Illustration by Federico Manasse
Peter Schmeichel frantically back-peddled as Aljoša Asanović sent a wonderfully precise diagonal pass from his own half, a pass which Davor Šuker, situated on the far left, took effortlessly within his outrageous stride, dragging the ball across his body with the inside of his right foot, and sending it towards the left-hand angle of the Denmark penalty area. One further touch took Šuker and the ball into the penalty area. As Jes Høgh closed, and Schmeichel planted himself just outside the angle of his six-yard box, Šuker dug out the most beautiful left-footed chip.
As soon as the ball leaves Šuker’s foot, everyone is aware that there is nothing Schmeichel can do to stop Croatia scoring their third goal of the game. Schmeichel, quite possibly the best goalkeeper in the world at that point, can only tilt his head back and watch as the ball sails gracefully through the air, then drops down into his net. He then falls backwards to the turf, like a cartoon character that has just been hit in the face by a garden rake he’s had the misfortune of standing on.
Šuker wheels away to celebrate. His face is a picture of a powerful emotion released, almost as if he has carried the entire population of Croatia with him, having put the most elegant of finishing touches to an astonishing team and individual performance. His face then breaks into the warmest of smiles, as he turns 360 degrees, right arm aloft, left arm behind his back, saluting the occasion.
Everyone was smitten with Croatia at Euro 96. The red and white chequerboard shirts, the bright-eyed ebullience with which they embraced the tournament, the very first under their newly independent flag. The free-flowing football they played matched the hopefulness of a nation reborn. Šuker was the symbolic flag bearer of this rising force of nature. While they couldn’t make their way past Germany in the quarter-finals, they ended the tournament as the indelible image.
The signs had been there, however, and they never should have been classed as the surprise package many had viewed them to be. In November 1994, they travelled to Palermo to face Italy during qualification, and came away with a 2-1 victory, Šuker scoring both goals. He scored again in the return game the following October in Split, plundering 12 goals in total during the qualification campaign.
Original Series | The 50
Having not obtained membership to FIFA and UEFA until 1993, it had been Croatia’s debut qualification campaign.
Two years later, at France 98, if he hadn’t reached it already, Šuker was certainly at the peak of his powers. After five personally productive years at Sevilla, his performances at Euro 96 persuaded Real Madrid to make their move. Winning La Liga in his first season at the Bernabéu, he picked up a Champions League winners medal as a late substitute at the Amsterdam ArenA against Juventus a year later.
In France, Croatia were no longer a surprise package. It didn’t make them any easier to face, however, with Šuker once again in imperious form. Goals during the group stage against Jamaica and Japan were followed up by scoring the only goal in the last-16 encounter with Romania, and the final goal in the 3-0 rolling over of Germany in the quarter-finals. The Croatian dream continued at France 98 where it had been left at Euro 96. In the semi-final against the hosts, Croatia and Šuker once again drew first blood, but Lilian Thuram turned out to be Les Bleus’ unexpected hero.
Croatia, still enjoying the World Cup party despite elimination, embraced the third-place playoff in a way the Netherlands simply couldn’t muster. Yet again, Šuker was on target, this time with a goal that clinched him the golden boot as the tournament’s top scorer, eight years after having been a non-playing member of Yugoslavia’s Italia 90 squad.
Beyond France 98, Šuker remained for one last season at the Bernabéu, eventually joining Arsenal, where he reached the 2000 UEFA Cup final, entering the fray as a late substitute with an impending penalty shootout in mind. Sadly, he missed his spot-kick.
In effect, France 98 was the last great act of his career. Arsenal, West Ham and 1860 Munich saw a pale shadow of the Šuker of old. One last unfulfilling World Cup came in 2002, but the image of an older, ailing Šuker is easily overshadowed by the ebullient version we saw in 1996 and 1998. That goal against Denmark remains the hallmark of Croatia’s greatest player