Croatia Is Basking In Its Surprising Soccer Success The Team, Toughened By War, Has Advanced To The Semifinals In Its First Trip To The Tournament.

Posted: July 06, 1998

ST. JEAN D'ARDIERES, France — One by one, they came into the hotel courtyard yesterday morning, blinking in the bright sunlight and still dizzy from the events of the long night before.

``Proud To Be Croat'' was the lettering on the players' T-shirts, although the words were true long before this national soccer team upended Germany in the quarterfinals of the World Cup on Saturday night in Lyon.

Some pressed cellular phones to their ears and strained to hear yet another joyous congratulation from home.

``I spoke to my mother at 6 o'clock in the morning,'' said midfielder Aljosa Asanovic. ``She said nobody is going to sleep.''

How could they?

Just seven years after declaring its independence from Yugoslavia and taking on a war against Serbian aggression, Croatia has made its first trip to the World Cup a memorable one.

``We are a small country - 4 million persons,'' said Asanovic. ``What is 4 million persons? It is nothing. It is a small town in the U.S.A. But today my country has a big result. It is a small country with big players, very big players. Maybe the best in the world.''

The Croatians will play against host France in the World Cup semifinals on Wednesday with an incredible opportunity to advance to the championship round against either Brazil or the Netherlands on Sunday. No first-time entrant has played in the finals for more than 60 years.

``We are not saying we're the best team, but we've come to the last four and we deserve it,'' said defender Slaven Bilic. ``When you've come to this stage, there is every reason to say you've got a chance.''

In Croatia, the response from a population that endured so much to see its flag raised on a world stage has been almost staggering.

Franjo Tudjman, the president of Croatia, had lunch with the team before Saturday's game, and he burst into the locker room afterward like an excited child.

``He put the pressure off us during lunch,'' Bilic said. ``He said we were already knights of Croatia and that the whole country was already proud of us.''

The Croatian world, particularly the sports world, is a small one. Asanovic is close friends and pickup soccer buddies with Toni Kukoc, the small forward for the Chicago Bulls. Zvonimir Boban, perhaps the player most symbolic of Croatia's emergence as a nation, plays tennis with Goran Ivanisevic, who had a pretty good two weeks himself at Wimbledon.

``Every game begins with Boban leading 30-love, and Ivanisevic only gets one serve, but the sets are usually 7-5 or 7-6,'' said Darko Tironi, a Croatian press officer.

No Croatian sports success, however - a list that includes a silver medal in Olympic basketball in 1992 and a gold medal in team handball in 1996 - can compare to the current run by the soccer team.

Some of these players wore the uniform of Yugoslavia before the countries were divided, and some had to play games for their club teams with the sound of bombs falling just miles away. Most members of the current team went to clubs abroad during the war, which lasted officially from June 1991 to January 1992, but a great deal of Croatian land held by Serbians remained in dispute until 1995, when it was returned to Croatia.

The players who left the country during the war and its aftermath carried the nation's fight for autonomy with each step.

``Then, it was not just football,'' Bilic said. ``We were like soldiers on the pitch. We had to make our country recognized.''

``We were ambassadors for our country,'' said defender Igor Stimac. ``It was very important to send players anywhere, because under your name is going to be `Croatia' and the Croatian flag.

``When I went to Derby County [England], there was a Serb in West London who wrote and threatened to kill me because I was telling the truth, that Serbians were killing people, that they were coming with arms to Croatia to kill people.''

In 1990, as Boban's team, Dynamo Zagreb, played a road match in Serbian Yugoslavia against Red Star Belgrade, perhaps the most defining moment in Croatia's drive for independence - on the soccer field and off - took place.

A Serbian policeman grabbed a Zagreb supporter during a brief scuffle among fans, and Boban left the field to knock down the policeman and free the Croat.

``People still talk about that,'' Bilic said. `It was a symbol of, `No more.' We were suffering. We wanted to be independent like we were 50 years before. What he said was, `That's enough.' ''

For his defiance, Boban was dropped from consideration for the 1990 Yugoslavian World Cup team, on which there were four other Croats.

But retribution came in 1991, when Croatia declared its independence, and when Yugoslavia was banned from taking part in most international competitions because of human-rights abuses.

Neither Yugoslavia nor Croatia was eligible for the 1994 World Cup, Yugoslavia because of the ban, and Croatia because its recognition didn't come quickly enough for it to enter all the qualifying rounds.

This year, however, both nations made it to France. Yugoslavia advanced to the second round before being eliminated by the Netherlands. Croatia finished second in its opening-round group, beating Jamaica and Japan, but losing, 1-0, to Argentina. In the second round, Croatia outlasted Romania, 1-0, setting up Saturday's historic 3-0 win over Germany, one of the tournament favorites.

``We're not rejoicing about the Yugoslavian disaster,'' said Stimac, ``but we're happy with ourselves. We are still here and they are not.''

Croatia is a skilled team, loaded with professionals who play in the top leagues throughout Europe. In this tournament, the greatest skill has been at the defensive end of the field. The Croats have allowed just two goals in five games.

Against the French, who will have most of the support in sold-out, 80,000-seat Stade de France, Croatia will play a team even stingier. France has given up just one goal in five matches.

``Obviously, it's going to be very hard,'' said Miroslav Blazevic, the eccentric Croatian coach who chain-smokes on the bench and consults an astrologer before matches. ``We're proud to have this opportunity. It's a new test for us.''

The Croats are used to being tested, though. Petar Krpan, one of the reserve defenders, is the only team member to have actually fought with the Croatian army in the war. But all of them knew its hardships and uncertainties.

``I lost many people, many friends in the war,'' said Asanovic. ``I lost two very good friends. It's not good for nobody.''

Now, with the hostilities over and their independence assured, the battles are easier, particularly on the soccer field, where Croatians have always been able to find peace and success.

``We kept playing like normal, even when the war was close,'' said Stimac. ``Ours is a football nation. It was important to tell people that football is still alive, that we are alive and we still exist.''

If the world wasn't aware that Croatia is a soccer nation before Saturday night, the result against Germany changed that.

And even as the players walk haltingly into this bright, new light, they seem at ease.

``There is nothing,'' said Stimac, ``to be afraid of on the green pitch.''

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