Croatians play for their pride

John Carrow reports from Split on a new sense of European purpose
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The Independent Online
TODAY Croatia's millionaire footballers return to a homeland riven by conflicts of a more tragic nature to dispute crucial European Championship points with Italy.

In football terms this is a revenge mission for the Italians, who were humiliated last November in a qualifier in Palermo.A repeat performance tonight in the Poljud Stadium will ensure that even if the Croats failed to live up to their reputation in England as potential European Championship winners they would still go down in history as their country's first representatives to qualify for the finals of a major tournament.

They are an illustrious bunch of expensive exports whose success would not be a surprise to those who look past the cut and cuss of the Premiership to the more sophisticated game being played elsewhere.

For Croatia can boast glamorous figures such as Zvonimir Boban, of Milan, Alen Boksic (a former goal-scoring colleague of Paul Gascoigne at Lazio), Davo Suker, of Sevilla, and the newly revived genius of Robert Prosinecki who is now with Barcelona.

Only the surprise defeat in the Ukraine in June has spoiled what until then had been a near flawless campaign, good enough to keep Arrigo Sacchi's World Cup runners-up in second place.

In fact so impressive have Boban and the boys been that the joke in this medieval city is that the FA called off Croatia's visit to Wembley five weeks ago for a friendly international not because of fighting in the former Serb-held territory but because they wanted to safeguard Terry Venables's reputation.

"We are a proud race. The people are very patriotic and the war has added to that," the Split-based journalist Nick Ookashin says. "The players feel that more than most because they have left their country to work abroad. They are desperate for the national side to be successful."

From Tuesday the guns should be silenced as hope for a lasting ceasefire is renewed. In truth, it is some time since Croatia was affected by the kind of atrocities that have been endured in Bosnia, though August saw the horror of 150,000 refugees driven into exile when Croat troops reclaimed land in Krajina previously annexed by the enemy.

That was the reason why the FA in London decided to abandon the Wembley game, and why Italy protested that tonight's game should be moved to Vienna before Croatia gave safety guarantees to Uefa.

It has also given the people a new sense of pride and purpose. "I have been coming home many times in the last five years and I have never known a mood or an atmosphere like it has been in the last few weeks," says Mladen Petreska, a London-based travel agent and commercial adviser to the Croatian FA. "Our president is a hero. He is coming to the game and he will be feted."

As will close on 50,000 others, eager to see whether Miroslav Blazevic's side can do the double and become the first to qualify for Euro '96.

Both managers have injury problems, with Prosinecki and Croatia's best defender Slaven Bilic sidelined with injury and the former Juventus left- back Robert Jarni suspended. Sacchi is without Roberto Baggio, the hero of USA '94, but hopes that his replacement at Juventus, the golden boy Alessandro Del Piero, carries the pace and the trickery to turn the tables.

Italy cannot afford another defeat. If that happened, they would be left fretting over the possibility that they might have to endure the play-off format, from which one of the two worst second-placed finishers will claim the last remaining tournament place.