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Croatia Scores Twice in 1-0 Victory

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His heart was beating so rapidly, he was sure it would strain the blue front and red-and-white checkerboard trim on his shirt and burst out of his chest.

Striker Davor Suker had already converted a penalty kick for Croatia in its round-of-16 game against Romania on Tuesday, only to have the referee nullify the play because a teammate had encroached into the penalty area. Given a second chance, Suker felt the added weight of the moment.

“The second try was tough for me,” he said. “I was extremely emotional on the field. I am extremely emotional to have won the game.”

Suker drove his second attempt past the outstretched left arm of goalkeeper Bogdan Stelea in the waning moments of extra time in the first half, and Croatia held off Romania’s four-man front for a 1-0 victory at Parc Lescure and a quarterfinal berth in its first World Cup appearance.

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Croatia, whose players competed under the Yugoslavian flag before the nation became independent, became the first team to get this far in its debut since East Germany in 1974. It will face Germany--which it has never beaten in four tries, including the quarterfinals of the 1996 European championships--on Saturday in Lyon.

“It’s going to be a difficult match. I think Germany is the favorite in this match, and maybe the favorite of all,” said Croatia midfielder Aljosa Asanovic, who was pulled down by Gabriel Popescu to draw the penalty. “But I think it is coming the time for the victory for us.”

Backed by a vocal band of supporters whose songs and chants never stopped, the Croatians moved the ball well and were physical when they had to be. They challenged Stelea often, and he was up to the challenge when he parried shots by Goran Vlaovic in the 10th minute and by Asanovic in the 14th and 23rd minutes.

Only Suker, with his third goal of the tournament, was able to prevail, and on the penalty kick. “It was right,” Romanian midfielder Ilie Dumitrescu said of the call.

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The Romanians, who were unbeaten in qualifying play and had defeated England and Colombia and tied Tunisia to win their first-round group, might have been quicker in the early going Tuesday but couldn’t finish anything. And their biggest gun, veteran Gheorghe Hagi, had to leave in the 56th minute after pulling a groin muscle.

Although speculation has it Hagi’s international career is over, he said he’s not sure what he will do.

He might not want it to end like this. “It was a 50-50 match and they got the goal, and that was enough to win the game,” he said. “We were fatigued. To win today, we had to play fast, but we could not because of the heat.”

The heat didn’t bother the Croatians, who after the game paraded past reporters wearing identical T-shirts proclaiming, “Hrvatski--Proud to be Croat.” As emissaries from a novice soccer nation, albeit one with considerable talent and wide representation on top-notch clubs throughout Europe, they felt national pride was at stake and responded with a rugged game that featured a good amount of skill.

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At the final whistle, Croatia’s substitutes rushed off the bench and onto the field to hug their teammates, while the Romanians struggled to catch their breath.

“I am especially happy we succeeded in eliminating a good team, a team with a tradition,” Croatia Coach Miroslav Blazevic said. “Our little country has never achieved a result like this.”

Even Romania Coach Anghel Iordanescu was impressed with Croatia’s efforts. “From our point of view, the victory of Croatia was merited,” he said. “Croatia played better than Romania and played with more cohesion. They had more goal opportunities. . . . We didn’t play to our best level. The game was good in the second half, but unfortunately, we never made the goal opportunities a reality.”

Reality now for Croatia is a determined German team. However, the Croats aren’t afraid. “I think,” Croatia defender Robert Jarni said, “it’s going to be a big revenge.”

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