Croatia cast off troubled image and can plan to emulate boys of 1998

Croatia's Ivan Perisic in action with Spain's Juanfran

The president of the Croatian football federation, Davor Suker, has congratulated the French authorities for the way they have handled trouble at the European Championship and urged his country’s government to act against hooligans, insisting that 99.9% of their supporters are well behaved.

Suker also said that Croatia can be one of the surprises of the tournament but asked supporters not to burden the team with memories of 1998, when he was the top scorer in the side that reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in France.

Croatia’s manager, Ante Cacic, meanwhile, held up his players as true representatives of the country, said that off-field trouble has nothing to do with them, and insisted he was convinced that Croatia can be successful in France after they inflicted Spain’s first European Championship defeat since 2004.

Croatian ultras had threatened to disrupt their country’s final group game against Spain, as their confrontation with their football federation continues, and the police presence was intense around the Stade de Bordeaux after Croatia’s match with the Czech Republic had been delayed when flares were thrown on to the pitch. But although there was a loud bang of celebration following the equaliser scored by Nikola Kalinic on the stroke of half-time, there was no sign of trouble on Tuesday.

Instead, there was a late victory secured by an Ivan Perisic goal that put Croatia top of Group D, opening up a path towards the final which sees them avoid France, Germany, Italy, Spain and England.

“This team is like our country: these players are showing how to represent your country, how to behave,” Cacic said. “Negative things have happened that have nothing to do with the sport.”

Suker said: “99.9% of Croatian fans are well behaved. But, as in any country, there are radicals who want to use football for their own ends and they want to fight with other groups. If you ask them: ‘Who are you fighting with?’ they don’t know.” He added: “I congratulate the French authorities on how they are handling things and I hope our government takes the right action because we have paid over a million euros in the last 10 years in fines. I was with the Croatian supporters before the game and they were drinking with Spanish [fans], taking pictures and playing football together.”

Months before the tournament, Ivan Rakitic admitted that the memory of 1998 was “everywhere”; now, there are even greater hopes that this generation can emulate the side for whom Suker was top scorer. The former Real Madrid and Arsenal striker insisted: “I said before the tournament that I thought we could be the surprise and that’s what I want us to be: not the favourites, but the surprise.

“We have seen a very strong Croatian team and we [have] showed that we can play. We beat one of the best teams in world football. But I don’t want to put the pressure on them of comparing them to the ’98 team.”

This is a huge opportunity, though. Winning Group D puts Croatia in a favourable half of the draw in which they may even be considered the favourites to reach the final, and Cacic said he was “optimistic” that Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic would be fit for their last-16 tie in Lens on Saturday.

“This is just the first stage [but] I believe we can achieve success and be more confident now,” Cacic said. “Beating Spain is a huge achievement and now we can be really self-confident; that result tells everybody how strong we are.

“But we cannot think that one path [to the final] is better, that it is an advantage to play teams that are a little bit less strong rather than favourites. All the draw tells you for sure is that there will either be no Italy or no Spain in the last eight. Maybe that tells you that we have an easier path but we cannot think like that.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Sid Lowe in Saint-Martin-de-Ré, for The Guardian on Wednesday 22nd June 2016 23.20 Europe/London

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