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Tiny Croatia Is the Tournament's Dark Horse

By Eugene Brcic
Associated Press
Friday, May 1, 1998; 2:20 p.m. EDT

ZAGREB, Croatia — Croatia needed a playoff victory to get into the World Cup for the first time. And the small, boomerang-shaped country on the Adriatic Sea has less people than many countries in the tournament have registered soccer players.

Still, the Croats have plenty of talent and are considered by far the best World Cup rookies.

"If we pass the first round, I guarantee that we can beat anyone," captain Zvonimir Boban said.

Boban, Davor Suker and Robert Prosinecki formed the hub of the under-20 Yugoslav national team that won that age group's World Cup in Chile in 1987. When Yugoslavia violently broke up into independent states in 1991, the three doffed the traditional Yugoslav blue and donned the red-and-white checkered shirts of their native Croatia to guide an extremely gifted crop of players.

The fledgling nation has 24 wins, 10 draws and only seven losses, including convincing victories over three-time World Cup champion Italy, ex-European champion Denmark, and Spain. Croatia defeated Ukraine in a two-game series last November for a berth in France.

The World Cup, which begins June 10, is the second major tournament the Croats have qualified for in their first attempt. In 1996, they made it into the European Championship and reached the quarterfinals, where they were edged out by Germany, the tournament's eventual winner.

Indeed, if the Croats can advance out of their first-round World Cup group, which also includes Argentina and rookies Japan and Jamaica, they may have an upset or two in them.

"I'm full of energy and my optimism is as hard as a granite," coach Miroslav Blazevic said. "Croatia boasts a class like few other nations."

Croatia's stars are spread out across the globe. Of the team's starting 11, only goalkeeper Drazen Ladic and Prosinecki, are based in the country.

Boban, who also plays for AC Milan, is a linchpin in the midfield. Lanky forward Alen Boksic is the sting behind a potent attack-line. He helped lead Italian powerhouse Juventus to a league title last year and is now in peak form for Rome's Lazio.

Some have described the Croats as Europe's Brazil for their fluid and unpredictable style, but critics have noted the lack of discipline and stamina.

Much of Croatia's fortunes lie with Prosinecki, an on-off chain-smoker with dexterous ball control and imaginative passes. He has had a renaissance since returning to mother club Croatia Zagreb last season.

Lately, however, the 29-year-old has been battling a nagging back injury and erratic form that also marred his stints at Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona a few years ago.

As for coach Blazevic, he is a master psychologist and staunch nationalist. These days his greatest problem is keeping his stars' egos in check.

In past games, he has talked of the homeland-war and turmoil left in its wake to rouse his ensemble of millionaires. The players were outside the country during the war and were not affected, although many were involved in humanitarian projects and sent money to victims back home.

The country, now mired in social and economic troubles, is hoping for a morale boost with a good showing in the World Cup, and that has put a lot of pressure on the team.

The high demands concern Aljosa Asanovic, who also plays for Napoli in Italy. He thinks an appearance in the world's most-watched sporting event is inspiration enough.

In fact, like many others, he sees the Cup as a way to land the biggest contract of his career.

"The national side has always been a stage where my potential is most visible," Asanovic said. "I believe that's how it will be in France."

© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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