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Suker Takes a Second to Win

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 1998; Page C9

 Croatia's Goran Vlaovic (left) jumps for a ball with Romania's Dan Petrescu during second-round match in Bordeaux. (Eric Gailard/Reuters)
BORDEAUX, France, July 1 — Croatia's Davor Suker rubbed his jaw with his right hand, concern etched on his face. Seconds after Suker had punched a penalty kick into the right corner of the net for an apparent goal against Romania, Suker stood in the same place with the same challenge — and no goal to his credit.

Argentine referee Javier Alberto Castrilli ruled that a Croatian player had moved into the penalty area prematurely on Suker's kick. That nullified the goal, quieted the Croatian fans and accelerated Suker's heart rate. But Suker blew out a calming breath and, with a quick brush of his left foot, put the ball in almost precisely the same spot as on the first shot.

The goal during first-half injury time provided Croatia's 1-0 victory in a World Cup round-of-16 match today at Parc Lescure. As the ball angled toward the goal, Suker broke into a satisfied trot and a half-grin – a smug look that suggested he would be willing to go three for three if asked.

"I have to admit that taking that second penalty was very tough," said Suker, who plays for Real Madrid and is considered the best striker in Croatia's history. "My heart was beating so fast. But it went in and we won, and we are so overjoyed."

No more goals were needed for Croatia to advance to Saturday's quarterfinal against Germany in Lyon. In Croatia's first World Cup appearance since gaining its independence in 1991, the tournament has been a grand success.

Reaching the quarterfinals is quite an achievement, but Croatia is hardly an international novice. Midfielder Robert Prosinecki played for Yugoslavia in the 1990 World Cup and club team Croatia Zagreb long has excelled at the highest levels of European competition.

Croatian Coach Miroslav Blazevic burst into the interview room after the match, offering elated high-fives to Croatian journalists before answering questions about the game. The scene in the makeshift interview tent was a strange one: the sweating, gleeful Blazevic stood perhaps 10 feet from a pair of giant nude statues, which served a decorative purpose that perhaps only the French could explain. Blazevic, who anointed his team the "Brazil of Europe" entering this World Cup, let his elation spill again.

"Let me tell you how happy I am tonight," he said. "I am extremely happy. We finally succeeded in eliminating a very good team, a traditional team, in the world of international football. . . . Never has a country as small as Croatia produced such a result as we did today."

Indeed, Croatia barely outscored, but thoroughly outplayed, the skillful and smallish Romanian team, which never mustered a threatening attack. Largely the same players that managed a quarterfinal finish in the 1994 World Cup, Romania's undersized attackers were manhandled near the penalty area. Wearing yellow shirts, yellow shorts, yellow socks and yellow hairdos — a result of a bet between the players and Coach Anghel Iordanescu over qualifying for the second round — the players looked like moving targets for Croatia's strong defenders.

Even in the waning minutes, as Croatia substituted defensive specialists and Romania brought in attacking players, the Romanians ran in circles rather than direct lines toward the goal. They were hindered further by the departure of star midfielder Gheorghe Hagi, who was replaced in the 57th minute, in part, because of a strained leg muscle. Hagi, 33, said the match was his last with the national team.

"Croatia deserved the victory today," said Iordanescu, who also announced his retirement after five years as coach. "Croatia played much better than Romania and with more cohesion. And, let me tell you, Romania will be the best supporter of Croatia in the quarterfinals and the World Cup."

A rather magnanimous statement, given his players' disagreement with the referee's call that led to Suker's pair of penalty kicks. Scrambling in the penalty area, Romania's Gabriel Popescu got tangled with Croatia's Aljosa Asanovic. Asanovic seemed to tumble without any help from Popescu, yet Castrilli called for the penalty kick.

In this match, Croatia produced twice as many shots as Romania and nearly double the shots on goal. Yet Romanian goalkeeper Bogdan Stelea handled every shot but one — well, two.

Two minutes into injury time and seconds before the expiration of the half, Suker did the day's biggest job.

"This is a new watershed in the history of Croatian football," Suker said. "We could have scored more goals, but we won. I am extremely happy."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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