From the Rubble to the Ritz…

How independence catapulted Croatia to the top of world

The Croatian national team’s rise from the shadow of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and independence in 1991 to become one of the world’s top teams before the end of the decade is one of defiance, hope and solidarity. Lead by the lethal instinct of Davor Šuker, the rebellious swagger of Milan number ten, Zvonimir Boban, the industrious work ethic of midfield general, Robert Prosinečki and the defensive wall of Slaven Bilić and Igor Tudor they stunned the world in France 1998 and were minutes away from the Final.

They made their tournament debut in England in 1996 and straight away they gained the unshakeable dark horse tag. A team peppered with fine technical ability, they beat Denmark 3-0, with Šuker scoring a delightful chip over Peter Schmeichel for their third cherry-on-top-of-the-cake goal. They finished second in their group after they recorded another win over Turkey. Despite being knocked out by eventual winners Germany in the Quarter Final, it had been a very respectable start to their international adventures and they would have an opportunity to take revenge on Germany just two years later on the biggest stage of all.

Qualifying for the 1998 World Cup pitted them against rivals Bosnia and Herzegovina; two politically charged games saw Croatia triumph, 4-1 in Bologna and 3-2 at home.

Denmark gained some revenge for the Euro 96 defeat as the Laudrup brothers both scored in a 3-1 win in Copenhagen. With just two games remaining the win helped he Danes top the group, two points ahead of Croatia, they in turn finished a point ahead of Greece in third.

Croatia were left to slug it out in the Play Offs as one of the best runners up. The first leg of their tie against Ukraine saw them take an invaluable 2-0 lead, courtesy of Bilić and Valencia’s, Goran Vlaović. An early Andriy Shevchenko goal in the return leg made the remaining 80 minutes very anxious indeed, but they held their nerve in front of 77,000 to record a 1-1 draw and thus a 3-1 aggregate win. Croatia were going to their first World Cup; a huge achievement given the infancy of the country itself, but not entirely unexpected given the level of talent in the squad. The question was could they do themselves justice and show the world what they were capable of?

The draw saw them up against one of the tournament favourites; Argentina, and fellow tournament debutantes, Japan and Jamaica. Maybe the scheduling was a little kind to Croatia as they would play Argentina in the final game and the feeling was they would both have already qualified and thus the teams could play out a competitive, but predictable, draw. Croatia would be without powerful target man, Alen Bokšić, through injury, but they were fancied to at least progress to the Knockout Rounds.

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Their first game against Jamaica in Lens saw Boban become the first Croatian to captain his country at a World Cup and they were given a fine start as Mario Stanić fired them in to the lead just before the half hour. But the much loved Jamaicans equalised through Wimbledon player, Robbie Earle; a fine header from a left wing cross just minutes after the restart. Not to be denied, Croatia took control in the second half and cruised to a maiden victory with two goals in a 15 minute spell from Prosinečki and Šuker. Prosinečki’s goal was sheer class, bordering on arrogance, he shaped to cross a free kick on the right hand side of the area, he dummied instead; completely fooling the wall and chipped a beautiful shot over the stranded goalkeeper and into the far corner. A single goal from Gabriel Batistuta was enough for Argentina to see off Japan earlier that day in Toulouse.

The second round of games saw Argentina destroy Jamaica, 5-0, with Batistuta netting a stunning 10 minute, second half hatrick. Jamaica’s cause certainly wasn’t helped by the sending off of Darryl Powell in first half injury time. Argentina were through and Croatia joined them as a late Šuker goal was enough to give them a slender 1-0 win over Japan. So as predicted both Croatia and Argentina had qualified with a game to spare and their game in Bordeaux saw Argentina claim top spot in the group with a 1-0 win, their first place finish set up a Knockout Round game against England in Saint-Étienne (we all know what happened there), while Romania awaited Croatia on 30 June.

The winners of the Romania and Croatia tie would face Germany in the Quarter Final after they were victorious the previous day against Mexico. Croatia eased past a similarly talented Romania side, 1-0. Davor Šuker despatched a 45th minute penalty at the second attempt as the referee had ordered it to be retaken. Croatia were well worth their win as they dominated the game and the score line flattered Gheorghe Hagi’s Romainia somewhat.

The Croatian adventure continued with a Quarter Final game on 4 July against a Germany side who had not been at their best during the tournament. They had requiring a last minute winner against Mexico in the Knockout Round and had to overturn a two-goal deficit in their group game against Yugoslavia. However, their squad had plenty of match winners, they had won Euro 96 two years previously and not to mention the fact they were playing a team which hadn’t even existed the last time they won the World Cup.

Croatia took no notice of their respective records and during a very physical game Germany were made to look prehistoric by the fresh, exciting Croatians as they inflicted Germany’s heaviest tournament defeat for 40 years. The Germans’ nadir would soon arrive after their catastrophic Euro 2000 campaign and it would lead to their eventual revolution and redemption.

Croatia were clinical and confident though, attacking full back, Robert Jarni opened the scoring just after half time with an arrow of a shot into the bottom corner. The tide turned even further towards Croatia when Christian Wörns was harshly sent off just before half time. Vlaović doubled the lead on 80 minutes with a goal in technique and style which was similar to Jarni’s opener. The third came about from a wonderful display of determination, balance and skill from Šuker as he wrapped up the rout a few minutes from time. Revenge for the Euro 96 defeat was exacted in style.

Although most would consider the win an upset it actually wasn’t so far away from an expected win. Manager, Miroslav Blažević, a huge supporter of Croatia’s independence, had moulded an extremely well drilled team, with no shortage of flair and technical ability. Their eventual elimination was against the hosts in the Semi Final, four days later in Paris. It looked like the impossible may happen when Šuker gave them the lead just after half time as burst through the French defence to fire home past Fabien Barthez. However barely a minute later the hosts equalised through Lillian Thuram and he doubled his tally with 20 minutes remaining to put France through to the Final. Ironically, those two goals were Thuram’s only goals for the national team in 142 appearances.

Croatia dusted themselves down and faced off against Holland in the third place play off. Golden Boot winner and star striker, Šuker, scored the winner in a 2-1 victory as they finished the tournament in third place.

Croatia had been within a whisker of the world’s biggest cup final, a simply magnificent achievement for a country only recently recovering from a civil war. Long considered to be Yugoslavian, the players had their own identity, their own country to play for and this manifested itself into their exhilarating and joyful performances on the pitch. It’s been 20 years since their World Cup debut and they have yet to match that performance at France 98, with the likes of Modrić, Mandžukić, Perišić and Rakitić in the 2018 squad they have the quality to succeed again.

 

50+1 Reasons Why – Fan ownership under the spotlight in the Bundesliga…

Things could be about to change in the Utopian land of fan and board friendship

In early February 2018 Hannover 96 shareholder, Martin Kind, withdrew his application to the Deutsche Fußball Liga (DFL) to take majority control of the club. This wouldn’t usually cause much of a stir outside Germany, however he was trying to make Hannover only the fifth Bundesliga team to be majority owned by a single entity and thus circumventing the 50+1 rule. This isn’t the first time he has made waves around ownership, in 2009 he was involved in a league-wide proposal to abolish the rule however this was rejected by 32 votes to four. Kind’s most recent intentions had been met with opposition by Hannover supporters and their first home game of the season was more of a protest march than a game as banners and anti-Kind chants were prominent. The prospect of extra revenue, being able to attract the world’s best players and, hopefully, winning a few trophies, are pipe dreams for supporters of most clubs, even in leagues where takeovers are common, so why the uproar?

 

The rule itself states that at least 51% of the shares in a club must be owned by the club itself, and by extension this means the fans. There are notable exceptions to the rule, VFL Wolfsburg and Bayer 04 Leverkusen were founded by employees of Volkswagen and Bayer pharmaceuticals respectively and have now both formally separated from their owners. Two other examples exist, Rasenballsport Leipzig, better known as RB Leipzig, is a fairly well known story; they were a fifth division team, SSV Markrandstadt, until 2009 when energy drink company, Red Bull, bought the club and invested heavily as they ascended the divisions and were promoted to the Bundesliga in 2014. German teams cannot be named after their sponsors so they have avoided this by naming the team Rasenballsport, which translates as lawn ball sport, then shortening it to RB, which is about as close to naming them after their owners as they can legally get.

As far as Leipzig and the 50+1 rule are concerned, all clubs require a licence to play in the Bundesliga and Leipzig’s was subject to strict terms and conditions, namely the re-design of the club’s crest as it bore too much a resemblance to Red Bull’s logo, secondly, they also had to ensure the club’s management was distanced from the Red Bull company. These terms, after a series of rejections and appeals, were agreed to. Although it can be argued the new crest is virtually the same as the old one and the terms surrounding club ownership are a little unclear and open to interpretation. Controversially, Leipzig also vigorously control their membership, by which fans are given their voting right, as such the club only has around 20 members the majority of which are employees of Red Bull. An original stipulation of their entry into the Bundesliga was that they had to open up their membership and lower membership costs, however this was contested by the club in April 2014 and wasn’t a condition they had to meet to have their licence granted.

The other team to be given exemption from 50+1 is TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, lead by Dietmar Hopp, he exercised the 20 year rule under 50+1 whereby a single entity can become majority shareholder after proving to the DFL they have provided significant investment for at least 20 years. Hoffenheim, under Hopp’s financial backing, made a remarkable rise through the divisions after being in the fifth division in 2000. Martin Kind’s most recent application at Hannover was based on this rule but the DFL were, according to reports, going to dismiss his application stating he hadn’t provided significant enough investment for the required period.

The last two examples are similar to Gretna’s rise from obscurity in the early 2000s and have made Leipzig and Hoffenheim among the most disliked in German football as they appear to have lost some of the integrity which is held in high regard by supporters of 50+1. One can see why, we can use Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain as examples of clubs who have been catapulted into Champions League winners contention by heavy investment from overseas, rather than that of the route taken by those few teams with a good infrastructure and who have invested wisely in players and the club in general. It is this pride and soul of a club which fans often identify their team with. It can be argued there are a significant number of fans of City, PSG and Chelsea, among others, who deep down know their success has been bought rather than earned on their own merit. Their rise can be seen as being because of an unfair advantage by other supporters as their owners are willing to part with vast sums of money to compete with the cream of domestic and European football. This raises its own questions where criticism of these teams and their methods can be viewed as outright jealousy. While Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig aren’t on the same level of PSG in terms of status and progress yet, although they did finish fourth and second respectively last season, the disdain of opposition supporters is understandable.

The German model of fan ownership has created, at least from the outside looking in, a Utopian land of fan and board friendship, where financial accountability and transparency is the norm. Given this view it’s easy to empathise with Hannover fans as there is a certain romantic notion to 50+1 which protects the interests of the club and prevents fans from being merely consumers by giving them a platform to have their say on club issues such as ticket prices.

Of course it’s not all mutual backslapping as there is a growing voice against 50+1 from Kind and other potential investors. One also has to feel some sympathy for the teams who are challenging Bayern Munich for the title each year. Teams such as Schalke 04, Borussia Monchengladbach and to a lesser extent Borussia Dortmund, can claim to being stifled by the rule. They’re almost certainly guaranteed Champions League revenue and a top six finish in the Bundesliga but without outside investment they’ll always be in Bayern’s shadow. Currently Bayern are by far the biggest club in Germany and realistically the only domestic team who can pick up their rivals’ best players on a whim. Without the promise of an extended Champions League run or the promise of attracting a better calibre of player or sponsor, all of which can be facilitated by outside investment, it can be very difficult for those in the shadow of Bayern to keep hold of their better players and succeed.

Given Kind’s opposition to the rule his withdrawal certainly seems to be of a tactical nature as he has apparently been given assurances that the rules around 50+1 will be reviewed by the DFL. I for one cannot comprehend a situation where such vocal opposition to the rule would simply be withdrawn without question and it appears when the DFL do re-visit 50+1 their decision may well be in Kind’s and his supporter’s favour. There are compelling arguments for both sides, the Against Modern Football philosophy of those in support of the rule is very well supported by supporters’ trusts across Europe and is still a key argument to prevent support apathy. In order to stop the Bundesliga becoming like the Premier League they will need to be resilient in their quest to keep the status quo as the lure of increased investment, exposure and sponsorship may ultimately be too much for the DFL to ignore.