Considering Croatia’s current standing in the game, it is hard to believe that they took their World Cup bow as recently as 1998. In the space of 12 years the Croatians have gone from underdogs to a team to be feared – just ask former England boss Steve McClaren.

Back in 1998, there were limited expectations. Croatia had finished second behind Denmark in qualifying to earn their shot at the big time and they certainly possessed some real talents, including Real Madrid striker Davor Suker, AC Milan midfielder Zvonimir Boban and defender Slaven Bilic, who was plying his trade for Everton.

Croatia were drawn in Group H alongside Argentina, Japan and Jamaica. On paper, it looked a reasonably good outcome for manager Miroslav Blazevic and his squad. While the experts were busy writing off the Croatians’ chances of progressing far in the tournament, the players themselves remained positive. And Suker in particular was clearly in the mood to spring a surprise or two.

They began the group stage in Lens against the Jamaicans. Mario Stanic, later of Chelsea, opened the scoring and, though Jamaica levelled on the stroke of half-time, Croatia strolled to victory in the second period. Goals from Robert Prosinecki and Suker clinched a 3-1 win. It appeared that the Argentines were in pole position to top the group, but Croatia were staking their claim to finish second.

The Croatians’ surge continued with a narrow 1-0 win over Japan. Suker was again the hero, netting with 13 minutes to go. And those three points would send Croatia into the second round even before their final group game.

All the same, they pushed the Argentines to the limit, but lost 1-0 and finished as runners-up. It set up a clash with Romania in the last 16 and avoided a potentially trickier tie with England, who would take Argentina to penalties.

The team now had a taste for the big occasion. They had shown they could dominate defensively, with Bilic, Igor Stimac and company on song, and with Suker in red hot form the Croatians were suddenly earning some headlines.

But they were not finished yet.

Rightly viewing the Romanians as beatable, Croatia put in another outstanding effort. A Suker penalty in first half stoppage time provided a lead to fight for and a solid team performance sent the Croatian fans into a frenzy.
The World Cup debutants had booked their place in the quarter-finals, but logic suggested that the wily Germans, off the back of a dramatic win over Mexico, would bring the Croatians back down to earth with a bump.

Yet when the Croatia players arrived in Lyon, they clearly had not read the script. After a cagey start, the underdogs received a helping hand with the dismissal of Christian Worns and stunned the Germans, again in first half stoppage time, as Robert Jarni gave Croatia a shock lead.

They had been the story of the tournament thus far yet opponents seemingly continued to underestimate Blazevic’s men. Frustration soon set in for Germany and as they threw men forward, Croatia went for the jugular.

Goran Vlaovic settled matters with ten minutes to go and Suker added gloss with a third five minutes later to bring his tournament total to an impressive four. The Croatian adventure would go on.

The hosts, France, now stood between Croatia and a place in the World Cup final. The French had needed penalties to see off Italy in the last eight and were struggling to find their best form in the knockout rounds after impressing in the group stage.
In front of 76,000 fans, Croatia held their own in the first 45 minutes then silenced the vast home support a minute into the second half as Suker showed his clinical streak once more. However, the Croatian celebrations had barely died down when France equalised, with right back Lilian Thuram the unlikely goalscorer.
Had Croatia held the lead for five or ten more minutes, who knows how the game might have panned out. But now the French had the momentum. With so much attention being directed at playmakers Zinedine Zidane and Youri Djorkaeff, Thuram popped up again to deal the Croatians a hammer blow. The defender exploited another opportunity to push forward and gave France a 2-1 lead.
Despite the dismissal of Laurent Blanc seven minutes later and with 14 minutes to go, the Croatians failed to cash in. Their brave, exhilarating run was over. There would be no final – but they had the consolation of losing out to the eventual winners.
There was still something to play for, however, in the shape of the third-place playoff with Holland, who had been eliminated on penalties by Brazil. Neither team had fully shaken the heartbreak of their semi-final exits, but the Croatians were determined to end on a high and took the lead through Prosinecki.
Bolo Zenden levelled for the Dutch after 21 minutes, but Blazevic’s team refused to buckle and that man Suker netted his sixth goal of the World Cup ten minutes before the break to restore the Croatians’ lead. Gutsy defending and the Holland players’ gradual exhaustion helped Croatia hang on in the second half and clinch third place.
As the 1998 World Cup ended, there was so much to reflect on and one of the most exciting stories had been the Croatians’ fearless charge to the last four. Suker, with six goals, finished as the tournament’s top scorer and the entire team had produced an unforgettable campaign in their World Cup debut.
That month of international football will always be remembered for Croatia’s arrival on the big stage.