Little about Josip Simunic is as it first appears. Most
immediately, his accent, a legacy of the 30-year-old's Canberra
upbringing, would suggest that he is a fully-fledged Aussie rather
than a proud and patriotic Croatian with 60 international caps to
his name. On the park too, this burly centre-half's imposing
frame leaves both spectators and opponents utterly unprepared for
the skill and subtlety of touch that has become a hallmark of his
Yet in this respect at least, Simunic could for once be described as typically Croatian. The Vatreni do, after all, have a well-established tradition of producing players of exemplary technique, with the enduring challenge for each fresh crop of Croats to emerge from the shadow cast by that richly talented 'golden generation' of Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki, Aljosa Asanovic et al. Ironically, Prosinecki and Asanovic both have a stake in ensuring that their achievements are eclipsed, with the legendary duo key members of the coaching team spearheaded by the impressive and increasingly sought-after Slaven Bilic.
The youthful Croatia boss recently committed to extending his tenure beyond UEFA EURO 2008, and Simunic believes that this should ensure that recent progress continues into the team's forthcoming FIFA World Cup™ preliminary campaign. The Hertha Berlin defender candidly admits that the Vatreni have fully justified their status as underachievers at previous major tournaments, but believes that their EURO 2008 qualifying heroics against England and Russia prove that the current class are made of sterner stuff.
"The potential is definitely there," he told FIFA.com. "Then again, we've always had the potential - it's just been a case of translating that into becoming a good tournament team. We've let ourselves down in that respect in the past but this time there is the belief that we can do a lot better.
- that would be a huge
achievement. After that, who knows? The fact we've qualified is
an achievement in itself to be honest, especially considering who
we beat to get there. But now we're there, I think the knockout
rounds is a very reasonable target."
Consistency the key
As a veteran of Croatia's failed campaign at the last two FIFA World Cups and UEFA EURO 2004, Simunic knows from bitter experience how thin the line between success and failure can be at major tournaments. That is why he believes the importance of some of Bilic's seemingly minor changes - the switch from Croatia's traditional 3-4-1-2 formation to a 4-2-3-1, for example - cannot be underestimated.
Nor indeed can the emergence of a new generation of outstanding youngsters, led by the likes of Vedran Corluka and Luka Modric, both graduates of the U-21 team of which Bilic was formerly in charge. Yet according to Simunic, the main change under the current regime is that the unexpected and often inexplicable slip-ups that blighted previous Croatia sides appear to have been all but eradicated.
"We can beat anyone on our day," he said. "We've shown that time and again over the past ten years. By the same token, we've also proved over the years that we can struggle badly against supposedly lesser quality opponents. Fortunately we seem to have improved in that respect; we've been more consistent under the current manager and if we can carry that on into the EURO, there's no reason why we can't do well."
Yet given that, by Simunic's own admission, Croatia traditionally save their best performances for the game's giants - England being the most glaring recent example - could it be a drawback that they have been drawn in a seemingly favourable EURO section along with Austria, Germany and Poland?
"I don't see it that way," was Simunic's response. "Every team we're coming up against is a quality outfit. Even Austria, who didn't have to qualify, will be extremely tough because they have home advantage and the crowd behind them. We've seen what a massive impact that can have - just look at Germany at the World Cup. It's not going to be easy and if anyone in our team thinks it will be, they'll need to wake up fast."
'Eduardo a huge loss'
Croatia were certainly given a rude awakening when, in the team's first outing since beating England 3-2 to seal a triumphant EURO 2008 qualifying campaign, they found themselves on the receiving end of a humbling 3-0 defeat by Netherlands. Bilic was not unduly concerned, however, even declaring the friendly loss necessary to calm the post-Wembley euphoria, and he persevered with his programme of taxing warm-up fixtures by arranging a visit to Hampden Park on 26 March.
"The warm-up game against Scotland definitely helped us," Simunic recalled of the keenly-contested 1-1 draw. "It was extremely tough, the Scots didn't give us an inch; they were extremely aggressive and competitive, which was just what we needed. A lot of good things came out of the game for us, a few bad things too, and it means we know what we need to work on over the next couple of months."
The visit to Glasgow also represented Croatia's first match since Eduardo, their star striker, suffered that stomach-turning leg-break at Birmingham City to force him out of this summer's continental showpiece. The Arsenal star had contributed ten goals to the Vatreni's qualifying campaign and Simunic, for his part, makes no attempt to downplay the significance of his absence.
"He's a huge loss," said the defender. " . It's so unfortunate, especially for Eduardo himself, but it gives an opportunity for someone else to make himself a hero."
The ultimate fairy tale, of course, would be if that hero turned out to be Ivan Klasnic, back in the Croatia squad after an 18-month absence during which he underwent two kidney transplants. And for Simunic, almost as welcome as Klasnic's return to the fold was Bilic's confirmation that Eduardo, though clearly unable to play, will be invited to be part of the squad that travels to Austria and Switzerland.
"It's a great gesture," said the big defender. "I'd certainly love to see him there and I think it would motivate us even more to go out there and do something special."