Croatia follow in golden footsteps
© AFP

The aim was to emulate the 'golden generation' who finished in a remarkable third place at the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™, and even though they were distraught at missing out on a semi-final berth at the recent UEFA EURO 2008 after a penalty shoot-out defeat to Turkey, coach Slaven Bilic's men have earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath as their illustrious predecessors.

"I think we played the best football in the history of the Croatian national team," said Aljosa Asanovic in reference to the tournament held in Austria and Switzerland this summer, and the 42-year-old knows that he is talking about. Asanovic was one of the legendary 1998 generation before becoming Bilic's assistant coach, and the likes of Niko Kovac, who retired as captain after the tournament, and up-and-coming playmaker Luka Modric know that this is high praise indeed.

The Croats have got the wind in their sails once again as they gradually work their way back up into the elite, as a glance at the most recent edition of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking shows. Despite a mere 4.5 million inhabitants, this country from the Adriatic coast has jumped from seventh to fifth place, overtaking South America's big two, Brazil and Argentina, in the process.

Bilic's men are on 1,282 points, a mere 17 behind the Netherlands in fourth. World champions Italy (1320) in third as well as Germany (1343) in second are also within striking distance for the Croats. Only European champions Spain are out of reach, having taken over pole position with an incredible haul of 1557 points.

Best ever ranking within reach
Exactly two months ago before EURO 2008 got under way, Croatia were 15th in the world and looking to make it back into the top ten, a spot they had last occupied in January 2008. They managed this feat in July 2008 when they leapt up to seventh, and with Argentina and Brazil dropping points in the intervening weeks, the Croats find themselves in their best ranking since March 1999 - an indication of the progress that Bilic has made with this team.

It is not so long ago - March 1994 in fact - that Croatia were 125th in the world, and their average ranking is 28th, making the progress of this nation which only achieved independence on 25 June 1991 all the more remarkable. Modric and his team-mates now have a new goal: achieving Croatia's best ever placing in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. From July to December 1998, they were fourth in the world and crept as high as third during the first three months of 1999, so the new generation know that the record is well within their grasp.

Although captain Niko Kovac decided to call it a day aged 36, Croatia will definitely be a forced to be reckoned with in world football over the coming years. Bilic does not have a real star to call on in his team, but they proved at EURO 2008 that in terms of tactical ability and formation, they were second only to champions Spain.

Midfield maestro Modric, 22, who will be showcasing his skills in the coming season in the English Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur, could well be the fulcrum of this new generation. Coach Bilic, a charismatic former international defender who is both well loved and respected, is full of confidence about what lies ahead. "We've got a young team and we're looking to the future. The World Cup qualifiers are next on the agenda, but tomorrow is a new day and the sun is still going to rise once again. There will be a few tears, but such is life," said the 39-year-old at the end of June's European Championship.

And judging by the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and the glowing future that his team has in store, the joy will far outweigh the tears.