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By qualifying for Euro 2012 via the play-offs, Croatia achieved their major aim. Anything more in Poland and Ukraine will be a bonus for a country which has now missed out on only two finals: Euro 2000 and the 2010 World Cup. 

Fans in Croatia are realistic about their chances in a tough group, even if coach Slaven Bilic believes his team are capable of upsetting favourites Spain and Italy. Everything will depend on the first match against the Republic of Ireland. Victory there will give the team a boost in the second game against Italy, who have not beaten Croatia since independence.

Bilic needs all the players who starred in the qualifying campaign to be fit and a lot will depend on Luka Modric’s mood. He is the one who creates and organises everything. A second key figure is striker Ivica Olic, scorer of some crucial goals, who will retire from the national team after the tournament.

Bilic’s biggest problem is the defence. A lack of pace at the back means Croatia cannot play an attacking game, but instead wait to play on the counter-attack.

Off the pitch, the team could be hampered by events in their domestic game. In addition to the problems facing the Croatian league, where several clubs are struggling to stay in business, there is a leadership battle at the Croatian Football Federation (CFF), where president Vlatko Markovic is under attack amid accusations of corruption.

In this context, the national team’s performances have provided a ray of sunshine amid the gloom. However, despite the success of qualifying for Euro 2012, Bilic has been heavily criticised by the Croatian media and public. Blame for the failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup was placed firmly on his shoulders, with accusations that he is too friendly with the players. It was argued that “Nane”, as Bilic is called by his friends, no longer had any authority with the players.

When Croatia pulled off a brilliant 3-0 victory in Istanbul against Turkey in the first leg of the play-offs, many sections of the media tried to claim that a group of older players had picked the team. That was plainly not the case and Bilic deserved most credit for Croatia’s place at Euro 2012.

There had been calls for his head following a 1-0 loss in Tbilisi to Georgia and a defeat by Greece. However, CFF leaders – including the key figure of Zdravko Mamic from Dinamo Zagreb – were unable to find an available replacement at short notice so Bilic survived.

Last chance of success

The coach now faces the challenge of motivating a group of players who, with the exception of those at Dinamo, are all with foreign clubs and appear to have lost interest in the national side. Six key players are aged over 30, including Josip Simunic who, like Olic, is likely to retire from the international scene after Euro 2012. On the other hand, the older players could be motivated by their last chance of international success.

Bilic is also at the end of his time with the national team, even though he has not made an official announcement. A purge of the CFF is being prepared, prompted by new sports minister Zeljko Jovanovic, who has promised to “drain the soccer swamp”. With Bilic’s main supporters – president Markovic and secretary Zorislav Srebric – set to depart, he will probably pack his bags as well.

One final sign of the declining fortunes of the national side are the fans, who have followed the team in great numbers in the past but are unlikely to be in Poland. Although partly due to the recession, it also reflects their pessimism about their team’s chances.

EURO 2012 FIXTURES
Group C

10.06.12 Republic of Ireland (Poznan, Pol)
14.06.12 Italy (Poznan, Pol)
18.06.12 Spain (Gdansk, Pol)

EURO 2012 SQUAD
GOALKEEPERS
12 Ivan Kelava (24) 20.02.88 Dinamo Zagreb
1 Stipe Pletikosa (33) 08.01.79 Rostov (Rus)
23 Danijel Subasic (27) 27.10.84 Monaco (Fra)

DEFENDERS
4 Jurica Buljat (25) 12.08.86 Maccabi Haifa (Isr)
5 Vedran Corluka (26) 05.02.86 Tottenham Hotspur (Eng)
6 Danijel Pranjic (30) 02.12.81 Bayern Munich (Ger)
13 Gordon Schildenfeld (27) 18.03.85 Eintracht Frankfurt (Ger)
3 Josip Simunic (34) 18.02.78 Dinamo Zagreb
2 Ivan Strinic (24) 17.07.87 Dnipro (Ukr)
21 Domagoj Vida (23) 29.04.89 Dinamo Zagreb

MIDFIELDERS
14 Milan Badelj (23) 25.02.89 Dinamo Zagreb
16 Tomislav Dujmovic (31) 26.02.81 Dynamo Moscow (Rus)
19 Niko Kranjcar (27) 13.08.84 Dynamo Kiev (Ukr)
10 Luka Modric (26) 09.09.85 Tottenham Hotspur (Eng)
20 Ivan Perisic (23) 02.02.89 Borussia Dortmund (Ger)
7 Ivan Rakitic (24) 10.03.88 Sevilla (Spa)
11 Darijo Srna (30) 01.05.82 Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukr)
8 Ognjen Vukojevic (28) 20.12.83 Dynamo Kiev (Ukr)

FORWARDS
22 Eduardo (29) 25.02.83 Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukr)
9 Nikica JelaviC (26) 27.08.85 Everton (Eng)
17 Mario Mandzukic (26) 21.05.86 Wolfsburg (Ger)
18 Ivica Olic (32) 14.09.79 Wolfsburg (Ger)

COACH
Slaven BiliC (43) 11.09.68

… Slaven Bilic will quit as national coach at the end of the tournament and take over at Russian Premier League side Lokomotiv Moscow …. Nikola Kalinic, Sime Vrsaljko, Goran Blazevic and Dejan Lovren were cut from the provisonal 27-man squad …

EURO 2012 QUALIFYING CAMPAIGN

Group F
03.09.10 Latvia (a) 3-0
07.09.10 Greece (h) 0-0
09.10.10 Israel (a) 2-1
17.11.10 Malta (h) 3-0
26.03.11 Georgia (a) 0-1
03.06.11 Georgia (h) 2-1
02.09.11 Malta (a) 3-1
06.09.11 Israel (h) 3-1
07.10.11 Greece (a) 0-2
11.10.11 Latvia (h) 2-0

P W D L F A Pts
Greece 10 7 3 0 14 5 24
Croatia 10 7 1 2 18 7 22
Israel 10 5 1 4 13 11 16
Latvia 10 3 2 5 9 12 11
Georgia 10 2 4 4 7 9 10
Malta 10 0 1 9 4 21 1

Play-off
11.11.11 Turkey (a) 3-0
15.11.11 Turkey (h) 0-0

By Zdravko Reic