The Vatreni, or 'fiery ones', as the Croatian national team are known, are knocking on the door of the top ten of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking . Slaven Bilic's men rose three spots to 12th in February and are hoping to maintain that momentum and make further gains in the months ahead.
"Since Bilic took over, everything has been just perfect," enthuses captain Niko Kovac. "We are playing some attractive football and going from one success to another. The next thing we have in our sights is the top ten of the FIFA Ranking."
The third-placed team from France 98 are on a roll, their most recent success being a 2-1 friendly win against a strong Norway outfit in the imposing Na Kantridi stadium in Rijeka on 7 February 2007. Both sides showed skill and grit in equal measures, but goals from FC Basle's Mladen Petric and up-and-coming star Luka Modric made the difference for the three-time FIFA World Cup™ finalists.
"We've managed to get a consistent squad together," explains assistant coach and local legend Robert Prosinecki when asked about Croatia's success. "As we have shown, we can overcome injuries and absences because the current squad has at least 21 players of similar quality."
Slaven Bilic's winning run
Yet less than a year ago, the critics were sharpening their knives after a disappointing campaign at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, when the team failed to make it past the group stage.
The Croatian media described the early exit as a national tragedy and forecast nothing but doom and gloom for the country's football. Flying in the face of these naysayers, the team with the chequered jerseys have since gone on an unbeaten run in both the qualifiers for UEFA EURO 2008 and in friendlies. Since Slaven Bilic replaced Zlatko Kranjcar at the helm, the Vatreni have won five and drawn one of their past six matches. The calibre of their opponents makes the run even more impressive, with Croatia winning 2-0 against world champions Italy in Livorno, 7-0 against Andorra, 4-3 away to Israel , 2-0 against England, as well as the above-mentioned 2-1 success over Norway and a 0-0 draw in Russia.
This turnaround in fortunes has seen the men from the shores of the Adriatic go from 23rd in the Rankings in July 2006 to 12th in February 2007, their highest position since June 2000, when they were ninth. And the team are aiming even higher. "After the successes of the last few weeks and months, we can be optimistic about the future," says Bilic as he assesses the challenges ahead. "All of the players have taken on board my ideas about football, and we're now focussing on the EURO 2008 in Switzerland and Austria."
Nonetheless, the coach is fully aware of the hard work that lies ahead between now and next year's UEFA European Championships. "We can't afford to rest on our laurels," he tells his players, who know that hard work is at the core of Bilic's footballing philosophy. The 38-year-old coach sets a great deal of store by the German values of discipline, graft and teamwork - no doubt gleaned from his years in the Bundesliga, when he played 66 times and scored five goals for Karlsruhe between 1993 and 1996.
Bilic's success comes from blending these qualities with the traditional Croatian strengths of creativity and flowing play. "I really do think that Croatian football has a lot to offer. We need to combine our strengths and then add hard work and discipline," he says. "Up until now, this seems to have paid off."
The next generation of Bobans and Sukers
Croatia's best-ever FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking came when they boasted the likes of Zvonimir Boban and Davor Suker in their ranks.
That golden generation swept almost all before them between July 1998 and June 2000, firmly anchoring themselves in the top ten and peaking in 1999, when they occupied third place from January to March of that year.
The new squad is based around young stars such as Petric, Modric, Eduardo da Silva and Nico Kranjcar, who are all looking to imitate their illustrious predecessors and establish themselves in the top ten. "I really do believe in the qualities of this team," says Modric, as he eyes the future with confidence. "If we carry on putting in the hard work and keep winning games, we can get back to being one of the top ten teams in the world."