Gendarmes, Cigarettes and Rock Music: Remembering Croatia’s Cult Heroes of 1998

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Darko Zironi received a fax five hours before kick-off. Uncertain of how to respond, the Croatian Press Officer sought out national team manager Miroslav Blazevic, at the group’s base deep in France’s Beaujolais wine region.

‘I only read to him the most positive sentences,’ Zironi would later say, in an interview with The New York Times.  ‘It said Berti Vogts and the German team were going to have big problems.’

The unprecedented communication came from Blazevic’s personal astrologer back in Zagreb. Later that evening, in the most stunning of World Cup upsets, Vogts would indeed watch his side crash spectacularly out of a World Cup they’d been amongst the favourites to win, at the quarter-final stage, victim to a pernicious cocktail of their own indiscipline and Croatian brilliance.

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Blazevic’s (pictured above) unorthodox ethos had been renowned across much of the footballing world long before the opportunity to lead his national team out at a major tournament rolled around in 1998. This was a man, after all, who when in charge of Dinamo Zagreb, once before a match, infamously removed his Rolex watch, threw it to the dressing room floor, before stamping on it repeatedly and shouting at his players that he wanted them to ‘smash the opposition like I am smashing this watch.’

And yet by the time the century’s final World Cup had come about, Croatia’s Class of ’98, resembled, in many ways, the perfect personification of Blazevic’s whimsical eccentricity. A band of players that included an electric guitarist, a History geek with a special interest in Christianity across the Roman Empire, a star striker previously caught posing for a photograph next to the grave of a former fascist military dictator, and, in Aljosa Asanovic, a player with the nickname of ‘fiery elbow’. Without other evidence, one could be forgiven for mistaking this as a side compiled from characters within Roy of the Rovers cartoon sketches. A team consisting as much of personality as quality, whose idiosyncrasies defined them. A ‘true cult World Cup outfit’, as one news outlet described them, coached by the ultimate cult hero.

‘I’m not saying he was a bad coach or a great coach,’ remembers Slaven Bilic, now more at home in the studios of ITV than at the heart of Croatia’s defence, as he had been twenty years ago, ‘but he was the ideal coach for us. If you’d given us [Fabio] Capello or [Sir Alex] Ferguson or [Arsene] Wenger, it wouldn’t have worked’. ‘He was everybody’s father, a great motivator.’

In Blazevic’s own mind, however, his talents stretched well beyond simply the ability to motivate his side. He once remarked with characteristic abrasiveness in an interview with The Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson, ‘3-5-2 was invented in 1982 by Ciro Blazevic’. Both Sepp Piontek and Carlos Bilardo, you feel, may well have something to say about that.

Given the squad and their coach’s erratic nature, therefore, Blazevic emerging for their opening group game against Jamaica carrying a Gendarme police helmet under his arm to show solidarity with the French authorities following the vicious assault of an officer by German hooligans, wasn’t a shock at all. Croatia had already garnered themselves a reputation as a group of eccentrics, offbeat outlanders, football’s answer to Dick Fosbury; although in this case, there wouldn’t any flop.

That opening game characterised the remainder of Croatia’s tournament. On their World Cup debut, a country whose national Football Association had been in operation barely five years, proved that behind all their eccentricities, there was a team with genuine ability and talent.

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The 3-5-2, regardless of whether it had been Blazevic’s brainchild or not, was deployed throughout that summer with unmitigated effectiveness. With Bilic (pictured above) partnered at centre-back by the imperious duo of Dario Simic and Igor Stimac, a midfield controlled by the enigmatic Zvonimir Boban, and a true talisman in Davor Suker leading the line, the Croats dismantled Jamaica.

In the process, Suker bagged himself the first of six tournament goals which would eventually lead him to the competition’s Golden Boot Award, whilst Robert Prosinecki’s outrageous set-piece routine will forever go down as one of the great World Cup strikes. His post-match celebrations would be to continue to fuel his forty-a-day cigarette habit, something he had previously nonchalantly dismissed, claiming ‘nobody lives a hundred years’.

Former England striker Peter Crouch, with whom Prosninecki played at Portsmouth during the 2001-2002 season recalls: ‘He’d smoke before the game, at half-time in the showers and after the game as well. Red Marlboros, too. The real heavy stuff’.

Prosinecki wasn’t isolated in his unique sporting lifestyle. Bilic too earned an infamous reputation as a chain smoker, whilst Stimac would never publicly identify as a smoker on the basis he didn’t smoke either at matches nor in training. Definitions have perhaps never quite been so loose.

Yet, if their careless, Hollywood lifestyle did have any effect on the team, none of it ever managed to filter its way onto the pitch. Certainly not during those four weeks in France. Blazevic’s men followed up their 3-1 triumph over Jamaica with a 1-0 victory over Japan (Suker again the goal-scoring hero), before facing Argentina in a group-topping showdown. Mauricio Pineda’s first-half goal relegated the Croats to second place, leaving them in a tie against a Romanian side that included Gheoreghe Hagi (the Argentines would go on to knock out England, back in the days the Three Lions lost penalty shoot-outs of course.)

Whilst the Argentina result may have proved a temporary setback to Croatia’s unlikely collection of heroes, it couldn’t dispel the happy-go-lucky mood permeating its way through the team’s training camp. When Blazevic, therefore, was forced to deal with the more than unusual request from one of his players that he might be allowed to travel several hours away from the team’s base, to Paris, in order to spend the night with a girl with whom he had been conducting an affair, his reply was gloriously typical of the unique dynamic within the squad: ‘No problem. You can go, but only on one condition: that my son drives you.’

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Moments like these, alongside stories of members of the playing squad covering the often extortionate cost of hotel rooms for fans who’d driven long distances to see them play, without having been able to make a booking, became part of the positive, almost comical vibe that engulfed the Croatian camp as they prepared for playing Romania.

Little surprise, therefore, that amidst scarcely believable scenes of the Romanian squad emerging in Bordeaux with their hair dyed bright yellow in unison, that it’d be the Croats who’d refuse to let their own World Cup dream die just yet. The build-up to the game’s only goal a fitting testament to the free-flowing attacks Blazevic’s system had looked to harbour. A delightful through ball from midfield finding Suker in the penalty area, whose attempts to turn and gain a clear sight on was undone by Panamanian-esque wrestling to the floor. The Argentine referee had little hesitation in pointing to the spot; Suker equally swift in sending goalkeeper Bogdan Stelea the wrong way.

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And then, Germany.

‘I do not watch recordings of my matches,’ explains Goran Vlaovic, Suker’s striking partner throughout the tournament, ‘but I know that match in my head. It is one of the greatest successes of the Croatia national team and perhaps our sport in general. I’m proud that I was part of that story’.

It was, as Vlaovic eludes to, to date, perhaps the greatest performance ever produced by a Croatian national football team. German defender Christian Worns sent off five minutes prior to half-time. Oliver Bierhoff marked almost completely out of the game by Simic, Robert Jarni providing a goal worthy of the occasion, supplemented with strikes from Vlaovic and Suker. Croatian football had reached its zenith.

Whilst each member of the 23-man squad that played a part in elevating their nation’s footballing dream to new levels may have been actors on the world stage in 1998, it was Blazevic’s fatherly attitude to his group that proved the enabler, the catalyst in allowing each player to find their own comfort zone in an alien environment, when the pressure had been ramped up and the stakes were highest. For certain players, finding a home away from home involved being able to indulge late night drinking sessions or being allowed to travel to Paris to meet up with an extramarital lover. For Bilic, it was always rock music. The former West Ham defender attributes much of his success and mentality to his love for music, playing in his own heavy metal band which prior to the 2008 European Championships topped the country’s charts by recording their own Croatian answer to David Baddiel and Frank Skinner’s ‘Three Lions’. In 1998, however, Bilic’s rock music created, in his own mind and those of his colleagues, the perfect environment and mentality as the group strived for success in unfamiliar territory. It became a personal source of inspiration.

That inspiration took them so close. On a warm evening in Paris, as Suker placed the ball past French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. Momentarily, the Croatian minority who had found themselves surrounded by a sea of blue shirts in the Stade de France, started to believe. Amidst the controversy of Laurent Blanc’s sending off and a worldly display from Zinedine Zidane, however, two goals from unlikely source Lilian Thuram ultimately sank Blazevic’s dream and sent the hosts through to their first-ever World Cup Final.

Croatia’s World Cup journey ended with a 2-1 third place play-off victory over a star-studded Dutch squad, boasting the likes of Jaap Stam, Clarence Seedorf and Dennis Bergkamp; Prosinecki and Suker netting either side of a Boudewijn Zenden strike. It was a fitting end to the tournament for a team that had, through the most atypical of methods, found themselves battling against world football’s elite.

The side’s impact would stretch far beyond the summer of 1998, not least due to both Bilic and Niko Kovac going on to manage the national team in later years (Bilic famously getting his team motivated for matches by blaring songs by Croatian heavy metal band ‘Thompson.’)

‘France ’98 was the realisation of a dream for me,’ remembers Suker, nearly twenty years on from the tournament. ‘It was a moment when I played the best football of my career and the Croatia team were also in a special moment. We knew we had the right characters in the squad to be successful.’

Each of those characters would indeed eventually find themselves becoming written into fabric of footballing folklore.

Deliriously unconventional and at times simply downright bizarre. During a French summer in 1998, the stars, as Miroslav Blazevic would argue, really did align themselves for Croatia’s most famous group of mavericks.

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