French football has long been home to some of the greatest Croatian stars. Josip Skoblar illuminated the French top flight in the 1960s and is still fondly remembered in Marseille today, and brothers Zoran and Zladko Vujovic were among the top players plying their trade there in the 1980s. A decade later it was Alen Boksic and Aljosa Asanovic who made waves for Marseille and Montpellier respectively, while serving as integral members of Croatia's golden generation on the international stage.
In more recent times, the trend looked to have ended, with Croatian players deserting Ligue 1 for the playing fields of England, Germany, Italy and Spain. Acquaintances have recently been renewed, however, with five of Slaven Bilic's squad for the upcoming 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifiers against Kazakhstan and England hailing from French clubs.
Three of those, including the country's most experienced international of all time, play for Monaco. Dario Simic became the first Croatian to reach 100 caps when he turned out against Slovenia on 20 August, just a few days after ending almost a decade-long spell at AC Milan to join the principality outfit.
"I'll try to use my qualities and experience to help realise the club's ambitions," he said upon signing for the Stade Louis II side. "Physically I'm not quite there, but I have a long career behind me, lots of international games, and I know where I'm at."
Simic was not wrong either, kicking off his Monaco career with a solid performance against Caen. Impressively calm and positioning himself intelligently at the back, he capped his display with an assist for young striker Frederic Nimani, underlining his talents as a great passer of the ball. The only negative for the veteran debutant came from one of his fellow countrymen, in fact, when midfielder Jerko Leko deflected a cross into his own net despite Simic seeming to have it covered.
That breakdown in communication will do little to sour relations between the Vatreni stalwarts. Speaking on the club's official website in June, Leko declared that while Luka Modric would be the Croatian player he would most like at the club, Simic would be just as welcome: "He's an experienced centre-back that I like a lot."
That wish eventually came true, adding to the strains of Croatian in the Monaco changing-room that began to be heard when Nikola Pokrivac signed in January. Less experienced than his two compatriots, the 22-year-old former Dinamo Zagreb midfielder won his first international cap against Moldova when Croatia warmed up for EURO 2008.
Pokrivac went on to play in the finals, too, and that personal breakthrough helped to ease the pain of defeat when Bilic's men succumbed dramatically to Turkey in the quarter-finals. "It was an important moment to wear the shirt for the first time," he explained. "
I think I gained a lot of experience during the competition. It gave me a lot of confidence and hunger for the rest of my career
This season looks to be shaping up well for Monaco, who despite lying in 11th have put in some encouraging performances. By contrast, the situation is currently far less positive for Croatia's other shining light in France's top flight.
A summer signing from Werder Bremen, striker Ivan Klasnic has yet to settle at Nantes as the newly-promoted team struggle to find their feet in Ligue 1. Les Canaris are bottom and boast the dubious honour of being the first team to change coach, just three matches into the new campaign. Surrounded by instability, Klasnic is still waiting to score his first goal in France after posting 66 of them in 186 games in Germany.
The fifth member of France's Croatian contingent, meanwhile, is plying his trade in the second tier. Despite successful stints with Standard Liege, Marseille and Besiktas, 32-year-old goalkeeper Vedran Runje chose to stay loyal to Lens this summer, with the northern outfit targeting a swift return to the elite.
All five were present in Austria and Switzerland as Croatia sailed through the group phase before a penalty-shootout defeat by Turkey. "Unlike 2004 and 2006, when we deserved to go out, this time we had a chance to do something," said Leko. That disappointment is sure to fuel the squad's efforts as they now set their sights on South Africa. "Our team is likely to reach maturity by then and we'll pick ourselves up to meet this new challenge together."
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