. Early in the second half against France, striker Davor Suker scored what would prove to be the only goal from open play that France would give up in the entire tournament. France advanced only because of full-back Lilian Thuram, who - depsite never having scored an international goal before or since - managed to put two in the back of the net in the space of ten minutes. Croatia did manage third place against the Netherlands but their glory was slightly tarnished by Slaven Bilic (now Croatia's manager) grossly faking a foul to get Laurent Blanc sent off.

People wondering why such a small country as Croatia is so good at football need a lesson in recent history: arguably, the country's birth was a product of football.

Though history will record that the Wars of Yugoslav Secession started on June 28, 1991, many in the former Yugoslavia will mark the start of the dissolution from the Dinamo Zagreb - Red Star Belgrade match of May 13, 1990. Indeed, there is even a statue with an inscription to this effects outside Dinamo's Maksimir stadium. The game - carried live on national television - had to be abandoned when fighting between Red Star (Delije) and Dinamo ultras spilled onto to field. As the police were seen as being Serb controlled, they too became embroiled in the fight with the ultras. Two serious reputations were made that day - for the Serbs, that of Zelkjo Raznatovic, the delije chief who later became a war criminal under the nom de guerre of Arkan the Tiger; for the Croats, that of future AC Milan midfielder Zvonimir Boban who became a national hero for kung-fu kicking a policeman who was truncheoning a priminent Croatian ultra. The day is known to some as "The day Yugoslav football died", but others suggest it was the date at which intra-communal tensions became so evident that civil war itself became inevitable.

Once the war started in earnest in the summer of 1991, things went very badly for the Croats. Not least of all because they didn't have an army. So - if you're a new proto-state and need a bunch of young men with a taste for violence and a pre-existing esprit de corps, where do you go? The local ultras of course. Which is how Dinamo Zagreb's "Bad Blue Boys" (yes, they have a website) became the nucleus of the Croatian militias that fought the serbs over the next three-and-a-half years.

(If you're wondering why Croatian ultras have an English name, it comes from the god-awful Sean Penn movie "Bad Boy". No, I'm not kidding.)

Back to the main point here - with a history like this, you'd have to figure that Croatian football has a right to be quite good (if for no other reason than that players would have genuine reason to fear passionate fans intolerant of failure!). In fact, you'd have to be mad to think that *this* was a team against which you'd want to try out some half-baked tactical experiments. But as I said before the game, McClaren is a moron....

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