Croatia invites 1998 World Cup bronze winners to grudge final match against France in Moscow

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    It was one of the most iconic matches of France 98, a narrow semi-final victory for the hosts over Croatia in a game filled with quality and antics. Now, Croatia have invited their ‘bronze generation’ to watch revenge served cold.

    The Croatian football federation extended the invitation to the trailblazers, who helped establish the country in the eyes of the world following its secession from Yugoslavia, in the wake of their extra time win over England on Wednesday.

    The red-and-white checkered shirts announced themselves to the world at Euro 96, where they reached the quarter-finals, but the team got one step further in France on their World Cup debut, demolishing the reigning European champions Germany 3-0 en-route to the semis.

    Then, just as now, the team combined size and skill – in the shape of the tournament’s left-footed Golden Boot winner Davor Suker, midfield maestros Zvonimir Boban and Aljosa Asanovic (with the sublime Robert Prosinecki relegated to cameos) – and sandpaper grit, represented by Slaven Bilic and Igor Stimac, neither of whom were cloggers in their own right.

    In that semi-final at the Stade de France it was Croatia that took the lead, by means of a confident through ball finish by Suker at the start of the second half. But just as quickly as visions of the impossible formed, they were dispelled, thanks to two strikes not from Zinedine Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff or Thierry Henry, but right back Lilian Thuram, whose second goal was a long, precise drive with his weaker left foot. Afterwards, Thuram told the media that he doesn’t even score in practice, and indeed those two goals remained his only ones over a record-setting 142 caps for France.

    The contest was marred by a luscious bit of play-acting by Bilic, who went down clutching his face after incidental contact with Laurent Blanc at a corner, earning the French defender a straight red – as good a justification for VAR as any.

    But other than for Blanc, who missed the final (there were no appeals at the tournament) the incident didn’t change the course for both teams, as France famously triumphed over a sleepwalking Brazil in the final, and Croatia beat the Dutch to return to a pandemonium at home with medals around their necks.

    That team has not disappeared from football, and many are in Russia already.

    Every member of the 22-man squad is alive, with Suker the most visible presence in Russia as the head of the country’s football federation, while Bilic has been a star pundit for ITV in the UK.

    More than half of that generation have tried their hand in management, and a handful are with the national youth setups, though despite the storied tradition of Balkan coaching, the 98 squad has not produced their own Zinedine Zidane or Didier Deschamps.

    READ MORE: Zagreb erupts into wild celebrations after Croatia reaches World Cup final (VIDEO)

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    But Zlatko Dalic, the Croatia manager, who was the right age to play in France 1998 but never represented his country during a modest career, or coached any of the so-called big clubs, is not bothered by reputations. His team struggled to qualify for the finals, went behind in each of their three knockout matches, and is once again being written off as an underdog. One more step, and they will forever be enshrined as World Cup champions, going beyond an achievement that was already considered unrepeatable.

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