Old friends united in mission
© AFP

Just 12 years after newly-independent Croatia made its entrance at UEFA EURO 1996, five men who were on the pitch in those heady days are back again, directing operations from the bench as the Balkan state makes waves anew at EURO 2008. Slaven Bilic, the rock music-making coach, and his four close assistants have been calling the tune in Group B after the win over Germany sent Croatia into the quarter-finals.

And it is the band of brothers mentality, Bilic reveals, between him and Robert Prosinecki, a childhood friend from his Dinamo Zagreb days, as well as fellow backroom staff Niko Jurcevic, Aljosa Asanovic and reserve keeper Marijam Mrmic, which is spurring them to success.

Indicative of the closeness between them is a scene at the squad's Austrian base at Bad Tatzmannsdorf. While the others are off on a run, Prosinecki, Jurcevic, Asanovic and Bilic take time out to enjoy a kickabout where they show off a raft of fancy little tricks. "Our links are very strong," explains Bilic.

Croatian upsets
Those links go back to EURO 1996, when the squad arrived to compete in England barely ten months after Croatia had won independence from a disintegrating Yugoslavia. "It was an important tournament for us, essential for our country," recalls Bilic who, like virtually all of his then squad-mates was earning his living abroad, in his case with Germany's Karlsruhe.

"We were arouund 27 or 28 years old and had no time to lose," said Bilic. "We were hungry. Only Prosinecki, who had played and scored at Italy 1990 for Yugoslavia, had a true past as an international star.

Then-coach Miroslav Blazevic imbued his men with a sense of mission: to forge a visible Croatian path in European football. The squad did just that. They beat Turkey 1-0 and dispatched holders Denmark 3-0 in the group and gave Germany a run for their money in the quarters, only to bow out 2-1 to the side that would ultimately lift the title.

Then, at the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™, they would beat the Germans emphatically and go all the way to the semis, only to lose out 2-1 to the hosts and eventual winners having led 1-0.

Now Bilic is attempting to lead Croatia all the way to glory. Those steering the ship are all young, between 39 and 43, and have a unique and close relationship with players whose heroes and role models they were a decade ago. "We are more tolerant, because we were in their shoes not so long ago," explains Bilic.