In the 1996 European Championship Croatia was the first ex-Yugoslav republic to participate, and made it to the quarter-final, establishing themselves as a power to be reckoned with. And the team was indeed full of physically strong and technically extraordinary players which included: the team’s captain Zvonimir Boban was a star at AC Milan (and a hero in his country after he had attacked a policeman in a match in the Yugoslav league in 1990 to defend a fan of his team Dinamo Zagreb); the extraordinary young defender Dario Simic from Dinamo Zagreb, who was soon to change to Inter Milan; the ageing Robert Prosinecki who had represented Yugoslavia in 1990 and had a successful career in among others Red Star Belgrade and Real Madrid, was now in Dynamo Zagreb; and the veritable goal-making machine from Real Madrid, the extraordinary Davor Suker.
The Croatian side had started its first World Cup with two victories against the rather weaker sides of Jamaica and Japan respectively, and already qualified for the next round, had lost 0-1 to Argentina. In the last-16 the Croatians defeated another Balkan team, Romania, and were now to face Germany in what would be the true test of their strength. Two years previously, when Croatia had played their first major tournament as an independent nation at the 1996 European Championships, they had been eliminated by Germany in the quarterfinals, and the Germans had gone on to win the tournament.
After a disappointing exit from the 1994 World Cup, the Germans had risen to the top of Europe in 1996, and were now again considered a serious contender for the world title. The team had a number of veterans from their last title, in 1990, notably their captain, the legendary Lothar Matthäus, who was playing his record-breaking fifth World Cup. But other veterans included the Borussia Dortmund defender Jurgen Kohler, Karlsruhe’s small midfielder Thomas Hässler, and Tottenham’s now legendary striker Jürgen Klinsmann.
In spite of the advanced age of the team, they had not had major difficulties continuing from the first round: they had started by defeating the USA, and then tying Yugoslavia 2-2 before defeating Iran in the match that gave them the top spot in the group. In the last-16 the Germans had shown that they should never be written-off: 1-0 down against Mexico until 15 minutes before the end of the match, Klinsmann and Udinese’s Oliver Bierhoff both scored to give Germany the spot in the quarterfinals against Croatia in what many obviously expected to be a repeat of the Euro 1996 quarterfinal.
It became a great football match which Germany started best: in the first half they completely dominated and had some big chances, including a couple of great shots by Thomas Hässler and a close header by Bayern Munich’s Didi Hamann that was spectacularly saved by the Croatian goalkeeper Drazen Ladic.
But in the 40th minute of the match one event changed the match: the Croatians sent a long ball to Davor Suker, who was clumsily tackled by the German defender from Bayer Leverkusenn Christian Wörns. Wörns had until this point undoubtedly been one of the best players of the tournament; an incredibly stable sweeper on the last line of defence for the Germans. But his clumsy tackle on Suker (who completely overdid his acting as well) earned him a direct red card, and was a huge weakening of the German team that had otherwise looked nearly unbeatable until then. It was obvious that Wörns’ exit immediately gave the Croatians more space, and within the next five minutes they had their first chances.
In the 45th minute, the Germans gave the Parma midfielder Mario Stanic a lot of room to run down toward the German area. He passed the ball to the Real Betis’ winger Robert Jarni, who was given plenty of time outside the German penalty area. His shot was not particularly hard, but was out of range for the German goalkeeper Andreas Köpke.
It was a big surprise, but Croatia was ahead 1-0 at halftime.
Second half was extremely entertaining as a 10-man German team showed their best side by attacking well and never giving up, but the Croatian side being extremely dangerous in the counter-attack and the increased space they were getting by the German offense.
The Germans had some extraordinary chances, among which was an incredible shot by Oliver Bierhoff and a shot on the post on a free-kick by Didi Hamann. On the other side there were excellent chances to Davor Suker and to Valencia’s Goran Vlaovic in what had become a very entertaining match.
Ten minutes before the end of the match Croatia finally scored in what seemed to seal their victory on a shot out of range for Köpke from Goran Vlaovic. As the Germans stubbornly pushed forward, Davor Suker scored a third for the Croatians five minutes later, after expertly controlling the ball inside the German area and placing the ball under Köpke.
Suker was to become the most scoring player of the tournament.
This was one of the most painful defeats Germany had ever suffered, and the following years caused a renewal in the German national team. Croatia on the other hand had arrived on the world stage and were to play the hosts from France in the semi-final. They lost 2-1, but in the match for bronze they defeated the Netherlands. Croatia was ranked 125th in the world in 1995 when they were admitted to FIFA, and was third three years later, making the team the best mover in ranking in World Cup history.
The result also meant a lot for the evolving identity of the newly independent Croatia: the wave of national pride that swept the country, and was also summarized by the Croatian coach Miroslav Blazevic, who said that his small and valiant country had found its identity through football.
- 4th July 1998, Stade Gerland, Lyon
- Attendance: 39,000
- Referee: Rune Pedersen (Norway)
Goals: 1-0 Jarni (45), 2-0 Vlaovic (80), 3-0 Suker (85)
Croatia: Ladic; Stimac, Bilic, Asanovic, Soldo, Jarni, Simic, Boban, Stanic, Suker, Vlaovic (Maric)
Germany: Köpke; Wörns (RC, 40), Heinrich, Kohler, Tarnat, Jeremies, Matthäus, Hässler (Kirsten), Hamann (Marschall), Klinsmann, Bierhoff