Millennium Post

By beating Russia, Croatia can finally shake 20-year shadow

Sochi: Twenty years ago, Croatia made its World Cup debut with a result that happened only once previously in the tournament's history and has never been topped.

Finishing in third place the first time it participated in soccer's biggest showcase set a lofty standard.

The Croatians' memorable run to the semifinals in 1998 remains a moment of pride for the country. It also created a shadow every successive Croatia team has been forced to deal with and has not come close to matching. Until now.

Croatia can equal what that 1998 team did if it beats Russia on Saturday in the quarterfinals and perhaps finally rid itself of that 20-year shadow.

The current squad of stars such as Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic will be held in the same esteem as the stars of '98 such as Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban and Slaven Bilic with one more victory.

Or if they can't get past the home team, they will be the latest Croatia team to fall short.

"It has been talked a lot about the two teams and their similarities," Perisic said. "They achieved a historic result in France. Now we've come close and hopefully we can even do it a little bit better than them. We know our quality and we believe in ourselves and we are on the right track at the moment."

The current group of Croatians has become tired of hearing about what happened in 1998. It's not a matter of respect — there is great admiration for what the '98 team accomplished — but matching or exceeding what that team did has been a burden in every major tournament for the past 20 years.

As Rakitic said recently, "At this point we need to forget about them, with all respect to them." Croatia's third place finish in its debut has been equaled only by Portugal in 1966 when the tournament featured just 16 teams. The 1998 team finished second in its group, beat Romania in the round of 16 and knocked off Germany 3-0 in the quarterfinals. Croatia lost to eventual champion France in the semi-finals, but rebounded to beat the Netherlands and finish third.

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