Maybe it was the heavens opening, the rain pouring, the passionate singing of anthems and the "Gimme Shelter" vibe of it all. Or maybe it was the Irish, U2, the Croats and their coach Slaven Bilic, a guitarist for Rawbau. No matter what, those watching Sunday night’s game between two proud nations could be forgiven for thinking that Poznan’s Municipal Stadium had been booked for a rock concert rather than a soccer match.
As a battle of the bands, Croatia made all the right noises. If Bilic's game plan was a set list, the running order was spot on. An early first goal was followed by a second just before halftime. Another shortly after the interval couldn’t have been timed any better to lift the Croat fans and dampen Ireland’s spirit.
The Croats in the crowd went wild. One supporter jumped the barriers and, though held back by a steward, managed to get to Bilic and kiss him on the cheek. It added to the party sensation that this could quite easily have been a gig and not a game.
Monday’s edition of Glas Slavonije, the Croatian newspaper, wrote “the most important thing is to curb contagious euphoria” after the 3-1 win against Ireland. Containing it among those in Zagreb, Split and Dubrovnik who remember Croatia’s run to the Euro quarterfinals in 1996 and 2008, not to mention its appearance in the semifinals of the 1998 World Cup will be tough.
Now, expectations will have risen.
Before the tournament, Bilic raised eyebrows by insisting that he didn’t see why Croatia couldn’t go “all the way” this summer. Few gave his side a chance. Failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and the need to go through the playoffs to reach Euro 2012 contributed to the perception that Croatia was just happy to be in Poland and Ukraine. Anything else would be a bonus.
Yet Bilic has been bullish throughout, with victory in Croatia's Group C opener adding to his conviction.
“We are strong as a team, and I think that after this match we are getting even better and even stronger,” he said. “I expect to play even better against Italy because the first match is the most difficult, and this is behind us.”
One thing is certain. From the day the groups were drawn, Italy boss Cesare Prandelli has been at pains to stress that Croatia mustn’t be taken lightly. The Azzurri coach has said so repeatedly because much of the focus in the bel paese has fallen on world champions Spain and Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland.
Asked repeatedly about Trap, Prandelli has frequently tried to steer the conversation away from his old mentor.
“In the middle of all this, there’s Croatia, who you journalists too often forget,” he told Corriere della Sera. “Go and watch them play. They’re a hard team with a very competitive midfield and attack, a tough obstacle to overcome not least because the second group game is always the most complex.”
In recent days, Prandelli has reiterated his belief that “this game will be the crucial game of the group” and justification for his wariness is well founded.
For example, a jaded Luka Modric still has the presence of mind to plot a way for his teammates to get through almost any defense. Forwards Nikica Jelavic and Mario Mandzukic will represent a different proposition for makeshift center back Daniele De Rossi, who coped admirably in a back three against a strikerless Spain but looked shaky and uncertain when Vicente del Bosque introduced a natural No. 9 in Fernando Torres.
Considering the way Jelavic and Mandzukic harried and harassed Ireland’s defense with all the threatening intent of velociraptors prowling a Jurassic Park visitor’s center, there’s little doubt Bilic will ask for more of the same during Thursday’s meeting in Poznan.
What Jelavic and Mandzukic also revealed about Croatia was the spirit within the squad's ranks. Both chose to celebrate their goals by dashing over to the bench and leaping on their teammates to share the moment. That togetherness -- a mix of fierce national pride and a possible desire to give Bilic one last hurrah before he leaves his post at the end of the tournament -- is something of an X factor.
Another thing galvanizing the Croats is their past record against Italy.
“My memories against the Azzurri are positive,” Bilic told World Soccer. “When I took over this team, our first test was against Italy, who were fresh from becoming world champions in Germany. With a completely new team setup, we won in Livorno. I know it was a friendly match, but I’ll remind you that Italy have never beaten us.”
Since its independence, Croatia has been a thorn in Italy’s side. It finished ahead of the Azzurri in qualifying for Euro '96, winning 2-1 in Palermo, Italy, thanks to a brace from Davor Suker and earning a 1-1 draw in Split. Then came another fine triumph in the group stages of the 2002 World Cup when, after falling behind to a goal from Christian Vieri, Croatia struck twice through Milan Rapaic and Ivica Olic to come from behind and take the spoils.
Gigi Buffon was between the sticks that day in Kashima, Japan. One imagines that, even amid the optimism following Italy’s 1-1 draw with Spain, Prandelli will still be keen for his captain to relate his experience as a cautionary tale. After all, those who cannot remember the past are almost always condemned to repeat it.