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Bilic's farewell not the one he wanted
Published : 19 Jun 2012 09:49:34Rss feed
After an opening performance that raised false hopes of a return to their glory days, Croatia's failure to reach the Euro quarter-finals was a bitter blow for outgoing coach Slaven Bilic, who had aimed to leave on a high.
The 43-year-old had already been due to step down following the tournament after six years in charge and move into club management at Russia's Lokomotiv Moscow, where he is now due to arrive within days.
"I just want to say thank you to everyone at the Croatian FA, they gave me a chance as a young coach, my technical staff have been great over the last six years," Bilic said after a 1-0 defeat to defending European champions Spain ended his country's hopes.
Having put together a largely young side during his time at the helm, the former elegant central defender had been keen to summon up a run like he experienced at the 1998 World Cup when the proud Balkan nation reached the semi-finals.
Indeed they were close to reaching the final when a Davor Suker goal put them 1-0 up against hosts France, before Lillian Thuram's first ever goals for his country saw them lose 2-1.
All the more cruel for Bilic was the fact that Monday's defeat came only through an 88th-minute goal, and after Croatia had had a series of chances to take the lead.
It was a very different story from their crushing 3-1 defeat of Group C underdogs Ireland in their opening match, after which they had the wind in their sails and went on to hold Italy 1-1 to boost their chances of reaching the knockout stage.
Croatia had shaken off the impact of injuries that sidelined several key names even before the start of the tournament, including midfielder Ivo Ilicevic, defender Dejan Lovren and veteran striker Ivica Olic.
But after the defeat to Spain, a glum Bilic acknowledged that the Spanish were on another level.
"Some teams can beat Spain, but it's not easy. We knew we'd have two or three opportunities. It's not easy when you play against Spain. You have to score when you have the chance," he said.
"We all know they are world and European champions they want to win. They want trophies. They are the best team in the world," he added.
Croatia qualified for Euro 2012 through the playoffs, edging Turkey.
That was sweet revenge for the Turks' penalty shootout victory in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals.
Bilic insisted the reinvigorated side's story was far from over.
"We have a great team and this team hasn't said their last word, they have still more to come and I just want to say a big thank you to my players, I have enjoyed the six years, every moment," he said.
"I will never be as proud as I am now, as being coach of Croatia is a unique experience."
Doing well at Euro 2012 would have had added symbolism for a nation set to join the European Union next year.