France '98 - when Croatia crashed the World Cup party

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Croatia's appearance in the World Cup final has allowed the current generation to stand alongside the heroes of 1998, who crashed that year's tournament in France to forge an indelible collective memory for the fledgling nation.

Seven years after they gained independence from the former Yugoslavia, Croatia's thrilling and unexpected run to the semi-finals was, for just about everyone except the victorious hosts, the highlight of France '98.

For all the euphoria, their success should not have been seen as a total surprise. Two years earlier at the European Championship, they had reached the quarter-finals, losing 2-1 to eventual champions Germany.

And of course Yugoslavia had a long and proud record of producing technically gifted players -- they beat Brazil in their first World Cup match in 1930 and were twice European Championship finalists.

But, to many around the world, the sight of those crazy red-and-white checked shirts was still a new thing in 1998 and the men wearing them made the most of every second in the limelight.

They were a highly talented group, led by Zvonimir Boban, Real Madrid striker Davor Suker, who went on to be the tournament's top scorer and is the current Croatian FA chief, and brilliant midfielder Robert Prosinecki.

Memories of the civil war were still fresh for the players and helped to forge a truly special bond.

"I think we are much stronger now on the field after what we've been through. There is nothing to be afraid of now on the green pitch," defender Igor Stimac said at the time.

They were coached by the experienced Miroslav Blazevic, a fierce political campaigner for independence.

"I took advantage of the intense patriotism in the squad," he said. "We were very much an unknown country so it was our chance to put the team and the whole country in the spotlight. It was easy to motivate the players."

Wins over Jamaica and Japan sent Croatia through to the last 16, despite a 1-0 defeat by Argentina, then the fun really started as Suker scored the only goal to beat Romania and set up a quarter-final with Germany.

In a brutal encounter, a 40th-minute red card for Germany's Christian Woerns changed the game and goals by Robert Jarni, Goran Vlaocic and Suker secured a stunning 3-0 victory over the European champions.

If anyone in the footballing world had still not been aware of Croatia, they were now, as incredibly, they found themselves in the last four and facing hosts France.

A minute after halftime Suker struck to put Croatia ahead but they barely had time to dream before Lilian Thuram equalised. Freakishly the fullback then got a second goal 20 minutes from time -- his only two goals in a career of more than 140 internationals.

It was far from over, however, as some outrageous "simulation" by Slaven Bilic led to the dismissal of Laurent Blanc -- subsequently banned from the final -- and meant France had to hang on desperately to go through.

Though there was disappointment Croatia finished on a high note by beating the Netherlands in the third-place playoff and returned home as heroes.

"The whole country was happy and very proud -- but I was sad," said Blazevic.

"If I had the experience then that I do now then Croatia would have been champions of the world."

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, additional reporting by Zoran Milosavljevic, editing by Amlan Chakraborty)

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