Kranjcar chases dream
Croatia qualified for the 2006 FIFA World Cup with a minimum of fuss. Unfancied prior to the start of the preliminaries, the Croats marched unbeaten through their section with a record of 21 goals scored and just five conceded, leaving opponents such as Sweden, Hungary and Bulgaria trailing in their wake.
The architect of their success was Zlatko Kranjcar. The 50-year-old is Croatia's sixth coach since the nation gained independence in 1991, and took up the reins after a disappointing 2004 UEFA European Championship under Otto Baric.
In the time since, Kranjcar has managed to usher in a new generation of players and guide Croatia to their third FIFA World Cup finals in succession. As a reward for their endeavours, the team - in which Kranjcar's son, Niko , is a pivotal player - face the imposing task of locking horns with world champions Brazil in their first game on 13 June. The coach was, however, in quietly confident mood when FIFAworldcup.com caught up with him to ask about this new crop of Croatians and their aspirations at Germany 2006.
Go to the Croatia team page
FIFAworldcup.com: The only preparation Croatia have had this year was the 3-2 victory against Argentina (on 1 March). How do you assess that result?
Zlatko Kranjcar: To beat Argentina is always a fantastic result, but it was only a friendly. It will be different at the World Cup because the team will be far more focused and playing for a result. Both sides played an open game, which was obviously great for the fans. I was happy with my boys, but there were some things for us to work on for the World Cup.
Will there be any major changes to your team?
We assembled a side that played well during qualifying. We were first in our group without losing a game. It is very important for us that the players arrive fit and ready to start preparation. All of them have the potential to improve by 20 to 30 per cent. That would ensure a good display at the World Cup.
Was it good for your confidence to beat a big nation such as Argentina? Or should you not overestimate the result?
We definitely gained confidence from it and that is important for us. But just because we beat Argentina, we will not be taking our foot off the pedal and thinking that we can reach the FIFA World Cup Final. The important thing we took away is that we can compete with the big guns, show our own strengths and come away with a victory through our own football. We will see the results of that at the World Cup.
You handed a debut to 20-year-old Luka Modric in that match. How pleased were you with him and will he be travelling to the FIFA World Cup?
Luka has come through our U-17, U-19 und U-21 squads and excelled at every level. He has caught the eye with his talent and I called him up to the squad because Robert Kovac was injured that is why I played him. It was very difficult for him. He was mentally drained because it was his first match, but he grew into the game very well, gave a good account of himself and combined well with Niko Kranjcar and Niko Kovac in the midfield. I am very happy with him. He is very talented, with a strong presence and organisational qualities. It was very important to see that I can count on him. As well as winning the game, we also won a player.
Are there other players you are keeping an eye on?
I am watching a few players from the U-21s. But whether they will be called up yet, I do not know. I will watch them in their club games and decide by mid-May who I will be taking.
How do you assess Croatia's chances in Group F?
Brazil are favourites, not only in our group, but for the title. But compared to Japan and Australia, we have a good chance of qualifying for the second round. I think my team are a few points better than Australia and Japan, but football is unpredictable as we know. Japan or Australia might cause an upset but we will be doing everything in our power to ensure that they do not turn us over.
What can Croatia achieve?
You have to dream. With the quality in our team, we should reach the second round. And if we can manage to get to the quarter-finals, that would be a great success for us. But like I said, football is unpredictable. Maybe we can reach the Final. Croatia have some very good individual players and the players have shown in public and in the media that we are a strong and unified team. We might be the ones to cause an upset at the World Cup.