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.

 

The Heroes of Seville Now a Team With No Name

The rise and fall of Steaua Bucharest

Jerzey Dudek, Bruce Grobbelaar and Edwin van der Sar have all saved penalties in a European Final. However the efforts of another will surely top those of the aforementioned custodians; Helmut Duckadam. Not a household name west of Bucharest, but Duckadam, the Steaua Bucharest goalkeeper of the mid-1980s, was branded the Hero of Seville after his magnificent performance in the 1986 European Cup Final penalty shoot out where he saved all four of Barcelona’s penalties and by doing so he chiselled Steaua’s name in to European football history. European competition in late 1970s and early 1980s was largely dominated by English clubs, that was until the indefinite ban after the 1985 Heysel stadium disaster and the ban opened the door for the rest of Europe take their mantle. Since its beginning in 1955 only one other eastern European team has won the European Cup; Red Star Belgrade in 1991, and this makes Steaua’s 1986 victory all the more unique.

A side formed by the Romanian military in 1947, they recruited the country’s best young players with the promise of being able to avoid being called up for national service. Their rise to European success began under the guidance of coach, Emerich Jenei, in the second of six spells as manager, he helped Steaua secure their place atop of Romanian football’s elite with three successive title wins and two cup wins between 1984 and 1987, they narrowly missed three successive doubles by losing the 1986 Cup Final to city-rivals Dinamo. It mattered little, with their domestic dominance almost assured they started their assault on Europe.

Steaua’s victorious European Cup run in 1985/86 was at the start of an astonishing 104 match unbeaten domestic streak which stretched between 1984 and 1989. Captain, Stefan Iovan, a Steaua veteran of 11 years and Victor Piturca, who would go on to score 137 goals in just six years in Bucharest, lead their domestic rule and it no doubt gave them confidence to breeze past Vejle of Denmark and Honved of Hungary in the European Cup. They faced Finnish side, Kuusysi, in the Quarter Final and won 1-0 on aggregate thanks to a Piturca goal just three minutes from time. The Semi Final saw them fend off a talented Anderlecht side, 3-1, to secure their place against Terry Venables’ Barca in Seville. Steaua, despite being in the Final on merit, were given very little chance, especially as they were playing in their opponent’s home country. The game itself was a war of attrition and neither team can be particularly surprised it ended in a penalty shoot out. However Duckadam’s heroics are the stuff of legend and the whole club can be rightly proud of their victory.

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Their European adventures continued over the following three seasons. Under Jenei they won the European Super Cup in December 1986, defeating Dynamo Kyiv, 1-0, with Gheorghe Hagi scoring the only goal. By virtue of winning the European Cup they faced South American champions, River Plate, in the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo, however they lost 1-0 to a somewhat fortuitous goal where the ball rebounded off the post, goalkeeper, and straight into the path of Antonio Alzamendi who headed home.

Jenei was replaced by Anghel Iordenescu; a former Steaua player from 1968 to 1982 during which time he became their all time top goal scorer with 155. He joined the coaching team at Steaua in 1984 and was a 36 year old substitute in the 1986 European Cup Final. He became manager of Steaua on a full time basis in 1987 and he carried on where his predecessor left off with two league and cup doubles, including 21 consecutive league wins in 1988. His Steaua side also beat Rangers on the way to a Semi Final appearance in the 1987/88 European Cup. The following season they made their second Final in three years the season after knocking out Sparta Prague, Spartak Moscow, IFK Gothenburg and Galatasaray. In the Final they were comfortably beaten 4-0 by an AC Milan side lead by Arrigo Sacchi and inspired by Dutch trio, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit. Sacchi’s Milan side hammered Real Madrid, 6-1, in the Semi Final and would go on to achieve iconic status in Italy and Europe with back to back European triumphs. Their second Sacchi-led win was over Benfica in 1990.

Both of Steaua’s legendary 1980s managers went on to manage the national team. Jenei was in charge of Romania between 1986 and 1990, the World Cup in Italy saw Steaua players Balint and Lacatus both play and score as the team made the Second Round before being eliminated on penalties by Ireland in Genoa. Iordenescu followed Jenei into national management between 1993 and 1998 as he took Romainia to consecutive World Cups. The 1994 team, starring Hagi, Ilie Dumitrescu and Florin Raducioiu, lost 4-1 to Switzerland but topped the group before being knocked out by Sweden on penalties in the Quarter Final. In 1998 they beat England on the way to leading the group, but despite avoiding England’s eventual conquerors, Argentina, they were knocked out by Davor Suker’s Croatia in the Second Round. Iordenescu received criticism for the team’s performances in France and he resigned after the defeat to Croatia.

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Gheorghe Hagi was undoubtedly the star of the era as he finished as the league’s top goal scorer on two occasions while playing for FC Sportul, he moved to Steaua in 1987 and went on to score 76 goals in 97 games. A player of immense flair and technical ability, he would go to be hugely successful across Europe over the course of his career. Steaua’s teams of the mid to late 1980s also saw Dan Petrescu, Marius Lacatus and Gabi Balint playing starring roles in their success. Those seminal Steaua teams were mostly compromised of home grown players, this was partly down to the restrictions put in place by the Communist government which contributed to the prevention of players moving abroad and thus influenced Romanian club’s successes in European competition, as a number of other teams were also commanding in Europe during this period. Dinamo Bucharest reached the European Cup Semi Final in 1984 before losing to eventual winners, Liverpool, they also reached the Semi Final of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1990, while CSU Craiova made the UEFA Cup Semi Final in 1983. The fall of Communism in Romania in December 1989 somewhat liberated the transfer market and young players in search of a better standard of living, including higher wages, and a different more liberal culture were tempted away from Romania. Western Europe was suddenly accessible to Romania’s top players as Hagi moved to Real Madrid in 1990 and both Lacatus and Petrescu transferred to Fiorentina and Foggia, respectively.

After the 1988/89 domestic double, Steaua failed to win the league for three seasons and It can be argued they suffered something of a hangover after the drubbing by Milan in 1989 and losing their better players after the Romanian revolution the same year. Their domestic difficulties continued as there was a 1984/Doctor Strangelove-style undercurrent throughout the late 1980s. Military-owned, Steaua, were constantly in dispute with city rivals, Dinamo, who were owned by the Romanian Interior Ministry. It was reported the Ministry bugged the offices of Steaua and interfered with their transfer dealings.

Worse was to follow for Steaua, as although they had been separated from the military since 1998, in 2011 they were sued by their military founders for using of the Steaua name, stating the team had been using it illegally since 2004. The government ruled in the military’s favour in December 2014 and Steaua were banned from using their colours, name and logo; more importantly their history and previous honours would also remain under the military’s ownership. Fortunately for the integrity of the team now called FCSB and football in general, UEFA still recognises the trophies won by FCSB under the Steaua name to be theirs, so the history hasn’t merely been wiped out by the court rulings.

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The 1990s saw more allegations of corruption against a number of top flight teams including FC Brasov and Ceahlual Piatra Neamt; known as the Coopertiva, they allegedly exchanged wins to ensure the other teams involved weren’t relegated. These allegations, in a belated attempt at honesty and to try and rid the game of corruption, were admitted by several of the involved clubs of their own volition and not in a court of law.

While the Romanian national teams of the 1990s may have had more media attention it can be argued the Steaua side of the mid-1980s marked a real golden generation for Romanian football. Nowadays the Romanian league is one of the lowest ranked in Europe (20th in 2018, below Cyprus and Israel) and while FCSB will never scale the heights of their golden era they hold a unique place in the rich history of Europe’s premier club competition. The courts and the military may want to take that away from them but the heroes of Seville will always remain in the hearts of their fans and players.