ROVINJ, Croatia: Croatia will be a leading contender at the European Championship finals with top stars like Luka Modric from top clubs across the continent and an unmatched patriotism, according to coach Ante Cacic.
If the former television and radio repair man can get Real Madrid midfield magician Modric and Ivan Rakitic on tune, Croatia threaten to be one of the teams to watch at the tournament which starts in Paris on Friday.
“We are among the 10 best squads at Euro in quality,” Cacic told Agence France-Presse in an interview at Croatia’s training camp at the Adriatic town of Rovinj. The squad leave for France on Tuesday.
Cacic is happy to have a 23-man “mix of really talented young players and experienced ones from major European clubs.”
Dinamo Zagreb midfielders Ante Coric, 19, is the youngest in the team led by veteran captain Darijo Srna of Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk. Srna has said Euro 2016 will be his farewell to international national duty.
“We have a symbiosis of youth and experience but also something what others maybe don’t—a passion for national jersey since it is one of the symbols of patriotism” for the nation of 4.2 million people, Cacic said.
The 62-year-old, coach since last September, said Croatia’s main asset is its “concentration of high-quality players from the strongest European leagues and best European clubs.”
On top of Modric and Mateo Kovacic of European champions Real Madrid, there is Barcelona’s Rakitic, Juventus’ Mario Mandzukic or Inter Milan pair Ivan Perisic and Mateo Brozovic.
Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic won the past four Champions league titles with their clubs: Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
“We are all extremely proud of that,” Cacic said. “Being champions those players have additional self-confidence which is spilling over on everyone in the team. This is a great asset which makes us optimists.”
Croatia should be “aware that we are good, that we can play and win against any team the world.”
Croatia begin their tough Group D campaign against Turkey in Paris on Sunday. They face Czech Republic in Saint-Etienne five days later and Spain in Bordeaux on June 21.
Cacic said the group was “among the toughest” but the timetable suited him.
“It is good that we don’t face Spain at the start. You cannot expect to dictate the rhythm and get favourable results against a team like that.”
“Of course one cannot do that against Turkey either,” he added. But Cacic insisted the results of matches between the two showed “we can face Turkey on an equal foot.”
Turkey, who like Croatia made their Euro debut in 1996, have only beaten Croatia in official competition in 3-1 penalty shoot-out in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals.
Croatia gained independence from the former Yugoslavia after a war 25 years ago. It has qualified for nine of the 11 European Championship finals and World Cups since then.
Their best result was third place at the 1998 World Cup in France.
Davor Suker, now the Croatia football federation head who finished the tournament’s top scorer, and legendary captain Zvonimir Boban, now a FIFA deputy secretary general, still inspire fans. The team became known as “the Fiery Ones”.
“That was the moment when Croatia stood out from average. We are still recognised by that bronze,” Cacic said .
“Croatians were passionate about the team, we were a young nation, and that support from fans, the energy coming from the stands, helped our players to achieve what they did.”
Cacic, whose appointment raised criticism from fans worried about his lack of success as a coach, said that “with all the good players we have now, we must do our utmost to get close to what the ‘Fiery Ones’ achieved in 1998.”
He acknowledged a lack of strength in defense, but said “we can overcome it as a team.”