by Trevor Whenham
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Let's make this clear from the very beginning - Croatia is playing for second place in its group. There is no such thing as a sure thing in sporting events, but Brazil is the closest thing to a lock to win the group as you can have. Anything but a first-place finish in group play would be considered a monumental disappointment for the Brazilians. That leaves Croatia to battle it out with Japan and Australia for the second spot in the second round. When faced with that prospect, Croatian fans have to be cautiously optimistic.
Croatia became independent in 1991. It was previously part of Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavian soccer team played in eight World Cups from 1930 to 1990, with two semifinal losses being the peak of its achievement. Croatia made its first major international tournament showing in 1996 at the European Championships where it made the quarterfinals. The team followed that up by qualifying for the 1998 World Cup, where it became a pleasant surprise. After getting out of a fairly easy group in second place behind Argentina, the team went on to shock Germany in the quarterfinals by a 3-0 score. They lost to France in the semifinals, but came back to beat the Netherlands in the third place match.
The strong showings in 1996 and 1998 were a result of a strong youth program a decade earlier. The Croatians won the World Youth Championships in 1987 and the stars of that squad were in their prime by 1998. Those players retired from international soccer soon after, causing the team to miss Euro 2000 and to bow out in the first round of the World Cup in 2002. The team was forced to rebuild and they are now back with a strong side. It remains to be seen if this squad can replicate the success of the earlier generation this year.
Coach Zlatko Kranjcar took over the team after its disappointing run in Euro 2004, where it didn't win a game. He has a strong international playing background. He was the skipper of the Croatian team in its first international match after independence. He has led the team well, qualifying easily by winning seven games, including two wins against the tough Swedish team that was favored to win the group, and drawing the other three.
His presence shines the spotlight brighter on one of the country's greatest young stars, which happens to be his son, Niko. The 21-year-old midfielder made his senior appearance at the age of 16. By age 19 he was skipper and best player on the Dinamo team that won the league championship. In his international debut in June of 2005, he scored a goal and set up another. Like every other outstanding young midfielder in the world today, Niko Kranjcar has predictably been called the next Zinedine Zidane. Since he has yet to leave his domestic league, playing now for Hajduk Split, the World Cup will be his chance to break out on the world stage.
Coach Kranjcar could be in a difficult situation, because another young rising star will be looking for playing time in the midfield as well. Luka Modric, who now plays for Kranjcar's former Dinamo team, was man of the match when Dinamo and Niko Kranjcar's Hajduk played this season. He made his international debut in March. Some members of the Croatian media claim that he is a better player than Kranjcar.
Croatia World Cup 2006 Odds: Bodog has given Croatia odds of 60-1 to win the 2006 World Cup, the 15th best odds in the field of 32 teams.
Strengths: Though there is not a single, explosive presence at striker, the Croatians have a surprising strength and depth in the attacking positions. The top of the depth chart belongs to Dada Prso of the Glasgow Rangers. He scored 5 goals in qualifications. His biggest asset is his potential for a huge game. He once scored 4 goals in one Champions League match.
The midfield is another asset. They have a number of scoring threats and a solid defensive presence, which anchors the middle of the field well. Niko Kovac is the world-class player whose veteran influence steadies the midfielders. That is particularly important given the young stars that are joining him. Darijo Srna is one of those stars who is ready to get noticed on the international stage. The 24-year-old was the Croatian MVP in 2003 and added 4 goals in qualifying.
Weaknesses: This is not a seasoned and experienced team. Though they have loads of talent and potential, it remains to be seen how Croatia handle the pressure and attention of the World Cup. The veterans and coach Kranjcar will have to be sure to keep the nerves in check and the team's mind on the task at hand.
The young team will also be tested by the high expectations of fans at home. After cruising through qualification, the team beat Argentina in a friendly in March. Fans are optimistic for a deep run. If it falters early in the tournament, its inexperience, coupled with the pressure of avoiding the disappointment and wrath of expectant fans, could prove to be too much.
The players need to keep their mind sharp. Though the qualification was strong overall, there were two blips. The team let a two goal lead slip away in a draw against Bulgaria and also played to a draw against a Malta team they badly outclassed. They won't be able to get away with this kind of brain cramp in the World Cup.
Croatia 2006 World Cup Outlook: The Croatians will likely lose to Brazil, but so will Japan and Australia, so that's a wash. Croatia is well matched against the other two teams and has to be favored to move on to the second round. Once it gets there, it won't be the most talented team, but it will still be dangerous. The team showed in 1998 that they can ride a hot streak and they could do it again. That being said, this team cannot be called a favorite to win the World Cup.
Croatia World Cup 2006 First Round Match Schedule (all times local):
Tuesday, June 13, Group F1 Brazil vs. Group F2 Croatia, in Berlin, 9 p.m.
Sunday, June 18, Group F4 Japan vs. Group F2 Croatia, in Nuremberg, 3 p.m.
Thursday, June 22, Group F2 Croatia vs. Group F Australia, in Australia, 9 p.m.
Updated Croatia World Cup 2006 News: