Croatian disappointment runs deep
"Disaster", "End of the world", "Cowardly football". The Croatian media were not short of an overstatement or two following their national team's exit from the FIFA World Cup, as euphoria turned to despair on the Adriatic coast.
Following a successful qualifying campaign and an impressive performance in their opening match against Brazil, expectations among the Croatian players, media and fans soared. Pundits had the Vatreni, or fiery ones, in the Round of 16 before their final group match had even kicked off. Discussion was turning to the likely formation for a match-up against Italy, and even for the quarter-final beyond.
To be fair, the first Group F game had certainly given cause for optimism. Coach Zlatko 'Cico' Kranjcar's men delivered an outstanding display against five-time world champions Brazil and were unlucky to lose. "We can live with the ball magicians from Brazil," agreed the home press after the 1-0 defeat, before demanding nothing less than two wins against Japan and Australia.
Comparisons were even being made with the legends of 1998, but the alarm bells should have rung for players and coaches alike when the team faltered to a 0-0 draw against the Asian champions . Instead, quite the opposite happened. The draw was dismissed as an occupational hazard and qualification for the second round regarded as a virtual fait accompli. "Nothing is lost. Obviously a win against Japan would have been helpful, but we still hold all the aces for the game against Australia," said Robert Kovac after the stalemate.
If anything, the laboured draw with Japan showed that comparisons with the team that finished third in 1998 were surely misplaced. The team of Kovac, Kranjcar and Prso was not blessed with the quality of the "golden generation" of Boban, Prosinecki and Suker. The France 98 side was packed with players from the elite European clubs such as AC Milan or Real Madrid.
Eight years later, many of the protagonists were only second choices at their respective clubs. Of the five Bundesliga players, only Ivan Klasnic and Josip Simunic were regular starters. Constant referral back to the legends of Croatian football only served to put the team under additional pressure - pressure which ultimately proved too much to withstand.
The decisive match against Australia finally brought a reality check. Despite taking the lead twice, captain Niko Kovac and his team proved unable to control the game or hold on for victory. The Croatians inexplicably withdrew into their own penalty area and invited the Socceroos forward. Australia needed no second invitation, equalised twice and deservedly qualified for the Round of 16 to shatter Croatia's dreams.
"We have flown high and come crashing down. We could not live up to our own expectations," said coach Kranjcar. For many pundits, the future does not look bright. Prominent commentators such as Zvonimir Boban believe Croatian football is cast adrift in a "sea of problems", and predict a long sporting drought.
However, among the criticism and disappointment, we should not forget to draw the positives from Croatia's campaign. Besides the compelling performance against Brazil, the fantastic Croatian fans created electric atmospheres in Berlin, Nuremberg and Stuttgart, supporting their team with passion and enthusiasm. Even after the exit against Australia, the supporters waved off their team with a standing ovation.
"Our fans were just sensational. I'm proud to have such fans and I'll remember their passionate and positive support at this World Cup for the rest of my life," said Robert Kovac in praise of the Croatian support.