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Croatia Finishes 3rd, Bilic Comes in Last

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 1998; Page D11

PARIS, July 11 — The World Cup third-place match usually doesn't serve much of a purpose. Tonight's unlucky contestants, Croatia and the Netherlands, would have preferred to go home following their semifinal losses, and almost every soccer soul in this city was far more concerned about Sunday's final between France and Brazil a few miles north at Stade de France.

But for Croatia forward Davor Suker, there was the matter of the coveted tournament goal-scoring title. And for the majority of the 45,500 spectators at Parc des Princes, there was the matter of Croatia's Slaven Bilic.

Every time Bilic touched the ball, ran near the ball or defended someone with the ball during Croatia's 2-1 victory tonight, he was drenched with ear-piercing whistles and hoots from unforgiving French fans. His offense, of course, was that animated flop in Wednesday's semifinal between Croatia and France that led to French defender Laurent Blanc's suspension for Sunday's final.

Tonight, Bilic was booed during the pregame introductions, the postgame medal ceremony, even during Croatia's victory lap. The unofficial count was 38 rude receptions, 26 before halftime. If the host country falls to Brazil in the title game, Bilic will always have a special place in the broken heart of every French soccer fan.

It was an otherwise joyous and historic night for the Croatians, who equaled the best finish by a country making its World Cup debut — in 1966, rookie Portugal also finished third — and became one of the smallest countries to claim a spot among the top three teams.

"What we have demonstrated is that our very, very small — perhaps unknown — country is able to show with great elegance what it is capable of," Coach Miroslav Blazevic said. "Hopefully more people will learn about our country because of this team."

Veteran midfielder Robert Prosinecki — a member of the 1990 Yugoslavian World Cup team who already had become the first player to score in the World Cup for two teams — gave Crotia a 1-0 lead in the 13th minute. And after 21-year-old Boudewijn Zenden tied it for the Netherlands eight minutes later, Suker struck in the 36th minute for his sixth goal of the tournament. He moved into first place in the goal-scoring race, breaking a tie with Italy's Christian Vieri and Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta. The only player who can realistically catch him is Brazil's Ronaldo, who has four heading into the finale.

Suker's game-winner — "just a masterpiece," teammate Igor Stimac said — came on the end of a crisp counterattack. Captain Zvonimir Boban pushed the ball to his left to Suker, who used a soft touch from 18 yards to beat goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar to the lower right corner.

Suker had a chance to increase his total midway through the second half, but just missed a long ball with a sliding attempt at the right post. Suker, a reserve for European Cup champion Real Madrid, scored a goal in each of Croatia's four elimination-round matches.

Despite the loss, the Netherlands had its best finish since losing in the 1978 championship game to Argentina. Still, the Dutch said they should have won tonight after outshooting the Croatians 20-5 and having six of the game's seven corner kicks. The main culprit was forward Patrick Kluivert, who was robbed twice by goalkeeper Drazen Ladic and missed three other clear opportunities.

"We played beautiful football," said Zenden, the Netherlands' youngest player. "But they were best with [counterattacks] and that's the way they scored."

Croatia went ahead in the 13th minute on a sequence started by the villainous Bilic. The ball made its way to left wing Robert Jarni, who cut across the top of the penalty area before passing to Prosinecki for a clever spin move past defender Arthur Numan and a 12-yard shot past van der Sar.

The Netherlands got even on Zenden's first goal of the tournament, a superb run on the right side that he capped with an off-balance shot from 22 yards that went over Ladic. But despite several chances in the second half, the Dutch didn't have an answer for Suker's strike, and the flag-draped Croatians danced the night away on the rain-battered turf.

"For the last three days [since losing to France], we shed many tears," Stimac said. "We've been very sad, but we managed to turn ourselves around a beat a very strong team."

Netherlands: Edwin van der Sar; Jaap Stam, Frank de Boer, Arthur Numan; Wim Jonk, Clarence Seedorf, Phillip Cocu (Marc Overmars, 46th minute), Edgar Davids; Dennis Bergkamp (Pierre van Hooijdonk, 58th), Patrick Kluivert, Boudewijn Zenden.

Croatia: Drazen Ladic; Igor Stimac, Slaven Bilic, Zvonimir Soldo, Robert Jarni; Aljosa Asanovic, Robert Prosinecki (Goran Vlaovic, 86th), Zvonimir Boban (Igor Tudor, 78th), Mario Stanic, Krunoslav Jurcic; Davor Suker.

Referee: Epifanio Gonzalez, Paraguay.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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