World Cup 1998 revisited: Davor Suker led tiny Croatia past world giants

As The National staff look back at past World Cups in the run-up to Brazil 2014, Gary Meenaghan remembers Davor Suker, one of the stars of France 98.

Croatian forward Davor Suker jubilates after scoring a penalty on June 30, 1998 at the Parc Lescure in Bordeaux during the 1998 World Cup second round match between Croatia and Romania. AFP Photo
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With World Cup 2014 to start on June 12, The National staff look back at the most memorable tournaments in a weekly series that will take us up to the kick off in Brazil. In the second instalment, Gary Meenaghan and France ‘98.

Davor Suker was 30 years old when he arrived in France to make his World Cup debut. A strong, quick-footed striker, he had travelled to the 1990 finals in Italy as part of the Yugoslavia squad that defeated the UAE 4-1 in the group stages.

Then just 22, Suker never made it on to the pitch during any of his country’s five matches and had to wait until the next year before collecting his first of two caps for the Yugoslav state.

By that time, Croatia had founded a national team of its own and Suker – born in Osijek, a city near the border with Serbia – pledged his allegiance. When the still-new nation of 4.2 million people qualified for their first World Cup in 1998, Suker was plying his trade at Uefa Champions League winners Real Madrid and had scored 34 times in 67 appearances for the Spanish club.

In France, playing in front of Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki, Suker’s striking prowess was obvious. He finished the tournament with the Golden Boot after netting six times in seven games as Croatia shocked the football world to finish in third place.

Against Germany in the quarter-finals, it was a foul on Suker that changed the game and, against 10 men, the team from a country not even 10 years old showed little compassion, routing the knockout kings 3-0.

Sealing the victory, Suker collected a long diagonal from Aljosa Asanovic, looped it over a hapless Ulf Kirsten, cut in past Jurgen Kohler and fired a powerful strike past Andreas Kopke. Suker later described the win as “the most perfect moment in Croatian football history”.

In the semi-finals, it was Suker again who had his nation cheering. His opening goal against France allowed Croatians to dream of a place in the final. Two goals from Lilian Thuram saw France progress, but Suker was voted third-best player in the world later that year by Fifa.

After spells at Arsenal, West Ham United and 1860 Munich, Suker retired in 2003 and was recognised by Uefa as Croatia’s greatest player. He is now president of the Croatian Football Association, but his lasting legacy will always be his ability to instil belief that the size of a nation need not be a hindrance to their abilities on a football pitch.

“Of all the unimportant things in the world, football is the most important,” he once said. “The charm is that a small country can beat a major one. We proved it and people respected us ever since.”