SOCHI: Going past the Croatian dressing room, on the way to the mixed zone here at the Fischt Stadium on Saturday night, one could hear them celebrating inside. A few Russian journalists gathered behind the locked door, trying to record what was being uttered as the Croatians revelled in reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup at the expense of the hosts.
A nerve-wracking 4-3 victory on penalties after a 2-2 draw in extra-time saw them match their best-ever World Cup performance, when they reached the last-four in 1998.
The star of that squad of 20 years ago was Davor Suker, whose six goals saw him win the golden boot. Suker is now the president of the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) and as the current Croatian crop celebrated, it was he who came first, even before the Russians to the mixed zone with the World Cup official ball in his hand.
Suker is the type of a federation president many countries would love to have: a football man, one of his country’s greatest footballers now leading the sport and overseeing Croatia’s great run in Russia.
Yet, even Suker — like many other federation presidents around the world — isn’t away from controversy. Back home, Croatian fans aren’t supporting the team, saying they have lost faith in them because of a widespread culture of corruption in the HNS.
Former Croatian football boss Zdravko Mamic was convicted in the court for fraud and the trial saw Croatia’s star midfielder Luka Modric and defender Dejan Lovren testify as witnesses — both charged with giving false testimony. Croatian fans want everyone out. Even Suker.
But when Suker arrived in the mixed zone, the Croatian reporters showed none of that acrimony towards him. Everyone wanted a piece of him, especially after Croatia had come from behind to take the lead in extra-time before Russia pulled a goal back to force a shootout.
“It wasn’t easy to live in the drama like the one we’ve just seen when you have to wear a suit and a tie and respect all the protocols,” joked Suker. “I wanted to be at a bar with friends while watching this game. But I trusted the team. I trusted them to go through this. I’m really happy with the coach and the players. It wasn’t an easy game.”
Croatia’s victory sees them set up a semi-final against England — a country where Suker spent two years during his playing career, one with Arsenal and the other with West Ham United. “England has changed over recent years and I’ll say it’s a more hungry team than before and you could see it in their quarter-final against Colombia and today [England beat Sweden 2-0 earlier on Saturday].”
He advised his players to stay humble though. “We have either England or two more games,” he said. “I see it in the eyes of the players, when I enter the team hotel, go to the training session, in the dining room, that they are very well prepared. This World Cup has seen the favourites depart because they didn’t make enough effort in preparations. I believe we can go further but let’s keep our feet on the ground and take it step by step.”
Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2018