Croatia announced their arrival with a glorious goal against the Great Dane
Croatia entered Euro 96 amid excitement and expectation. Gaining UEFA and FIFA membership in 1993, they had easily qualified for a tournament at the first attempt, topping a group including USA 94 finalists Italy.
Wearing colourful sahovnica (chessboard) shirts – a traditional Croatian design which celebrated its half-millennium during qualification – were a superb crop of players, many of whom had won the 1987 World Youth Championships with the Yugoslavia U20s then moved west to major clubs.
Captained by Milan playmaker Zvonimir Boban, their former youth champions included mercurial Barcelona midfielder Robert Prosinecki, Real Madrid-bound striker Davor Suker, Betis wingback Robert Jarni and smooth Derby centre-back Igor Stimac; bolstered by Lazio striker Alen Boksic and record West Ham signing Slaven Bilic, this was quite the group of players.
So it was somewhat anticlimactic when they struggled past Turkey at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground, scraping a 1-0 through Goran Vlaovic’s late breakaway after Fatih Terim’s side had looked the better side. It was a proud moment for Vlaovic, who just six months previously had undergone brain surgery to remove a blood clot, but more was expected against Denmark.
The Danes were the holders but had been happy with a draw in their opener against a vibrant Portugal, and against Croatia at Hillsborough on June 16 they were made to look ageing rather than experienced.
Vlaovic was given a start alongside Suker while Aljosa Asanovic, who would be signed by Derby later that summer, was spraying with aplomb from his midfield base. But the key through-ball was played by centre-back Bilic nine minutes after the break, sending future Parma and Chelsea midfielder Mario Stanic into the box to be upended by Peter Schmeichel; after a shuffling run-up Suker dispatched the spot kick.
With 12 minutes to go Stimac’s smart shot hit the woodwork, Brian Laudrup replying in kind a moment later, but Croatia confirmed the victory with nine to go. Then Suker turned provider, breaking down the left and crossing for skipper Boban to seal the deal.
However, still to come was the game’s most memorable moment – and, according to our recent list, the 15th Most Memorable Euros Goal of all-time.
Nine months earlier, Schmeichel had scored from a corner as Manchester United chased a dying UEFA Cup game against Rotor Volgograd. No surprise then that he went forward again for an injury-time flag-kick, but Croatia cleared. As Schmeichel frantically pegged it back home, Asanovic received the ball in the right-back zone and floated a glorious 50-yard cross-field ball to Suker, looking suspiciously offside 10 yards inside the Danish half.
By now Schmeichel was back at base, and as Suker approached the left-hand corner of his box the Great Dane advanced in familiar fashion – upon which the Croatian produced an outrageous chip which sailed high over the head of the man he acknowledged as “the best goalkeeper in the world”. Like the apocryphal plane-watching penguins, Schmeichel watched it fly overhead and fell backwards onto his derriere.
Denmark were out, Croatia through with Portugal – who beat them in the final group game. That might have felt like a dead rubber but it meant the newcomers faced a quarter-final tie against Germany, which they lost 2-1 to the eventual champions. Even a draw against Portugal would have given Croatia an easier route against the Czechs and then possibly the stuttering French.
Croatia made up for it at France 98, where Suker’s six goals secured the Golden Boot and third place. The striker later joined Arsenal and West Ham but he was over the peak – like his team, who failed to qualify for Euro 2000 and have since only graced a major tournament’s knockout stages at Euro 2008.