The fourth of July is a special day not only in the USA but also in German football history, for both positive and negative reasons. Die Mannschaft and their fans will never forget the 1954 Miracle of Bern and the 1990 semi-final penalty shootout triumph over England, both of which coincided with America’s Independence Day.
Germany’s 2006 “summer fairytale” also suffered an unhappy ending on the date by losing to Italy. The events of 4 July 1998 were similarly dramatic and historic, as the three-time FIFA World Cup™ winners suffered their worst defeat in the global tournament for 50 years at the hands of outsiders and World Cup debutants Croatia in Lyon.
Around 40,000 fans gathered at Stade Gerland to take in the encounter between Germany and Croatia. The two sides had previously met at UEFA EURO 1996, when the eventual European champions sealed a narrow 2-1 victory despite a creditable performance from the newcomers.
Croatia now had a chance to exact their revenge. Germany had not been at their best in the tournament so far, and were lucky to come back from 2-0 down to level their group match against Yugoslavia. Oliver Bierhoff also gave his side a last-gasp 2-1 victory over Mexico in the Round of 16, scoring the winner five minutes from full-time.
The Vatreni finished second in Group H behind Argentina after beating Japan and Jamaica but losing to the Albiceleste, before overcoming Romania 1-0 in the Round of 16.
Die Mannschaft had won all four of the sides’ previous encounters, scoring 14 goals while conceding just three, and were strongly tipped to prevail again in France, but the outcome was quite different…
Until the 40th minute, Germany looked like delivering their best performance of the competition and could have gone ahead through Oliver Bierhoff, but Drazen Ladic held on to the ball before making a save with his feet from Jurgen Klinsmann. Not long afterwards, Germany defender Christian Worns was dismissed for a foul on Davor Suker.
Croatia used this brief period of disarray in Germany’s defensive ranks to take the lead thanks to a goal from Robert Jarni. The winger picked up a masterful pass from Mario Stanic before placing his shot into the bottom right-hand corner.
Germany coach Berti Vogts, in his 100th match in charge, adopted an attacking approach in the second half, but the introduction of strikers Olaf Marschall and Ulf Kirsten produced few notable chances. Bierhoff had two further shots parried by Ladic, but in the closing stages Goran Vlaovic and Davor Suker converted two counterattacks to seal the three-time world champions’ exit from the competition and inflict their heaviest defeat since a 6-3 loss to France in 1958.
The mood among the debutants from Croatia was very different. Images of “Suker-man”, draped in the national flag with his arms spread wide like the wings of an eagle, were beamed around the world. Having flown in especially for the match, Croatia President Franjo Tudjman performed a dance of joy in the VIP boxes while the players piled on top of one another like overexcited children on the pitch below.
“Croatia send Germany packing. The Germans played an out-dated brand of football and were buried,” declared Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport, while Czech paper Nedelni Blesk commented: “The aging German team thought their bulldog mentality would be enough, but they were wrong. Croatia’s attractive display sealed their fate.”
The German squad’s average age of almost 30 was more than any of the country’s previous World Cup-winning squads. Faced with a lack of suitable young replacements, Die Mannschaft called on the old guard of Lothar Matthaus, 37, Andreas Kopke, 36, Jurgen Klinsmann, 34, and Jurgen Kohler, 33, as well as eight other players older than 30.
In their first World Cup appearance, Croatia were able to call upon such exceptional players as Suker, Slaven Bilic and Zvonimir Boban to create history, but even the most optimistic of Vatreni fans in France would not have imagined such a successful campaign. Their route to the World Cup had been a long one, finally sealing qualification after two play-off matches against Ukraine to spark ecstasy across the country. Their sensational run to the semi-finals heightened this jubilation even further.
“This is a historic moment in Croatian football history.”
Miroslav Blazevic (national team coach, Croatia)
“This win is so satisfying for our little country; we played with passion and commitment.”
Davor Suker (striker, Croatia)
“That was the match of our lives and none of us will ever forget it.”
Zvonimir Boban (midfielder, Croatia)
What happened next
Germany coach Vogts stayed on for just two more international matches before resigning after eight years and 102 matches, including 67 wins, 23 draws and 12 defeats, saying simply “I cannot carry on.” Key players such as Jurgen Kohler, Jurgen Klinsmann and Andreas Kopke had already announced their retirement from international football immediately after the World Cup.
Croatia lost their semi-final against hosts and eventual champions France 2-1, despite taking the lead, but finished the competition in third place after a 2-1 victory over the Netherlands.
With six goals to his name, Suker was awarded the adidas Golden Boot and remembers the historic tournament fondly. “We made history,” said the striker. “We came third, which is incredible for a country with four million inhabitants that suffered so much in the Balkan War. We are very proud to have been part of this team. Personally, I’ve achieved every footballer’s dream of taking part in a World Cup and winning the Golden Boot.”
For this small state, the success was akin to that of Germany’s 1954 World Cup win. “We never believed we would get that far,” Zvonimir Soldo once said. “It was our first World Cup, so nobody thought we could finish third, but Blazevic kept saying that we could make it to the final.” Although they had to settle for third place, Suker, Soldo and co. remain Croatia’s golden generation to this day.