Byline: MARTYN ZIEGLER
SIX years ago, Croatia emerged from years of bloodshed in the Balkans as perhaps the best national side to have come out of eastern Europe since Ferenc Puskas' Hungary team of the 1950s.
The Croatia team of the 1998 World Cup finals was abundantly blessed with talent and character.
Had civil war not intervened during the previous decade then their football would have developed even further and they might have done even better than finish third.
But for many in that team, France '98 represented the end of their careers rather than the beginning and since then Croatia's standing in world football has diminished instead of improving.
Six years ago the names Zvonimir Boban,Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki, Alen Boksic and Mario Stanic were instantly recognisable as stars of European club football.
In the squad to face England in Lisbon tomorrow there is, by comparison, a dearth of talent. Croatia's best player is Igor Tudor, of Juventus, a centreback who can also anchor midfield while Dario Simic, the only other survivor from1998, is also a defender.
The gifted, creative players who wore the chequered red and white in France have gone.
Croatia are now much more of a bustling, forceful side. The rapier of Sukerhasbeen replaced by the bludgeon of Dado Prso, the exquisite skills of Boban and delightful dribbling of Prosinecki have made way for the passand-move darting of Niko Kovac and Milan Rapaic.
What does survive is desire. Boban used to describe how he had used the civil war as an inspiration, football being his opportunity to bring some light into the lives of those suffering in his homeland.
The current crop may not have the same forces driving them on, but Croatia showed against France that they still have the mental strength and determination not to be overawed by those players judged to be favourites.
Theyare also amore disciplined and professional outfit. …