It was possibly the most unsavoury scene of Euro 2016 thus far. As a hail of objects rained down onto the pitch at Saint-Etienne’s Stade Geoffroy-Guichard and Croatian players pleaded with their supporters for calm, a steward
was struck by a flare which exploded beneath him. Up until this point, Croatia had dominated their second group game of this year’s championship, leading the Czech Republic 2-1 thanks to goals from the scintillating Ivan Perisic, and the equally dazzling Ivan Rakitic.
Thankfully, the steward appeared to escape unharmed, but the incident did not only mar what had been another excellent performance from Ante Cacic’s side, but would also cost them the victory, as the visibly shaken Croats conceded a late penalty to gift the Czech Republic an unexpected point.
To many, it seemed like a strange act of self-sabotage from supporters, particularly after their side had started the tournament impressively with an opening game victory against Turkey. However, this is not the first incident of this nature involving followers of the national team.
In 2014, flares were hurled onto the field at the San Siro, as Croatia faced Italy in a qualification fixture. Racist chanting in another qualifier against Norway resulted in the return game against the Italians being played behind closed doors, and a bizarre incident involving a swastika being carved into the pitch ahead of the game then gave UEFA no other option but to deduct one point from Croatia.
The reason behind such actions is that radical ultras believe that the subsequent punishments handed out will bring about change within the Croatian FA, which is widely believed to be corrupt to its core. Following Friday’s match, UEFA announced that they had opened disciplinary proceedings against Croatia, and that it was possible that they may be ejected from the competition.
This is something that is unlikely to deter those in the stands who are seemingly set upon causing chaos in order to bring about reform at the top. This of course, would be a huge shame for football lovers across the continent, as well as the current group of players, who have every chance of going all the way to the final on July 10th.
After independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Croatia’s best performance at an international competition was their third-place finish at the 1998 World Cup in France. This team, featuring current West Ham United manager Slaven
Bilic, as well as the likes of Zvonomir Boban, Robert Prosinecki, and the prolific goal-scorer turned controversial face of the country’s FA, Davor Suker, was lauded as the golden generation of Croatian football at the time.
18 years on, and a new generation of talented Croatian footballers have returned to France, showing glimpses that they may have what it takes to go even further this time around. Possessing two of the most technically gifted
midfielders in world football, in the form of the wizard-like Luka Modric of Real Madrid and his playmaking sidekick Ivan Rakitic, Croatia have already made their mark on the competition and proven that they are one of the teams to watch out for over the coming weeks.
However, rather refreshingly, Croatia are not solely reliant on the pair. They are also able to call upon Marcelo Brozovic, Milan Badelj, and Modric’s Real team-mate, Mateo Kovacic, as options in what is surely one of the most enviable midfields in the competition.
One player who appears to have started the competition in fantastic form is Inter Milan winger Ivan Perisic. The 27-year-old’s speed and willingness to run at opponents is a full back’s worst nightmare, as well as a huge asset to
his side, offering an injection of pace alongside the intricate passing and movement of Modric and Rakitic. With six goals during qualifying, Perisic also carries a goal threat, as demonstrated by his well taken finish against the Czechs.
Despite a squad brimming with diminutive playmakers, Croatia are also able to play a more direct style should they be required to do so, thanks to the height and aerial prowess of striker Mario Mandzukic. The Juventus forward
is usually deployed as a lone striker, and although he has yet to hit the back of the net in Croatia’s opening two games, his goal-scoring record in important matches suggests that he could come into his own in the knockout stage.
The 30-year-old is central to his side’s hopes in this competition, and if he can begin to find some form; which given the quality of service provided by the players behind him shouldn’t be too difficult, then Croatia could prove to be unstoppable.
In Darijo Srna, Croatia also have one of the most experienced defenders in European football. The Shakhtar Donetsk full-back is the team’s captain, and holds the record for the most appearances for his country with 132. Lining up alongside Srna is another seasoned international in Vedran Corluka. The former Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur man battled on throughout the Turkey game despite picking up a head wound, which required further dressing on four separate occasions.
The Croatian defence leaked just five goals in ten matches during qualifying, and despite conceding twice against Czech Republic, they are yet to be properly tested in France. However, with Srna and Corluka marshalling the defence, and Monaco’s Danijel Subasic between the sticks, there is more than enough experience to deal with the best forward lines in the competition.
If the Vatreni are to go beyond the quarter-finals, and compete with the likes of Germany, France and Spain, they will need Modric and Rakitic to be at their stellar best. Fresh off the back of winning a treble with Barcelona, Rakitic is fast becoming accustomed to winning major honours, and will relish the challenge of teaming up with Modric to bamboozle opponents and guide their country into unprecedented territory. His delicate lob over the onrushing Petr Cech for Croatia’s second goal against Czech Republic was an illustration of the class that the 28-year-old possesses.
Similarly, Modric’s 25 yard volley to seal all three points against Turkey is further proof that he has cemented himself within the upper echelon of players in world football since leaving Tottenham for Real Madrid four years ago. Unsurprisingly, the hopes of Croatia rest firmly on the shoulders of the pair of them.
Prior to the tournament there were many doubts within the Balkan country about whether Ante Cacic possessed the ability to get the best out of the current crop of players. The appointment of the former TV and radio repairman was an extremely controversial one, with many fans seeing it as an indictment of the incompetence of those running the sport in their country. So far, things have gone better than expected on the pitch, with Croatia remaining unbeaten since the 62-year-old was appointed in September.
The statistics may appear impressive, but Cacic’s reign has been characterised by excessive experimentation with formation and team selection, although he now appears to have settled on a 4-2-3-1 formation, much to the relief of those supporters who want Croatia to succeed this summer.
A public fall out with Dejan Lovren, leading to the Liverpool man’s exclusion from the 23-man squad, has also done little to convince the nation that Cacic is the man to unite this talented group of players. However, the performances in the first two games have been positive, and with the players he has selected seemingly on-board, it remains to be seen whether the former Dynamo Zagreb coach can prove his doubter’s wrong and inspire his troops to glory.
On Tuesday, Cacic will face arguably his most difficult test so far when his side take on Group D leaders Spain in Bordeaux. If Croatia can match the reigning champions; which they are more than capable of, they may well be elevated to the position of genuine contenders for the crown. Of course, whether they can go all the way remains to be seen, but providing their supporters can behave, Croatia could well be in with a shout of European Championship glory.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Ai Kagou