Croatia star shouts home town’s massive Cup bar tab
CROATIA is going nuts about their team's appearance in the World Cup semi-finals - but one group of fans had particular reason to celebrate during their penalty shootout win over Russia.
Several hundred fans from Slavonski Brod watched the shootout on big screens in the grounds of Brod Fortress on a bar tab provided by hometown hero - and the team's star striker - Mario Mandzukic.
As the game went to extra time, and then penalties, the beers kept flowing and Mandzukic's bar tab sailed past 3000 pounds ($5325), according to Croatian news site 24Sata who said the 32-year-old outlaid 25,000 kuna toward the bill.
Meanwhile, Croatia's first World Cup semi-final for two decades has revived the memories of the country's football high point and raised hopes that Luka Modric's side can go one better than their legendary predecessors.
After a dramatic win on penalties against Russia, Croatia will play England on Wednesday night (AEST) in front of 80,000 people in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium for a place in the World Cup final.
In 1998, Croatia, which had emerged from a bitter independence war only three years earlier, made its debut at a World Cup finals.
With a team featuring Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki wearing blue shirts with a distinctive red and white chequerboard pattern, they beat World Cup giants Germany 3-0 in the quarter-finals in France, sparking delirium at home.
Although Croatia went on to suffer an agonising 2-1 defeat to host nation France in the semi-finals, they beat the Netherlands 2-1 in the third-place playoff.
Nicknamed "the Fiery Ones", that team has stood as an example to their successors ever since.
Now, finally, there is a team ready to join them in Croatian football's pantheon of heroes.
Robert Prosinecki, a member of the 1998 squad, said: "I would so much like that they be better than us.
"1998 will never be forgotten and should not be, but I would love it if eventually the 1998 'Fiery Ones' can be moved aside so that we can talk not only about 1998 but also a bit about 2018," the former Real Madrid player said.
The coach of the 1998 side, Jaroslav Ciro Blazevic, said for a long time he did not want any other team to match his players' achievements.
"Until five or six years ago I was bit vain, and in a way glad that in 1998 we set the bar so high that it was difficult to even contemplate, let alone jump over it.
"But now, I pray and I would give anything in the world that this squad eventually 'confines us to history'. That in future we talk about them," said Blazevic, now 83, and known in Croatia as the "coach of all coaches".
The penalty shootout win against hosts Russia in the quarter-finals on Sunday seems to have gone a long way towards achieving that.
"We've been always returning to the 1998 team, putting a new burden on Modric and his team. Until last night, when all the pain was removed and when we finally experienced a revival of 1998," the Sportski Novosti newspaper said after that match.
Squares packed with red-and-white painted fans, stalls selling football jerseys and flares, and drivers blaring their horns, people hugging and singing - scenes reminiscent of 1998 are all around as the country of around four million people lives and breathes football.