Croats on the crest of an emotional wave

Clive White meets the talented team who face England at Wembley tonight
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The Independent Online
As a latterday Sheriff of Nottingham, Stuart Pearce, the England full-back, must have suspected that Robin Hood and Maid Marion would throw in their lot with the enemy. Nottingham plays host to Croatia during Euro 96, but judging from the wealth of talent the visitors are putting out at Wembley tonight it is a moot point whether they warranted the support of the city's fictional duo.

Not that they have not robbed from the rich. Arrigo Sacchi, Italy's coach, knows just what it feels like to be relieved of three points by the Croatians, as they were on home soil during the European Championship qualifiers. "Frustrating," was how he put it the other day. "When they gel they are the most unnerving opponents. If you lose the ball they never give it back to you."

England, you have been warned. Any suggestion that the Croatians are here just to massage England's ego as Bulgaria did in the opening 45 minutes last time out can be dismissed. "We are fielding the team that made Croatian football what it is today," declared the coach, Miroslav Blazevic, with a sense of occasion.

Just to hear him reading out the starting line-up would have sent a shiver up Terry Venables' spine. Naturally, they deny that they have emerged as one of the tournament favourites and Slaven Bilic, the West Ham defender, duly towed the party line that it was a small, vulnerable squad. But when asked to put his finger on its strengths, he found himself spoilt for choice. "Suker is like a goal machine," he said. "Boksic doesn't score many but he can murder defences. He's very quick and strong, he goes through you. Then there's Prosinecki, Boban, Stimac, Asanovic, Jerkan - yes, perhaps we're all stars." One small statistic probably says it all; Mario Stanic, of Bruges is Belgium's leading goalscorer, yet he cannot even get in the side.

Much has been written about how the suffering of their people during the conflict in the old Yugoslavia brought about an unbreakable bond in team spirit and what independence has done for them, but the closeness among the players goes back further than some people realise. Six in tonight's starting line-up once played for Hajduk Split, including four of the defenders. The fact that they are all now spread around Europe seems to matter not. "We know each other's moves," Bilic said. "I played with him when I was 11," he said nodding towards Boban. And then, clasping hands with Alen Boksic as the Lazio striker walked by he added: "And with him when I was 12."

Boban's smart three-piece suit amid all the tracksuits was indication that all was still not perfectly well with the Milan midfielder. He will start tonight's match but probably not finish it. Boban has been suffering from mononucleosis - the kissing disease, a strain of glandular fever - for the past 10 months and has not played since facing Juventus in February. His fitness is now slowly returning, evidently along with his sense of humour. "I kiss a lot," he said, "but funnily enough my wife doesn't have the disease."

The partnership up front between Boksic, whom according to Bilic is about to sign for Juventus or Torino, and Davor Suker, who joins Real Madrid next season, promises to be one of the most lethal in the championship. Suker scored 12 goals in the qualifiers, including both goals against Italy in Palermo, and it is his intention to finish top scorer for the finals too. A mature, charming man, he speaks fluent Spanish after four seasons with Seville and is learning English just for the Championship. He got a little carried away with his diplomacy, though, when he said: "I like Manchester United - I'm an Andy Cole fan."

Since the Championship qualifiers began Croatia have lost just once in 18 matches, 1-0 away to the Ukraine on a sticky day in June last year. They also lost the services of Tomislav Ivic, one of the most experienced coaches in the world, after a disagreement with Blazevic, but quickly put both setbacks behind them. "It's true on our day we can beat any team in the world, but we're not always the sum of the individual parts," Boban says.

"He's a charmer, a big motivator," said Bilic of his captain, but Boban has learned to temper his enthusiasm since qualification from Group Four was achieved in November. He extended an invitation to the football-mad President Tudjman to watch Croatia in the final in England. Not the group matches, but the final itself.

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