Home 1998 – Lotto
As one of Europe’s youngest nations, having extracted itself from the collapsing corpse of Yugoslavia in 1991, Croatia’s formative years were largely spent protecting their newly won independence from hostile Serb forces hellbent on a renegotiation of the divorce terms, specifically Croatian claims to any areas of Serbian military interest, like say, Croatia. Finally, in 1995, the Croats emerged from the conflict victorious, borders intact and free from the petty interference of a manufactured, dysfunctional superstate, before immediately applying to join the EU, a manufactured, dysfunctional superstate with wine and cheese parties. More positively, in recent years the country has evolved into a burgeoning tourist hotspot. Stunning Adriatic cites like Split and Dubrovnik attract thousands of visitors every year, while the captivating, if regrettably still landmine strewn countryside is also liable to steal their breath away, as well as their toes, legs, pelvis, spleen, lungs, arms and torso.
Despite its diminutive size and modest population (just over four million), Croatia has still managed to churn out a few noteworthy individuals, including former President of Yugoslavia Josip Broz Tito, who most historians credit with holding together the country’s bickering republics for 40 years, 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, the only tennis player in history to win a grand slam title as a wildcard entry, and the half-Croatian television presenter Adrian Chiles, who of course was instrumental in bringing us the One Show as well as THAT theme song, so we should probably all take the time to send him a thank you bomb.
Unfortunately, the Croats also have a tendency to try and pilfer other country’s beloved historical figures. They have a long standing beef with Serbia over the nationality of pioneer inventor and physicist Nikola Tesla – not helped by the fact that he was an ethnic Serb born in Croatia – while they’ve also managed to whip the Italians up into an emotional frenzy (hard to imagine I know) over a claim that the legendary explorer Marco Polo was in fact born on the Croatian island of Korcula, which at the time was part of the Venetian empire. Admittedly, there’s scant evidence to support this. The idea seems to stem from the fact that his actual birthplace is unconfirmed (wikipedia helpfully lists it as “presumably Venice”), which apparently is sufficiently dubious for the Croats to stick in a bid on the chap’s heritage, even going so far as to open a Marco Polo museum on the island. All this on the basis that his family crest supposedly features a bird found in Croatia. Oh well, I suppose those straws aren’t going to clutch at themselves.
If there’s one thing Croatians can be legitimately proud of however, it’s their country’s sporting achievements. As well as producing several high calibre tennis players, such as the previously mentioned Goran Ivanisevic and the 2014 US Open champ Marin Cilic, Croats also excel at team sports, winning Olympic medals of various colours in basketball, handball and water polo, the kind of events that have BBC red button viewers asking themselves “I wonder what’s going on in the dressage?” Luckily, Croatia are pretty damn decent at football as well. At the time of writing the national team have recently swept Greece aside 4-1 on aggregate in a play-off to seal their spot at the 2018 World Cup, and with the likes of Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic amongst their number, they’ll likely feature on many countries’ ‘ones to avoid’ list when the draw for the finals comes around.
Remarkably, next year’s tournament in Russia will mark Croatia’s fifth World Cup appearance – a stellar record considering they’ve only entered six times as an independent nation – as well as tenth major tournament in total, with absences from South Africa 2010 and Euro 2000 the only two blots on the copybook. No doubt as to the team’s finest hour though. Appearing on the world stage for the very first time at France 98, a Croatian side packed with class (Boban, Suker, Prosinecki, Bilic, Asanovic) blazed a path to the semi-finals, dispatching Germany 3-0 in the quarters before being edged out 2-1 by the hosts thanks to a brace from Lillian Thuram, which ironically turned out to be the defender’s only goals for France despite retiring on 142 caps. A few days later Davor Suker struck the winning goal against the Netherlands in the third place match to secure the bronze medals for the Croats, earning him the tournament’s golden boot in the process as well as a lucrative transfer to the Arsenal subs bench the following summer, this despite 45 goals in just 69 caps for his country and the unerring ability to make Peter Schmeichel look a right mug.
Of course such sparkling escapades were always going to be a tough act to follow. In fact, Croatia have, as of November 2017, failed to escape the group stages of a World Cup since their debut, while also typically underachieving at the Euros, where even their most talented squads have yet to progress beyond the last eight. If only they could persuade retired English referee Graham Poll to dust off his whistle, seeing as the Tring native seems to invariably screw things up in their favour, disallowing two perfectly good Italian goals during Croatia’s 2-1 win at the 2002 finals before infamously issuing Josip Simunic with three yellow cards before remembering to send him off against Australia four years later in Germany. Poll later claimed that the Croat defender’s accent – he was born and raised in Australia – confused him into recording the second booking as “Craig Moore”, i.e. the Australian number 3 and Simunic’s numerical counterpart. Sounds legit. I mean it’s not as if the players have names on their backs or wear different coloured kits or anything like that.
Since roughly the turn of the millennium, Croatian shirts have been supplied by Nike who, evidently at a loss as to how to reinvent one of world football’s most unique kit designs every couple of years, simply haven’t bothered, with most of their new offerings being largely indistinguishable from the previous ones. To be fair, as with club sides such as Newcastle, Blackburn and Reading who traditionally wear stripes/halves/hoops, taking Croatia’s big bold red and white chequered pattern and keeping it fresh without upsetting the purists can be a challenge, one which has arguably has only ever been conquered by previous suppliers Lotto and this tidy, yet distinct effort from France 98.
Not only does this shirt tick all the right aesthetic boxes, it could be considered THE iconic Croatia shirt due to its use at the team’s World Cup debut and subsequent third place finish. If I’m being nitpicky, it’s a shame that the Croatians’ three most notable victories at that tournament – against Romania, Germany and the Netherlands – were all achieved whilst wearing the equally superb blue away kit. Truth be told, I have been tempted to pick this one up as well any time it appears for a reasonable price (not often admittedly), although, with the exception of England and Ireland I do try to limit myself to one shirt per country, otherwise I’d never bloody stop.