THE GOOD people of Nantes are enjoying the World Cup. The three games here so far have had good football and a cracking atmosphere.
Nantes is where the Loire flows into the Atlantic, where Jacques Cousteau was born and, most importantly, where Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly started out before emigrating to Italy via Marseilles to find fame and fortune. It is also where Miroslav Blazevic, Croatia's coach, spent three years in charge of the local team around the turn of the decade and Saturday's victory over Japan, which all but ensured his country's qualification for the second round at their first attempt, represented a satisfying return to the region for Blazevic.
"I am very proud to see Croatia among the first teams to qualify," he managed to say at the post-match press conference before politics, sadly, tarnished the moment. Someone from the Croat embassy in Paris walked uninvited on to the stage to complain that the woman interpreting for Blazevic spoke with a Serbian accent. Fortunately, common sense soon prevailed after a Fifa spokesman ruled the interloper offside.
The Japanese were roared on by a massive following who had happily handed over an average of pounds 500 per black-market ticket - "just wait till the French come to Japan," one was reported to have said - and, with a ticker- tape welcome for the teams and shrieks of hysteria just about every time they attacked, it all made for quite a party.
Predictably it was Davor Suker who proved to be the difference between the two sides despite the best endeavours of Hidetoshi Nakata, the 21- year-old midfield player whose dyed red hair was not the only thing that set him apart from his team-mates. The Japanese gave as good as they got from a below-par Croatia side, who were clearly feeling the effects of the heat-wave more than their opponents. Suker apparently lost more than eight pounds in weight during the course of the match, but as far as his team-mates were concerned it was well worth the sweat.
Standing in as captain for the injured Zvonimir Boban, Suker was on the end of nearly all of Croatia's chances. There were three near-misses for the Real Madrid striker in the first half and he hit the bar with an impudent chip early in the second before he found the net. Aljosa Asanovic picked out Suker with an accurate cross, which was converted with the minimum of fuss.
JAPAN (3-5-2): Kawaguchi (Yokohama Marinos); Akita (Kashima Antlers), Ihara (Yokohama Marinos), Nakanishi (Jef Utd Ichihara); Narahashi (Kashima Antlers), Yamaguchi (Yokohama Flugels), Nakata (Bellmare Hiratsuka), Nanami (Jubilo Iwata), Soma (Kashima Antlers); Nakayama (Jubilo Iwata), Jo (Yokohama Marinos). Substitutes: Okano (Urawa Red Diamonds) for Nakayama, 61; Morishima (Cerezo Osaka) for Narahashi, 79; Lopes (Bellmare Hiratsuka) for Nanami, 84.
CROATIA (3-5-2): Ladic (Croatia Zagreb); Bilic (Everton), Soldo (VfB Stuttgart), Stimac (Derby County); Simic (Croatia Zagreb), Asanovic (Napoli), Jurcic (Croatia Zagreb), Prosinecki (Croatia Zagreb), Jarni (Real Betis); Suker (Real Madrid), Stanic (Parma). Substitutes: Vlaovic (Valencia) for Stimac, h-t; Maric (Croatia Zagreb) for Prosinecki, 67; Tudor (Hajduk Split) for Stanic, 88.
Referee: R Ramdhan (Trinidad).