Croatia, a nation made by sport, aims to regain its former glories in the big game

Marko Krznaric said: "I can't wait, can't wait, we're very excited about the match." When not studying for his PhD in computing at Imperial College, London, Marko Krznaric is president of the Croatian Students and Young Professionals Society (CSYP) in the UK. Tonight he will be in the top floor of the Cadogan Arms pub in King's Road, London, with other Croatian supporters, cheering the team on against England.

Not that the CSYP is a big society (it has about 100 members) or has a big pool of people to draw on (there are perhaps two or three thousand Croats in Britain). But given that they come from a nation of just four million, it is understandable.

And as Mr Krznaric prepared for tonight's match, he was upbeat about his team's abilities. "Croats are involved in all the major sports, all the major successes," he said as he lunched with friends. "Skiing, water polo, basketball, football."

Sport, national pride and Catholicism have always been intertwined in Croatia. In the 1990s, the leader of the independence movement from Yugoslavia, Franjo Tudjman, made no secret of seeing top sportsmen as key players in the drive to win world recognition for his embattled country.

Sport is a synonym for Croatia, said the journalist Goran Ivanovic, who is based in Zagreb said. It is a nation forged on one hand by war and on the other by on-field endeavour. Before the Balkan conflicts of the early 1990s, few people outside the region knew much of Croatia.

Western tourists had begun to explore the coastline but those with longer memories associated the nationality, somewhat unfairly, with a small state that backed the Nazis during the Second World War.

Then, suddenly, Croatia became familiar to a much larger, younger audience. And it was not just a war-torn struggle for liberation from the embers of Yugoslavia that projected it onto the world stage. No, by the end of the 1990s the ubiquitous red-and-white worn by its footballers was being sported across the globe.

While the roots of Croatia's love affair with sport go back generations, it peaked in the years surrounding the collapse of Yugoslavia. Many believe a football match ignited the spark that led to war, when on 13 May 1990, in Zagreb's Maksimir stadium, fans of Zagreb's leading team, Dinamo, clashed violently with their Serbian rivals from Red Star Belgrade.

The country plunged into a real war in 1991, and Croatia's "sporting ambassadors" such as Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker and Robert Prosinecki and others, mostly left to play for teams abroad. Far from being seen as deserters, the government was delighted to see them out and waving the Croatian red-and white flag in Italy, England, Spain, Germany and elsewhere. Croat-fever reached its zenith amid the nail-biting tension that enveloped the 1998 World Cup semi-final in Paris, when the little country seemed within an inch of beating France in a classic David and Goliath game.

Though it ended with a 2-1 defeat, the country still had a great sporting moment ahead of it at Wimbledon in 2001, when Goran Ivanisevic's surprise win caused national jubilation. But Wimbledon may have marked the end of a sporting era. As the football generation of Suker and Boban retires, Croatia's improving economic and diplomatic prospects seem to have coincided with a sporting decline.

Recent years have shown it is not possible to sustain the sporting prowess Croatia enjoyed in the 1990s without investment on a scale that Zagreb cannot commit.

"The state always says it will invest, but it's just promises," Goran Ivanovic said. "We still have 10 or 15 world-class swimmers but where are the new pools? The money Croatia spends on sport is derisory, about €1.8 (£1.20) per person a year. Compare that with €13 a year in Cyprus, €7.5 in Switzerland and €4.4 in France."

With the exception of Dado Prso, Croatia's 2004 team is seen as a shadow of the force that took on France in 1998, and Prime Minister Ivo Sanader recently said he saw the task of winning Euro 2004 as "mission impossible". The country's priorities have changed. For Mr Sanader, a more important victory than anything his team might achieve England was April's approval from the European Commission for Croatia to open negotiations on joining the EU in 2007.

Even if Croatia drops out of Euro 2004, the country's arch-rivals in Serbia are far from convinced the Croats' sporting golden age is over. "Croats have a natural talent for sport that will never die," the Serbian sports journalist Aleksandar Stojanovic said.

"They achieved greatness at football in the 1990s because they were determined to prove themselves as a nation and show their compatriots they loved their new state more than the previous one," he added.

Mr Stojanovic says lack of big money means Croatia cannot compete for the biggest prizes in football in the long term, but will still excel in less money-oriented sports. "Don't forget they have a world champion skier in Janica Kostelic," he said. "In skiing, water polo, and so on, they will still have the opportunity to get to the top."

In London, tonight anyway, the focus is on football. It provides a useful opportunity every couple of years for the Croats to get together. "Unfortunately there aren't any Croatian restaurants or pubs in London," Mr Krznaric said. "Football is our national sport. And this is very exciting because although Croatia has been on the map for a very long time in history, this nation state is a very new one, a young one."


* Croatia is two thirds the size of Ireland and has a population of four million.

* Zagreb is the capital but Croatia's most famous city is Dubrovnik, above. It is a Unesco World Heritage site and it has 2,554 hours of sunshine a year.

* George Bernard Shaw said: "Those who seek paradise on earth should come to Dubrovnik."

* Football was introduced to Dubrovnik in 1873 by British workers building a factory in the city of Rijeka.

* Croatia played their first match as an independent nation on 17 May 1990, in Zagreb, beating the United States 2-1.

*The red-and-white check pattern on Croatian footballers' shirts is disliked by former Yugoslavians because it resembles the uniform of the fascist Ustashe regime that ruled Croatia for most of the Second World War.

* The main source for the plot of Shakespeare's The Tempest is thought to have been a 12th-century Croatian tale, The Chronicle of Father Dukljanin (translated in 1601).

* When Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, Croatia became a Nazi puppet state. Thousands of Jews, Serbs and Gypsies were killed in Croatian camps.

* Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia on 25 June 1991, leading to war with the Serbs. Ten thousand people died in the war that ended on 14 December 1995, with the Dayton peace accord.

* Since 1995, tourism to Croatia has blossomed. Last year, 138,000 Britons visited the country.