The Croatian team of the 1998 World Cup has long been one of my favourite international sides. Moulded by maverick coach Miroslav Blažević, and possessing two maestros pulling the midfield strings – 60-a-day playmaker, Robert Prosinečki, and Zvonimir Boban (forever loved in Croatia for launching a flying kick at a policeman who was beating up a supporter of his team, Dinamo Zagreb, when a riot broke out between rival ultras during a game with Red Star Belgrade in the old Yugoslav League) – it punched well above the weight of a seven-year-old nation with only 4.2 million inhabitants.
Admittedly, their ‘checker board’ strip wasn’t the easiest on the eye, while the players we saw at first-hand in the Premier League either underwhelmed (Davor Šuker at Arsenal, Mario Stanić at Chelsea), played for such relatively small clubs as Derby (Igor Stimać, Aljosa Asanović) and Middlesbrough (Alen Boksić), or else disappeared without even kicking a ball (Robert Jarni at Coventry City). However, it cannot be disputed that, while not without great individual flair and technical excellence, they were a team that was very much more than the sum of its parts, spurred on not only by Blazevic but also by a fierce patriotism stoked by the bloody war with Serbia (a statue outside the ground at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb actually proclaims that the aforementioned riot of 13 May 1990 was the war’s first battle) and shored up as the former Yugoslavia disintegrated amidst ethnic, religious, political and other tensions.
Zvonimir Boban takes on the police in the Battle at the Maksimir
It could be argued that had the constituent republics of the former Yugoslavia managed to uphold their uneasy alliance – a sham marriage – and remain a nation-state, the self-styled Brazilians of Europe might have proven pretty unstoppable during the 1990s as a football force. It is certainly the stuff of many a wistful musing among Balkan football fans, regardless of their political persuasion; indeed, Srečko Katanec, the Slovene lynchpin of Sampdoria’s first Serie A-winning team in 1992, contended in somewhat Evil Overlord language that “had the country not fallen apart, I guarantee we would have crushed the world.”
The evidence? Well, the Yugoslav under-20s side that won the World Youth Cup in Chile in 1987 contained not only Katanec and his Croatian neighbours Boban, Prosinečki, Šuker, Stimać and Jarni, but also the Serbs Predrag Mijatović (later of Valencia and Real Madrid) and Vladimir Jugović (later of Inter, Juve and Lazio), while players of the calibre of Siniša Mihajlović (scorer of the most free kicks in Serie A history) were either withdrawn, injured, or suspended. This single generation (!) could have been added to such already established greats as Dragan Stojković and the man AC Milan fans knew simply as il genio, Dejan Savićević. But it was not to be. Along came the Balkan Wars, among the most grotesque and hate-filled of the twentieth century, out of which eventually emerged, somewhat groggily, these six new old nations: Serbia, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia and Croatia.
Anyway, in 1998, having played a solid first tournament as a fledgling nation in England two years earlier, trouncing Denmark 3-0 en route to a contentious quarter-final defeat to Germany, Croatia went all the way to the semi-final, where they met the hosts in the pristine new Stade de France. After enjoying much the better of the match and taking the lead through Golden Boot winner Šuker, they were unfortunate to be downed by the only two goals of right-back Lilian Thuram’s 142-match international career, although some consolation was to be had in securing the bronze medal by beating Holland 2-1 in the third-place playoff.
Šuker scores the opener in the World Cup semi-final
Now, the reason for this extended pre-amble is to provide a little context for a quite wonderful passage in Jonathon Wilson’s excellent book, Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football, that touches on Croatia’s success in France ’98; moreover, the passage in question deals with one of my favourite footballing (and sporting) themes: unorthodox leadership, especially important in football, where a coach’s influence during the game is relatively negligible. In it, the former Everton and West Ham centre-back Slaven Bilić reflects on the unusual motivational strategy employed by the most illustrious of his predecessors as Croatia boss: the irrepressible, if slightly unhinged, Blažević.
Bilić, of course, is largely remembered on these shores for the somewhat theatrical, face-clutching penalty-box tumble he took during that semi-final in Paris, resulting in a red card – and missed World Cup Final – for Laurent Blanc, a dignified man and regal footballer in his prime. However, the reputation Bilić acquired, both from this incident and his subsequent record of just twenty-six league starts in four years on Merseyside, as something of a yellow-bellied scoundrel and skiver is largely undeserved – it is little known, for instance, that he actually played the tournament in France with a stress fracture of the hip, ultimately leading to his premature retirement (even now he has to drive jeeps, as the low seat position of regular cars is too uncomfortable). Indeed, Wilson says he has “dealt with few more instantly likeable footballers than Bilić,” while I have long felt him to be one of the more charismatic and engaging figures in modern football. Perhaps the unconventional behaviour can be traced to having a father who, as a Professor of Economics at the University of Split, was lucky to escape imprisonment in 1971 after organizing a demonstration against Tito and the Communist Party centralists in Belgrade. Be that as it may, Bilić is a chain-smoking, polyglot (Italian, English, German, Croat) law graduate, guitarist for a moderately successful rock band (Rawbau), and now responsible for nurturing a new generation of Croatian talent, headed by Luka Modrić.
Whether he seeks to emulate Blažević’s style remains to be seen, however, for the latter was fond of consulting astrological charts prior to games – much as was England’s coach at France ‘98, Glenn Hoddle – and superstitiously ascribed Croatia’s showing at the tournament to him wearing the cap of a French gendarme beaten to within an inch of his life by German hooligans earlier in the tournament. At other times, he used pretty blunt gimmicks to inspire his men, once taking off his Rolex watch, dropping it to the dressing room floor and smashing it to smithereens, a fairly graphic demonstration of how he wanted his team “to crush the opposition as I have crushed this watch”.
At any rate, Bilić’s affectionate portrait of the eccentric who coaxed the young nation’s footballers to such heights in 1998 is so rich and amusing that Wilson declines to intervene in the narrative, simply letting the words do the talking, an eminently sensible choice. To wit:
He was the ideal coach for us. If you’d given us Capello, Ferguson or Wenger, it wouldn’t have worked. He was everybody’s father, a great motivator.
You would play against, let’s say, Estonia, and you know it’s only Estonia, but he would gradually motivate you. Every day he knew in his head when he was going to create an incident to wake everybody up a bit, then he’d tell us all to go to a nightclub or something. At team meetings he’d be talking about Estonia as though they were fucking Brazil. You’d know he was lying, you’d know it wasn’t true, but you say, fuck, yeah, it’s going to be hard. And he would always say Estonia’s left-back is whoever, and he’d be talking about their players, and he’d be writing their names on a board, and you’d know it was wrong; he’d be saying, like, this guy, he’s so quick, he’s so good, and you’d know when he was talking to you that he’d never seen him in his fucking life.
Anyway, it would motivate you, but whoever we played against, he always told us we were better than them. So when we played Argentina in the World Cup, he came to me and he said “Son”, because we were always his sons, “Son, you have to come with me and talk to the press.” So, OK, it’s me and him in the press conference. And I know even the twenty-second player in their squad plays for Inter, and everybody else is at AC Milan, Real Madrid, Barcelona…all at the best teams, and we have Boban at Milan, but he doesn’t play, and Šuker at Real Madrid, and he doesn’t play. The rest of us were playing in great leagues but not for great teams. So he says to the press, “Argentina, not a bad team, not a bad team, but none of their players play for the best teams in Europe”. So I look at him and say “What the fuck are you talking about?” But that’s what he was like. It was all nonsense, but it was great nonsense.
“Great nonsense”: pure magic.