Boban the inspiration for Croatia

Conflict in the former Yugoslavia forced their captain into exile but now he stands on the brink of leading them to Euro '96. Trevor Haylett reports from Split
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The emotion from a capacity crowd directed towards a group of outstanding footballers who have been their hope and inspiration through five years of war was tangible. It got to no one more than Zvonimir Boban, the Croatian captain, who, legend goes, had a part in the sequence of events that led to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Were he not an inspirational leader of his successful team Boban, the illustrious Milan midfielder, would still be an emblem for national pride and courage among the people who have endured the bloody horrors in the Balkans for too long.

On a celebratory Sunday night in Split, he was the most impressive of the Croatian side whose 1-1 draw with Italy moved them a vital step nearer the European Championship finals in England next summer.

In 1990 he was just one of a crop of emerging talent consistently reared in a Republic then moving tragically towards its catastrophic break-up. On this particular day Boban was playing for Dynamo Zagreb against Red Star Belgrade, the pride of the Serbs.

Tensions were already high. The game, staged in Croatia and policed by Serbs, featured running battles between supporters and the authorities.

Fans spilled on to the pitch at the end to escape the worst of it, whereupon the police began beating them up. It so incensed Boban that in a flash of temper which would make Eric Cantona proud, he directed a fly-kick at a uniformed officer.

That show of solidarity made him a greater hero among the Croats but a marked man in the eyes of the enemy. The powers in Belgrade wanted him put on trial and he was forced into hiding before Milan rescued him and offered him a lavish lifestyle with the chance to win domestic and European honours.

Today as the warring nations edge towards peace they still talk about Boban's bravery and it is commonly recalled as one of the myriad and complex events that conspired to produce the armed struggle.

Two days ago in the Poljud Stadium that still bears the bullet holes from the opening shots in the conflict, Croatia fought back for an equaliser to maintain their three-point advantage over an Italian side reduced to 10 men after their goalkeeper, Luca Bucci, was sent off nine minutes into the qualifying tie for handling outside his area.

The 1994 World Cup finalists had demanded that the game be switched to somewhere safer, such as Vienna. The Croatian cynics said it was a request based on footballing logic and the desire not to lose a second time to Boban's boys which would have brought the Azurri's own qualifying chances into serious question.

With Demetrio Albertini's 29th minute goal, the Italians suddenly felt at home and it needed Davor Suker's penalty equaliser - making him joint leading scorer among the qualifying nations with 12 - to preserve their three-point lead.

The Croatian goalscorer admitted that he had never known an atmosphere as passionate as that in Split on Sunday. "It really got to the players," he said. "Our people are so happy because they see an end to the war in sight. That and the historic times for Croatian football, because we will be the first to qualify for the finals of a major tournament, is why they were so spectacular.

"We are all looking forward to coming to England and hopefully to play at Wembley which is the best stadium in Europe. It has been so hard for our people and that is why the players give everything in every match."

Suker, Boksic and Boban are the pick of the Croatian collection who grew up together and were all part of the Under-19 Yugoslav team that won the World Youth Championship in Chile in 1989.

Historically, their country has always formed the rump of the Yugoslav side. Their coaching is of a very high standard, a fact recognised by the wealthier clubs elsewhere in Europe who prise them away cheaply and then sell them on later, when they have established their reputations, for millions.

English clubs have been slow to take the gamble on them. Our rules insist foreign players must have appeared a certain number of times for their country. It means we lose out to those clubs in France, Italy and Spain and delay pushes up the price as Kevin Keegan found last season when quoted pounds 5m for Suker when he looked at the Seville striker to replace Andy Cole.

"The mistake English managers make is to liken the Croats to those Yugoslavs who have come to England and generally not been a success," said Mladen Petreska, a London-based travel agent and commercial adviser for the Croatian FA.

"Historically, Croatians look to the West whereas the Serbs look to the East. They are physically and temperamentally equipped to do well in English football. Boban in Italy and Suker in Spain have done well as personalities aside from their footballing success. Slaven Bilic captains his German club, Karlsruhe. Can you imagine an English club giving the skipper's armband to a foreigner? It shows what they have to offer."

The Croats believe they will emerge from the nightmare stronger and certainly their players, who have each contributed up to pounds 25,000 to support the struggle, are showing them the way.

Cosseted away in luxury elsewhere, the atrocities have hit them harder than they will admit to. The young striker, Mario Stanic, this season's leading scorer in Belgium, has lost two friends in Sarajevo, for example, and wonders what is left of his home in that accursed city.

Group four

P W D L F A Pts

Croatia 9 6 2 1 20 4 20

Italy 8 5 2 1 13 5 17

Lithuania 8 4 1 3 8 8 13

Ukraine 8 4 1 3 8 9 13

Slovenia 8 2 2 4 9 9 8

Estonia 9 0 0 9 3 26 0

Remaining fixtures: Tomorrow Slovenia v Ukraine; Lithuania v Estonia. 11 November Italy v Ukraine. 15 November Slovenia v Croatia; Italy v Lithuania.

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