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Germany's Michael Ballack in action against Poland
© picture alliance / Pressefoto Ulmer
Euro 2008: Germany play Croatia

June 12, 2008

Germany are the bookmakers' favorites against Croatia. But the Croats have lots of players who ply their trade in the Bundesliga. And a decade ago, the Croatian national team proved it could (man-)handle the Germans.

When the members of those two national squads take the pitch on Thursday, June 12 in Klagenfurt, those with keen memories might be thinking about the past.

In the latter half of the 1990s, the two sides became minor rivals after meeting twice in the space of two years in the quarter-finals of international tournaments.

One person who remembers those encounters very well is Germany's team manager Oliver Bierhoff, who played on both of those German teams. It's hardly surprising then that Bierhoff has drawn parallels between the current squad and the one that beat the Croats 2-1 in Euro 1996 in England.

"We work very precisely -- that's one of the similarities -- but in 1996 we had a lot of experienced players who had won major titles with their clubs and country," the former striker told the online edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

"The current team is a bit more hungry for and curious about what it's like to win than was the case in 1996," Bierhoff said.

That game was the first time Germany had played post-Yugoslavian Croatia in a match that counted. Germany went on to win Euro 96, their last major title, thanks to a golden goal by Bierhoff.

French fiasco

But two years later, at the 1998 World Cup in France, the Croats got revenge -- and how.

After defender Christian Woerns was sent off in first half, Croatia made a meal of their opponents, winning 3-0. The man of the match was Croatian striker Davor Suker, who scored one goal and provoked the foul that left the Germans shorthanded.

It was Germany's worst World Cup defeat in 44 years and cost coach Berti Vogts, who had masterminded the 1996 Euro win, his job.

"I thought it would be a one-goal game," Vogts said immediately after the debacle.

Croatia lost to eventual winners France in the semis and came in third -- that's still the best-ever result for the team, which has only existed in its current form since 1990.

Intimate acquaintances

Whether the players on Thursday know their history is one thing. What's beyond doubt is that they know each other.

Seven members of the Croatian squad play or have played extensively in the German Bundesliga. Five of them started in Croatia's lackluster 1-0 opening win against Austria.

So how do they reckon their chances?

"If we play like we did the second half (against Austria), we'll have huge problems versus Germany," defender Josip Simunic, who plays for Hertha Berlin, cautioned after that first match.

But midfielder Niko Kovac, who did long stints at Hertha, Leverkusen and Hamburg, has been more optimistic.

"Against Austria, we had enormous psychological pressure, which paralyzed us for a while," Kovac said. "We had to win. Now we can and will play much more freely."

But the pressure won't be as extreme on Thursday as in either match from the 1990s. While a win would send either Croatia or Germany through to the quarterfinals, both teams would stay alive in the group stage, even if they lose.

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