Profiles - World Cup Teams - Croatia
Croatia Surprise semi-finalists in their first World Cup in France, Croatia's 'Fiery Eleven' of 1998 have set a tough standard for the current team.

However, the side heading for Japan and South Korea, a blend of experience and youth, are forging their own reputation and manager Mirko Jozic says they have nothing to prove.

'I do not feel under pressure to match the third place,' he said of the 1998 team's performance. 'We go there to defend the image of our football.

'Our goal is to go through the first, round-robin stage of the competition.'

Unlike his charismatic predecessor Miroslav Blazevic, who stated publicly ahead of their first big tournament, the 1996 European championship, that Croatia had the best players in the world, Jozic is much more cautious.

This is reflected in his reluctance to write off older players despite public calls for a radical rejuvenation, as well as his distinctly defensive interpretation of Croatia's traditional passing game.

He continues to rely on Robert Prosinecki, Davor Suker and Robert Jarni - the players he coached to the world youth title in Chile in 1987 - arguing that they are still better than those waiting in the wings.

'We are not going to renounce the gold even if its shine has waned a little,' Jozic said of the older generation.

So far, relying on experience has paid off as it was the individual brilliance of the 32-old former Red Star, Real Madrid and Dinamo Zagreb midfielder Prosinecki that decided the all-important qualifier against Belgium in Zagreb last month.

Prosinecki's measured 40-metre pass found Aston Villa striker Bosko Balaban in a perfect position to set up Alen Boksic for the goal that secured Croatia top spot in the group and a place in the finals.

But as much as Jozic might be soft on the 'Chileans' - heroes of 1987 - he has also managed to breath new life into what appeared a spent force.

Under his 10-month spell, the team acquired a toughness it sometimes lacked under Blazevic. They were unbeaten in qualifying and conceded only two goals.

He brought on four or five younger players, including Balaban, Hajduk Split goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa and 22-year-old central defender Igor Tudor of Juventus.

Tudor is developing into a pivotal figure of Croatia's new defensive line-up that also includes Dario Simic and Robert Kovac - regular starters for Inter Milan and Bayern Munich, respectively.

His towering figure, speed and timely tackling offer a sense of stability and confidence at the back, prompting pundits to describe his as the team's leader-in-waiting.

'Tudor will be our best player at the World Cup,' said Tomislav Zidak, a leading sports commentator.

However, Balaban's claim to the number shirt has been hit by a nightmare season at Villa Park. After being given his first international chance by Jozic, the £6million 23-year-old has made only two starts this season.

But with 1998 Golden Boot award winner Suker scoring only twice since joining TSV 1860 Munich late last year, the spot is up for grabs.

Balaban has scored seven goals in 12 internationals, on track to match Suker's 44 goals from 66 appearances, while his pass for Boksic's winner against Belgium silenced the critics who claimed he can only play for himself, not the team. homepage