Bilic looks past pride

Norman Fox finds that the visitors also have much to prove at Wembley
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The Independent Online
Croatia will begin to find out on Wednesday how much further they can ride the wave of pride which was the driving force of their courageous progress to the finals of the European Championship in England this summer.

Their qualification, which included a win and a draw against Italy and only one defeat in 10 games, was achieved as much by inspiration from deep patriotism for a suffering country as skill and experience, of which there may not be not quite enough. Several players think the dress rehearsal against England on Wednesday could reveal whether more is needed.

There is no doubting that the Croatians continue to see their job as international footballers to be a part of the campaign to have independence fully recognised, but the original claims of their coach, Miroslav Blazevic, that they would coast to victory in the European Championships have become less extravagant. He now talks about "surprising a lot of people" but not necessarily doing more than that. "All I want is for us to show that we are a power to be respected."

Zvonimir Boban, one of over a thousand players to have left the former Yugoslavia and now Croatia's captain, has had enough experience with Milan to know that Croatia's strength is unlikely to be sufficient to bring success in the demanding structure of a championship finals. "We wanted to qualify for the finals very much," he said. "It felt as if we had done everything, but we should not expect to have easy wins in England, even in a friendly match. We have played without worrying about how strong or weak our opponents have been. In England we must respect all of them. We expect them to respect us as well." Boban himself is not certain to play against England, but has started to train after illness.

Although there have been rows over money, or its absence - the team agreed to play in the European Championship for expenses unless they qualified for the finals and then, so they were told, they would receive pounds 45,000 each - the sense of patriotism is strong. The West Ham defender Slaven Bilic has been sending money back to his family in Split, where friends have been killed, and says: "People in England would find it difficult to understand how passionate we are about playing for Croatia. We are representing a lot of people who have died."

Similarly, Davor Suker, who scored in all but two of Croatia's qualifying matches, talks of football as being a way to gain recognition for his country. He said that over the years probably nowhere else in Europe has there been a larger number of players raised to such high international standard than in the former Yugoslavia, but Bilic added that the Croatian side that has so impressively qualified for Euro '96 has never had to deal with the special problems of playing a possible maximum of six matches in 20 days.

The only team to beat Croatia in the qualifying competition was Ukraine in Kiev, but then, as Bilic explained, the goalkeeper was sent off after less than half an hour. However, he does accept that although they have beaten Poland and Hungary in friendlies, their experience of playing competitively against world-class opposition has been limited to the two qualifying matches against Italy. "This week we may discover more about ourselves," he said.

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