SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Croatia want to party like it’s 1998 at the expense of hosts Russia in Sochi on Saturday when the two sides meet in their World Cup quarter-final.
The Croatians are enjoying their best World Cup since coming third at the tournament in France in 1998 and are aiming to keep the festivities going by beating Russia and booking a semi-final berth against either Sweden or England.
“We cannot choose our opponent, be they the hosts or somebody else. We are facing a huge game in the quarter-finals, it doesn’t matter who the opponent is,” coach Zlatko Dalic told reporters, adding he does not fear the partisan home crowd.
“Every week, our players play in front of full houses with opponent’s fans howling. This shouldn’t be a problem for us, and ultimately we should not be hoping to have any excuses.”
Croatia president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic will again be in attendance as the interest in football reaches fever pitch.
“The whole of our nation is euphoric, they are upbeat, there are parties going on when Croatia play, they are out in the squares, out in the cafes... it’s great that our president is going to be there tomorrow,” Dalic said.
The Croats won all three games to top Group D ahead of second-placed Argentina and then edged Denmark in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw.
Following some superb attacking displays, comparisons with the 1998 team that midfielder Ivan Rakitic — who was born in Switzerland to parents who originally hailed from Croatia — remembers so well were inevitably made.
“I remember in Moehlin in Switzerland, my home town, we were all crazy, we rooted, we wanted to show our Swiss neighbors how powerful a football nation we are,” Rakitic, who had dual citizenship but opted to play for Croatia, recalled.
“They are our heroes, they are our inspiration, they brought us to this point, and we would like to continue on their way, and hopefully we will take a step further tomorrow if we have the strength and luck to do so,” he added.
That Croatia side hammered Germany 3-0 to reach the semis in France, and Dalic is looking for a similar result on Saturday.
“I think that yesterday or the day before was 20 years since that (Germany) game - history is repeating itself, it doesn’t have to be 3-0, 1-0 would suffice,” he said of the July 4 clash in Lyon.
“That was a great success for Croatia as a nation, and we are on the right track to repeat that feat.”
Reporting by Philip O'Connor; editing by Ken Ferris