Slaven Bilic: It’s very tough, but we have a chance to reach the last eight. I’m not just saying that, it’s the reality. In any case, although it will be difficult it’s also a privilege to play against current world and European champions Spain and Italy, who have been the best in the world four times.
But Croatia, compared to Spain and Italy, will still be outsiders…
It is true, Spain are the no1 favourites, but we have to see how things unfold. I believe we can beat Ireland in the first game, in which case everything will open up. I believe that we can stand and fight on an equal footing with Italy. My memories against the Azzurri are positive. When I took over this team our first test was against Italy, who were fresh from becoming world champions in Germany. With a completely new team set-up we won in Livorno. I know it was a friendly match, but I’ll remind you that Italy have never beaten us.
You’re leaving after the finals. How do you assess your time in charge?
We missed our great opportunity in 2008, when we were rather unfortunately eliminated by Turkey. We just had no luck. In fact, we’ve never enjoyed any luck – in the qualifiers for South Africa, and now in the qualifying cycle for Euro 2012. Everything we have achieved has been through our quality. We’ve stood up to the strongest teams, but we must be concentrated and have a complete squad, which means no injuries.
Is there a problem with Luka Modric’s condition? He looks worn out…
Modric is our main player. We’ll have to refresh him, he’ll train under a special programme. But there is no problem, he is always motivated. He’s that special sort who wants to always prove himself. I am glad [Vedran] Corluka has changed club and immediately adapted to the Bundesliga. I am also happy for [Nikica] Jelavic, he’s made great progress in his career, from Split to Belgium, Austria, Scotland and now to the Premier League with Everton.
Some people claim you have lost your authority, that you’re too friendly with the players…
No way. The moment I felt that the players were losing confidence in me, even for a single per cent, I would have left. I have seen their loyalty so many times, especially at critical moments during the Euro 2012 qualifiers.
Earlier in the season Eduardo was unhappy with his place on the bench. How are things now?
Dudu’s goals make him very important for the team, so I made an effort and went to visit him in Donetsk and we cleared up all the concerns. Eduardo is like any other player: no matter how significant he is, or regardless of his achievements in the past, he has to know that we are guided exclusively by the interests of the team as a whole.
You’ve gone from being voted Croatian of the year in 2007 to being attacked in the media. How does that feel?
It doesn’t matter to me that I’m being trampled by the media, even humiliated, but my family has found it hard to cope with such a lynching. I hope the media will have a better outlook by the start of the European Championship. I haven’t changed in the slightest. Today, I am surely a better coach than in 2006 when I started. We’ve had our crisis with results, so dissatisfaction was logical, but I haven’t asked, and didn’t get, any special treatment. I accept my responsibilities at all times, I’ve never looked for excuses.
When you took over you introduced a lot of young players who are now much more experienced. But results have been inconsistent…
In recent years, Croatia has always been among the top 10 in the FIFA rankings. That has to be proof of the value of our team. And when you look generally at our society, and when you know that Croatia has a population of only 4.5 million, and that our domestic league is weak, then you can understand my pride that the national team is so highly ranked.
Interview by Zdravko Reic