For a Premier League full of millionaire footballers who train behind closed doors and drive cars with tinted windows, Slaven Bilic's claim yesterday that Croatia are a team that is accessible to the people they represent was particularly poignant. The manager that dealt England two crushing blows in qualification for Euro 2008 is on the brink of a semi-final place.
Bilic's Croatia team face Turkey in Vienna tonight having first served notice to Europe of their potential by beating England twice in qualifying. "People are crazy about football and in Croatia children play it everywhere," he said. "The stars are perhaps closer to kids and common folk than in some larger wealthier countries. A kid can meet Niko Kovac in half an hour after training or at the team hotel – that's easier in Croatia."
The team's captain, Kovac announced yesterday that he would be retiring from international football after Euro 2008 although Bilic was adamant that Croatia could go further. The former West Ham and Everton defender's star has risen considerably since he first faced England in October 2006 and there can be little doubt that he will be a target for a Premier League club, possibly even this season. As well as the manner in which his team have played, it has been the way that the Croatia manager has been able to articulate the hopes and passion of his countrymen that has impressed.
"The reaction was laughter and ridicule when I was saying that our group was the most difficult," Bilic said. "We were saying the Russians were a great team. I can't be sure but I think England and probably Israel would have qualified in an easier group.
"We do have a special spirit, it's not peculiar to Croatia it's the same as all sides here. We have a love for our country and God. Whether we win or are one of the favourites, we said before Euro 2008 that our team can play well against anyone in Europe. That will remain our opinion of ourselves. A good result against another team is no longer a surprise. On the contrary the opposite would be a surprise."
Croatia announced that the striker Igor Budan had been sent home after failing to shake off a knee injury, the second of their players to have to withdraw from the tournament. Bilic said that they did not fear Turkey's propensity for coming back from unpromising situations. "We know the Turks came back twice against the Czechs and against the Swiss," he said. "This shows how strong they are – they have good quality and morals and don't give up. This is reason for praise but it also shows their weaknesses because nobody wants to trail their opponent and then come back."
Turkey have problems of their own with goalkeeper Volkan Demirel and midfielder Mehmet Aurelio suspended. Emre Gungor is out for the rest of the tournament, Servet Cetin is injured, Emre Asik has a head injury and Gokhan Zan has not yet recovered. Emre Belozoglu and Tumer Metin are also doubts.
Croatia (probable, 4-1-4-1): Pletikosa (Spartak Moscow); Corluka (Manchester City), R Kovac (Borussia Dortmund), Simunic (Hertha Berlin), Pranjic (Heerenveen); N Kovac (Salzburg); Srna (Shakhtar Donetsk), Modric (Tottenham Hotspur), Kranjcar (Portsmouth), Rakitic (Schalke); Olic (Hamburg).
Turkey (possible, 4-4-2): Rustu (Besiktas); Altintop (Bayern Munich), Emre Asik (Galatasaray), Ugur (Fenerbahce), Balta (Galatasaray); Kazim (Fenerbahce), Gokdeniz (Ruban Kazan), Mehmet Topal, Ardan (both Galatasaray); Nihat (Villarreal), Tuncay (Middlesbrough).
Referee: R Rosetti (Italy).