Croatia may still be a considerable distance from being able to toast success in a UEFA EURO 2008 group that also boasts the likes of England, Israel and Russia, but the evidence of the past few months has done much to lift the national mood.
A barrage of criticism met their dismal performance at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, the Croatian media resounding with negative headlines including 'Bottlers' and 'Generation of losers', as commentators prophesied a bleak future for the once mighty Vatreni or 'fiery ones', as the national team is nicknamed.
Yet it would appear the obituaries were penned a shade too early, as new coach Slaven Bilic has swiftly led his team back to a place among the big names in the sport. Precisely 111 days following the controversy-ridden 2-2 draw with Australia, the nation which finished third at the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ chalked up an impressive 2-0 victory against England, another resurgent force on the international stage.
Croatia meet Israel on Wednesday in their fourth EURO 2008 qualifier, knowing victory would see them spend the winter three points ahead of the English at the top of the group standings. FIFA.com examines the driving influences behind the Croatian renaissance.
How is it that the team has brushed off the dense critical flak and is now striding towards a place at the UEFA Euro 2008? The experts unanimously agree on the critical role played by Bilic, whose club career took him from Hadjuk Split in his homeland to spells with West Ham United and Everton in the English Premiership.
Bilic took over from a demoralised Zlatko Kranjcar following the FIFA World Cup exit, immediately recruiting legendary figures Robert Prosinecki and Aljosa Asanovic as his assistants. "I had to use all my powers of conviction and persuasion, but I ultimately won them over to our project," the 38-year-old Bilic revealed.
The triumvirate known as BAP (for Bilic-Asanovic-Prosinecki) swiftly agreed on a course of action, refraining from a wholesale cull in favour of gradually rejuvenating the squad. Hard work, discipline and a good atmosphere are the watchwords. "We're convinced there's huge potential in Croatian football. We need to combine our strengths, and work hard with plenty of discipline towards our target of a place at Euro 2008," Bilic declared.
The former world-class centre-half duly saw events prove him right. His almost flawless record to date reads played four, won three and drawn one, with 11 goals for and none against. The apparent dawn of a new era has featured fine results against big-name opponents: a 2-0 success against FIFA World Cup winners Italy in Livorno, a goalless draw with Russia in Moscow, the 2-0 victory over England in Zagreb, and a 7-0 pasting handed out to minnows Andorra in the same city.
Bilic has succeeded in transforming a team of individuals into a seamless unit, the former U-21 coach rapidly assembling a squad with justifiable hopes of qualifying for the European championship finals in Austria and Switzerland.
The 38-year-old is a subscriber to the carrot-and-stick school of management. On the one hand, he is quick to talk up his players' individual ability, but on the other, he has cracked down on ill-discipline with an iron fist. He recently handed star striker Darijo Srna and two accomplices hefty fines for breaking a strict curfew ahead of the meetings with Andorra and England. That earned the coach a huge dollop of respect among the traditionally emotional and critical local media, not to mention an enhanced standing in the dressing room.
"Mr Bilic believes in us and what we can do," youngster Vedran Corluka declared as he surveyed a squad brimming with positive energy. "He's formed us into a unit, and we unconditionally support him. We're all singing from the same hymn sheet, and we'll stick together through thick and thin."
The new broom sweeping Croatian football clearly owes a great deal to state-of-the-art tactical thinking. The team meticulously follows the instructions handed out by the coaching staff, devised from a rigorous analysis of upcoming opponents.
Every coach spies on the opposition a number of times, producing detailed individual analyses and identifying potential areas of weakness. Head coach Bilic then determines the tactical plan on the basis of this knowledge.
The success of the system was clearly in evidence during the England clash. Pre-match training routines included constant repetition of a pacy, direct approach down the flanks with abrupt switches of wings, seeking to create an overlap at the byline where Bilic reckoned England could be in trouble. The theory worked to perfection for the opening goal when Eduardo da Silva buried an inch-perfect Niko Kovac cross with a powerful header. "Tactically, we're incredibly disciplined, modern and intelligent. I give the coach Grade 1 with distinction!" veteran Kovac joked.
Croatia play off a solid foundation formed by the experience of Robert Kovac and Josip Simunic at centre-half in front of keeper Stipe Pletikosa. Darijo Srna and Marko Babic patrol the flanks, while Niko Kovac is an exemplary water carrier in defensive midfield. In the hole, Nico Kranjcar and prodigal son Milan Rapaic supply the creativity, and the gap up front left by Dado Prso's retirement is impressively filled in turn by Brazil-born Eduardo da Silva, FC Basel's Mladen Petric, Ivan Klasnic of Werder Bremen, and CSKA Moscow hitman Ivica Olic.
Based on their convincing record to date, the Croats must be considered a solid outside bet for a tilt at the EURO 2008 crown. Bilic's verdict? "Provided we pursue our plan to its conclusion, I'm convinced we'll be at the European Championship in 2008."