Aljosa Asanovic (Croatia)
Pass master will raise Rams' spirits
Before the tournament, everyone knew the name of at least one Croatian player. The defenders Igor Stimac and Slaven Bilic were especially familiar to supporters of Derby County and West Ham, while televised Italian football had ensured that Alen Boksic and Milan's Zvonimir Boban needed no introduction.
Not much mention among them of Boban's midfield partner, the mop-haired Aljosa Asanovic. However, this relative obscurity will soon be left behind if the evidence of Croatia's progress in Euro 96 is not misleading.
The laser-like precision of Asanovic's long passing caught the eye more than once in the fledgling nation's opening two matches and can be expected to cause some anxiety for Portugal in Nottingham this afternoon as Croatia attempt to complete a 100 per cent record in Group D.
It was Asanovic's pass that launched Goran Vlaovic on the goal-scoring run that broke Turkey's hearts five minutes from the close of Croatia's championship debut at the City Ground a week ago. It was his perception and accuracy which enabled Davor Suker to complete Denmark's humiliation at Hillsborough last Sunday: the pass that dropped so invitingly for Suker to run on and lob Peter Schmeichel came from Asanovic's boot.
One man in England who had previous knowledge of these qualities was the Derby County manager, Jim Smith, who may well have pulled off the transfer coup of the summer. The much-travelled Asanovic, who has served Metz, Montpellier and Cannes in France as well as Real Valladolid in Spain, cost less than pounds 1m from Hajduk Split. If his arrival can help Derby hold their own among the monied elite, Smith will look a shrewder manager than ever.
Mrmic likes the feel of the green
Croatia's reserve goalkeeper, Marijan Mrmic, will take home a memento of Euro 96 even if he fails to make an appearance on the pitch during the tournament.
According to a Split newspaper, Slobodna Dalmacija, Mrmic has fallen in love with English grass - and not the variety which tends to prompt Football Association suspensions.
"It simply invites you to walk on it, run on it or even throw yourself on it," Mrmic, who plays for the small provincial club Varteks Varazdin, has said. "I have decided to grow English grass in front of my house at home."
Meanwhile, Croatia's last opponents, the Danish Euro 96 squad, managed to upset a wedding party on Saturday night. The post-nuptials disco was transferred from a function suite at the Weetwood Hall Hotel to a marquee in the car park so as not to disturb the beauty sleep of the Danish players.
Judging by the result the following day, when the Danes were soundly beaten 3-0 by Croatia down the road at Hillsborough, their well- protected slumbers did not do them much good...
Japanese fans adopt Romanians
Romania's early departure from the tournament has come as a disappointment to the latest, and most unexpected, members of their fan club.
Some Japanese students enrolled at Durham University have adopted the Romanians as "their" team and have surprised both players and neutral observers with the passion of their support. More than 30 students attended one training session, many of them parading the team's yellow kit and pleading to have it autographed.
"We think they are very friendly, very nice and very handsome," one female fan, Nana Sato from Tokyo, said. "We want to support them as much as we can."
"We went to Newcastle to support the team [against Bulgaria]," Noriko Hara said. "That is where we all bought our team shirts. There are no more left in the shop now - at least not in small sizes."
Romania's defender Dan Petrescu, who plays for Chelsea, said: "It is very nice to see them here to support us. We like it because it gives some more motivation and they are very happy to see us. But, I must admit, I am surprised they are so enthusiastic."
FOOTBALL: THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE
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