- Associated Press - Saturday, December 12, 2015

Croatia’s reputation as a football power is growing, having qualified for the European Championship for the fourth consecutive time. The reputation of its fans, though, is only getting worse.

Croatia was docked one point in qualifying and ordered to play two matches in an empty stadium after a swastika was painted on the field before a match against Italy this year. It wasn’t the first time that the country’s core of right-wing supporters - who identify with the World War II-era Ustasha regime - caused trouble, and Croatia’s traveling supporters are likely to be closely monitored in France.

On the field, Croatia is looking to improve on its performances in 1996 and 2008, when it reached the quarterfinals.

With a star-studded midfield led by Real Madrid playmaker Luka Modric and his Barcelona counterpart Ivan Rakitic, the country certainly has enough talent to do even better this time.

Here is a look at three key players and Croatia’s coach:



The Real Madrid playmaker is Croatia’s leader in midfield, where he can play in almost any position. He can score as well set up goals, or help the defense. His time in Madrid has taught him how to win major titles and perform in big games. In his eight appearances in Euro 2016 qualifying, Modric scored two goals and set up another two.



The midfielder is another key part of Croatia’s midfield and has only grown in stature since moving to Barcelona, where he scored eight goals in his first season. The crucial one came in the Champions League final in June when he popped up in the Juventus box to open the scoring early in Barcelona’s 3-1 victory. He played all 10 Croatian qualifiers for the Euros, scoring a goal and setting up four.



In the star-studded Croatian midfield, Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic is the one who scores the most goals. In the qualifying campaign, he led the team by netting six times in nine appearances. The most important one came in the final qualifier at Malta when he slotted home from the edge of the area for a 1-0 victory that sent Croatia to France.



The 62-year-old coach was hastily hired in September as “the best option,” as federation head Davor Suker put it just days after his predecessor Niko Kovac was fired following two disappointing results threatened Croatia’s aspirations to qualify for France. Cacic lived up to expectations as Croatia won the remaining two qualifiers to advance courtesty of group winner Italy coming from behind to beat Norway in the last round. While Cacic, who won the domestic double with Dinamo Zagreb in 2012 and led it to the group stage of the Champions League, proved to be the right choice, doubts remain over his assistant. Former defender Josip Simunic was hired by the federation even though he was banned for 10 games for leading fans in a pro-Nazi chant. Simunic missed the 2014 World Cup over the incident in the qualifying playoff against Iceland in 2013. Cacic was given a contract through the 2018 World Cup.

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