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Croatian band of brothers call the tune

SoccerNews in General Soccer News 14 Jun 2008


Just 12 years after newly-independent Croatia made its entrance at Euro '96 five men who were on the pitch in those heady days are back again, directing operations from the bench 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, his childhood friend from 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.

Those links go back to Euro '96, 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 squadmates was earning his living abroad, in his case with Germany's Karlsruhe.

Those were dark days for the former Yugoslavia, not just politically but in sporting terms also as four years earlier the country had been excluded from Euro '92 in the throes of a brutal civil war and, as the federative state broke apart into its constituent nations those new states were not admitted to the tournament in Sweden or the 1994 World Cup qualifiers.

“We were arouund 27 or 28 years old and had no time to lose,” said Bilic. “We were hungry” to make an impact at international level.

Only Prosinecki, who had played and scored at Italia 90 for Yugoslavia, had a true past as an international star.

Croatian coach Miroslav Blazevic, a dyed-in-the-wool nationalist, 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.

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

Bilic – who was not the French people's favourite person after that semi as his theatrical collapse to the ground provoked French defender Laurent Blanc to be sent off and hence miss the final – has locked into the spirit of those tournaments, aided by his close-knit crew and insists that “there is nothing special” about the Croatian way of doing things.

Yet in fact there are clear elements which suggest otherwise.

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. They are respected as mentors but at the same time are confidants. It was Prosinecki who recommended Niko Kranjcar to join his own former club Portsmouth.

Bilic and company have adopted the Blazevic way of doing things.

The latter was Mr Optimism personified, telling all around him that his players were the best and would win the Euro or the World Cup.

Bilic is similar.

“We do everything together. When we disagree we have a break and then start again. Then it's me who ultimately decides. But in 90 percent of cases we are on the same wavelength – on and off the pitch.”

He says proudly: “They are a great bunch. They are incredible, each and every one of them.”

And here they are in the last eight.


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