Suker stifles rhythm of Reggae Boyz

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THE REGGAE dream lived joyously for 50 minutes here last night before submitting, wearily in the end, to superior Croat skill and experience.

Jamaica gave the highly regarded Croatia the scare of their lives in the first half, losing a sloppy goal to Mario Stanic before Robbie Earle thundered home a header just before the interval.

A freak cross-cum-shot by Robert Prosinecki put the Croats ahead again early in the second half. The Jamaicans, though never over-run and pressing forward to the end, progressively ran out of energy and ideas. The Group H game was killed by Davor Suker in the 67th minute.

Both teams were playing their first game in a World Cup finals, producing one of the oddest match-ups in international football: a Balkan country which did not exist eight years ago against a Caribbean island, better known for cricket and music than for football.

Slaven Bilic, the Everton defender, was declared fit to play, bringing the number of players from the Premiership and First Division on the pitch at kick-off to seven: five for Jamaica, two for Croatia. The teamsheets suggested a non-contest: Croatia packed with players from the top Italian, English, Spanish and German clubs; Jamaica a blend of local players and English-born professionals not considered good enough to play for England. It did not turn out that way.

Offensively, with Derby's Deon Burton and Portsmouth's Paul Hall cleverly switching lines of attack, Jamaica began to embarrass the Croats, who are regarded by some as dark horses for the final four.

Defensively, Jamaica looked hurried and naive. Aljosa Asanovic rang the alarm bells in the 16th minute, striding past two players and into the right-hand side of the box. Theodore Whitmore finally dispossessed him.

Jamaica responded with four corners in rapid succession. From the second a powerful downward header by Wimbledon's Earle beat Drazen Ladic but was scooped off the line by Dario Simic.

In the 27th minute, poor marking in the box did for Jamaica. A corner from the right found Asanovic, whose powerful shot rebounded from the bar to the feet of Parma's Stanic, who, after fumbling for a second, fired home.

After their bright start, the Jamaicans looked crestfallen and lost the thread for a while. Zvonimir Soldo was allowed to stride through unmolested from the back to hit the bar; Prosinecki hit a wicked low shot, which Warren Barrett did well to turn for a corner.

The Croats were suddenly full of confidence and running and skill. Out of the blue, in the last seconds of the half, Jamaica broke away on the left and a fine cross from Ricardo Gardner was headed home explosively by Earle: Kingston and Newcastle under Lyme combining for a typically English goal which sent the Jamaican legions wild with delight throughout the interval.

A fine, open game, matching Croat guile against Jamaican speed and power, continued almost blow for blow after the interval. In the 50th minute, a looping cross by Prosinecki from the left defeated Barrett at the near post and curled agonisingly into the goal. Jamaica, players and fans alike, were quitened only for a moment. Within seconds, Burton muffed a chance to equalise, heading wide from five yards while, inexplicably, unmarked.

The Jamaican fans, many from much nearer home than the West Indies, judging by their accents, kept up a joyous barrage of noise. (They included several drummers and what looked like a 10-piece jazz band, in complete Blues Brothers uniforms.)

More and more, however, the Croats' edge in skill and experience began to count, with Zvonimir Boban finally starting to run the show from midfield. In the 69th minute, Jamaican resistance effectively ended. Davor Suker, of Real Madrid, picked up a loose ball on the right of the box and beat Barrett at the near post.

JAMAICA (4-4-2): Barrett (Violet Kickers); Lowe, Cargill (both Harbour View), Goodison (Olympic Gardens), Sinclair (Chelsea); Gardner (Harbour View), Simpson (Portsmouth), Whitmore (Seba Utd), Earle (Wimbledon); Hall (Portsmouth), Burton (Derby County). Substitutes: Powell (Derby County) for Cargill, 70; Williams (Real Mona) for Earle, 72; Boyd (Arnett Gardens) for Hall, 82.

CROATIA (3-5-2): Ladic (Croatia Zagreb); Stimac (Derby County), Soldo (VfB Stuttgart), Simic (Croatia Zagreb); Bilic (Everton), Prosinecki (Croatia Zagerb), Boban (Milan), Asanovic (Napoli), Jarni (Real Betis); Stanic (Parma), Suker (Real Madrid). Substitute: Vlaovic (Valencia) for Stanic, 73.

Referee: V M Pereira (Portugal).