Pride and passion of emerging nation

CHAMPIONSHIP FOCUS No 14 Croatia

Four years ago Robert Prosinecki, Davor Suker, Alen Boksic, Robert Jarni and Zvonimir Boban were preparing for the European Championship as members of the Yugoslavian national team. Four years, a bitter war and a revival of the Croat nation later, they will finally play in them.

After Yugoslavia were banned from the 1992 competition because of UN sanctions, the country splintered into several nations, with Croatia the quickest to find their footballing feet. With the above quintet at the core of their team, they have emerged as a genuine force, winning away to Italy in qualifying.

There have always been talented players in the Balkans - they have been called the "European Brazilians" - but their achievements have rarely matched their potential. The former Yugoslavia reached two of the first three European Championship finals, in 1960 and 1968, but did nothing further at European or World level until partition.

Yet, though Croatia are unable to call on all the talents that once made up Yugoslavia, they are expected to be a stronger force. Patriotism is the binding agent which the old team lacked and there will be no more motivated team in England - this is one team which did not need to go out drinking to form a bond.

The power of this sentiment was evident even before the war started, with Boban having to go into hiding after assaulting a Serbian policeman who was attacking Croat supporters at a domestic cup match.

Not that the players are entirely motivated by pride: a row over bonuses threatened to disrupt team harmony after qualifying. The 17-day arrest of the coach, Miroslav Blazevic, in connection with the French football corruption case, further hindered preparations, as has the split between him and Tomislav Ivic, the former Croat director of football who is widely seen as being responsible for the team's professional discipline.

There have been other problems: Boban, hindered by illness, has not been a regular at Milan; Prosinecki rowed with Johan Cruyff at Barcelona; Jarni and Boksic have been injured. But class, as they say, is permanent, form temporary, and if Croatia rediscover the latter they will be a handful.

There is quality throughout but, as ever, it is the forwards which catch the eye. Suker and Boksic are among the sharpest in Europe. Behind them Boban prompts and Prosinecki threatens. Joining them in the centre of midfield is Derby County's new signing, Aljosa Asanovic, a stylish craftsman. With Igor Stimac's commanding figure prominent in defence, there will be quite a few County fans forgetting local enmity and making the short trip to Nottingham Forest's City Ground.

There may be some West Ham supporters, too, to cheer on Slaven Bilic. Such is his and Stimac's impact here it will be surprising if the Premiership's Croat contingent has not been swelled further by August. Technically gifted, mentally tough and physically strong, the Croats are ideally equipped for the English game, and many others, a staggering 1,533 players, have been sold abroad in the past four years.

Such experience, such ability, such desire. It is a potent combination. Goran Ivanisevic has begun the slow process of winning Croatia recognition beyond the images of war, but football penetrates far beyond the tennis world. Now that Boban and company have the chance to put their distinctive red and white checkerboard flag on the global stage, they intend to take it.

CROATIA SQUAD (European Championship): Goalkeepers: Drazen Ladic (Croatia Zagreb), Tonci Gabric (Hajduk Split), Marijan Mrmic (Varteks Varazdin). Defenders: Robert Jarni (Real Betis), Nikola Jerkan (Real Oviedo), Igor Stimac (Derby County), Slaven Bilic (West Ham), Dubravko Pavlicic (Hercules Alicante), Nikola Jurcevic (Freiburg), Elvis Brajkovic (1860 Munich), Dario Simic (Croatia Zagreb), Zvonimir Soldo (Croatia Zagreb). Midfielders: Zvonimir Boban (Milan), Robert Prosinecki (Barcelona), Aljosa Asanovic (Derby County), Mladen Mladenovic (Gamba Osaka), Mario Stanic (Club Bruges). Forwards: Davor Suker (Real Madrid), Alen Boksic (Juventus), Goran Vlaovic (Padova), Igor Cvitanovic (Croatia Zagreb), Igor Pamic (Osijek).

Player to watch

Davor Suker

(Real Madrid)

Scored 17 goals in 17 internationals, a record 12 of them in the qualifying process. These were not all against lightweights, either - the 28-year-old scored all three goals in the matches against Italy. Twice capped by the former Yugoslavia before leaving for Seville when war reached Zagreb in 1991. Lost popularity at Seville after agreeing to a pounds 3.5m move to Real Madrid at the end of the season. Has been learning English as part of preparation for Euro 96.

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