Croatia national football team have appeared in the finals of the FIFA World Cup on four occasions (in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2014) since gaining independence in 1991. Before that, from 1930 to 1990 Croatia was part of Yugoslavia. For World Cup records and appearances in that period, see Yugoslavia national football team.
Following Croatia's independence (officially declared in June 1991), the Croatian Football Federation applied for membership and was admitted to FIFA in July 1992, at too late a date to enter the qualifying tournament for the 1994 FIFA World Cup, so the first international tournament Croatia entered was the UEFA Euro 1996 and their first World Cup qualification cycle was for the 1998 FIFA World Cup. Led by Miroslav Blažević, Croatia started their first ever World Cup campaign with a 4–1 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina on 8 October 1996. Due to the Bosnian War, Bosnia and Herzegovina had to host the match outside their country so the game was played at Stadio Renato Dall'Ara in Bologna, and the first World Cup qualifying goal for Croatia was scored by Slaven Bilić in the 12th minute.
Croatia struggled to find form throughout the rest of the campaign, drawing with Greece, Denmark and Slovenia at home in their next three games, before earning their next victory against Greece (1–0, goal by Davor Šuker). Croatia proceeded to win games against Bosnia and Herzegovina and Slovenia and they finished the qualifying as runners-up in Group 1, behind Denmark, with 15 points after 8 games. This meant that Croatia had qualified for a two-legged playoff in which they were paired with Ukraine. After winning the first leg 2–0 at Maksimir and then drawing 1–1 in Kiev, Croatia qualified for their first World Cup finals tournament on 15 November 1997.
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In the draw for the final tournament, held on 4 December 1997 at Stade Vélodrome in Marseille, Croatia was drawn to play in Group H, along with two other teams which qualified for the World Cup for the first time, Jamaica and Japan, and two-time World Cup winners Argentina. In their first match Croatia beat Jamaica 3–1, in a game memorable for Croatia's first ever World Cup goal, an opener scored by Mario Stanić in the 27th minute. Croatia went on to beat Japan 1–0 before losing their third group stage match against Argentina 0–1, in a game which was of little importance as both teams had already qualified for round of 16.
In round of 16, Croatia faced Group G winners Romania (who had finished top of their group in front of England) and won the game through a penalty converted by Davor Šuker in stoppage time of the first half after a foul on Aljoša Asanović by Gabriel Popescu. After that Croatia faced Germany in the quarter-finals, in a game which was at the time touted by the Croatian media as a great opportunity to get back at Germany as it was them who had knocked out Croatia in the UEFA Euro 1996 quarter-finals two years earlier. In the 40th minute Christian Wörns received a direct red card and was sent off for fouling Davor Šuker, and Robert Jarni opened the scoring eight minutes later in stoppage time of the first half. Goran Vlaović and Davor Šuker added a second and third and the game ended in a 3–0 win, which is still regarded by fans and the media as one of the most memorable matches Croatia ever played.
Croatia went on to face hosts France in the semi-finals, but lost the game 1–2 when an opener scored by Šuker in the 46th minute was immediately equalised by Lilian Thuram the following minute. Thuram also scored France's second goal in the 69th minute. Interestingly, these were the only two goals Thuram ever scored for France in an international career spanning from 1994 to 2008 which saw him earn a total of 147 caps. After Croatia's exit manager Blažević was heavily criticized by Croatian press for not sending in Robert Prosinečki soon enough after France took the lead (Prosinečki came on as a substitute for Mario Stanić just minutes before the final whistle). Croatia captain Zvonimir Boban tried to take the blame for the defeat saying that he felt he needed to be substituted but wanted to stay on the pitch just a little while longer (it was his defending mistake which led to Thuram's equaliser).
After being knocked out in the semi-finals, Croatia looked for consolation against Netherlands in the third place match played just three days later at Parc des Princes. Croatia went on to win 2–1 through goals by Šuker and Prosinečki, but after the final whistle Dražen Ladić was labelled player of the match, for a career-best performance which saw him save numerous shots from Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf and Marc Overmars.
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Manager Miroslav Blažević included the following 22 players in the finals tournament squad. The 16 players who were capped at least once in one of the seven matches Croatia played in France are highlighted in bold. The remaining six players were unused at the tournament (defenders Goran Jurić and Anthony Šerić, defensive midfielder Mamić, striker Ardian Kozniku, and second and third-choice goalkeepers Marijan Mrmić and Vladimir Vasilj). On the other hand, six players appeared in all seven matches: goalkeeper Dražen Ladić, defender Slaven Bilić, midfielders Aljoša Asanović, Mario Stanić, Robert Jarni, and striker Davor Šuker.
Out of 11 goals scored by Croatia at the tournament, six were scored by Davor Šuker, who was awarded the Golden Shoe Award for the top goalscorer of the tournament, as well as the Silver Ball Award as the second most outstanding player of the tournament (behind Ronaldo of Brazil). Robert Prosinečki (who was retroactivelly given the 1990 FIFA World Cup Best Young Player Award, where he had appeared for Yugoslavia), also scored two goals in matches against Jamaica and the Netherlands, which made him the only player in World Cup history to score goals at finals tournaments for two different countries.
For three players (Jarni, Prosinečki and Šuker) this was their second appearance at the World Cup, having been members of Yugoslavia squad at the 1990 FIFA World Cup. Alen Bokšić would have been fourth, having been a key player in Croatia's qualifying campaign, but he was dropped from the tournament squad after sustaining an injury just months before the tournament in France.
By beating Netherlands, Croatia finished third in their World Cup debut, a feat matched only by Eusébio's Portugal in the 1966 World Cup 32 years earlier. Consequently, Croatia reached their highest ever FIFA ranking when they were third in the world for three months between January and March 1999 and were given the Best Mover of the Year Award in 1998, the only team so far which won the award twice (having been Best Movers in 1994). Upon returning to Croatia, the whole squad was decorated by President Franjo Tuđman, and were nicknamed "Brončani" ("The Bronze Ones") and "Vatreni'" ("The Fiery Ones") in the media. The latter stuck as a permanent nickname for the national team.
Most players continued playing for the team throughout the UEFA Euro 2000 qualifiers, but after Croatia failed to qualify manager Miroslav Blažević resigned and soon after that some of the players retired from the national team. The next manager Mirko Jozić kept some of the remaining members of the Bronze Generation and even took them to 2002 FIFA World Cup (such as Šuker, Prosinečki, Jarni, Stanić, Soldo, Vlaović, Šimić), but they failed to make an impact at the tournament and almost all of them retired soon afterwards, but a number of them later became prominent figures in Croatian football.
Zvonimir Boban went into sports publishing and took over as CEO of Croatia's sports daily Sportske novosti in 2005 and worked as a commentator for Italian television stations. Šuker launched his line of sports apparel and established a football academy carrying his name. Zvonimir Soldo, Robert Jarni, Slaven Bilić, Igor Štimac and Dražen Ladić all took up managing jobs (Soldo coached Dinamo Zagreb to a Double in 2008, while Jarni, Bilić and Štimac all had managerial spells at Hajduk Split). Štimac later became chairman of the association of Prva HNL clubs, the body regulating top flight football in Croatia, and Bilić took over as Croatia manager in 2006, hiring Aljoša Asanović, Robert Prosinečki and Marijan Mrmić as his assistants. Dražen Ladić took up managing the Croatia under-21 team in 2006, and Krunoslav Jurčić is the current manager at Dinamo Zagreb, having been appointed in 2009. Miroslav Blažević later managed a number of clubs in Croatia, Slovenia and Switzerland before taking over as Bosnia and Herzegovina manager in 2008 and sensationally leading them to the verge of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.
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