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Croatia more than pleased with third place; Suker takes Golden Boot lead.

PARIS (Saturday, July 11, 1998) -- Third place in the World Cup was a magnificent achievement for a nation of 5 million in just its eighth year of existence and its debut in the world soccer championship.

The Croats didn't win the title, but it didn't seem to matter much. Striker Davor Sukerís goal in the 36th minute gave the Croatians a 2-1 decision over The Netherlands for the consolation prize. In the process, Suker became the top scorer in the World Cup finals with his sixth goal of the tournament and will win the Golden Boot unless someone scores at least a hat-trick in Sunday's final.

Suker had been tied with Gabriel Batistuta of Argentina and Christian Vieri of Italy at five. He moved clear and drove an angled left-footed shot that swerved past goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar after going through the legs of defender Jaap Stam with what proved to be the winning goal.

"I am the happiest man in the world tonight," Suker said. "It's great for a small country like ours to finish third in the World Cup. It's almost as good as winning it. I am very proud."

Asked about the Golden Boot, he said: "Let's wait to talk about that tomorrow. The most important thing for me is the medal for coming in third."

Suker gave a perfect through pass to Robert Jarni in the 13th minute and Jarni faked a defender before finding Prosinecki. His right-footed shot from 10 yards found the net to give Croatia a 1-0 advantage.

"It was a great passing play," said Prosinecki, who played for Yugoslavia in the 1990 World Cup -- when there was no Croatia. "When I got the chance, I knew I had to score."

The Netherlands tied it on a solo move by Boudewijn Zenden nine minutes later. Zenden scooted from right wing to midfield, stopped and sent a left-footed drive home off goalkeeper Drazen Ladic's hands.

Ladic made two sliding kick saves on Kluivert before Suker made it 2-1.

"I have no regrets," said Prosinecki. "We are a small country in our first World Cup and we came in third."

Said Croatia coach Miroslav Blazevic: "What we demonstrated is a small and perhaps unknown country is able to show with great elegance what it is capable of. For us, the most important thing was winning this game. We wanted to be the third best team in the world."

Third Place

Croatia 2, The Netherlands 1

Netherlands: Edwin van der Sar; Jaap Stam, Frank de Boer, Arthur Numan; Wim Jonk, Clarence Seedorf, Phillip Cocu (Marc Overmars 46), Edgar Davids; Dennis Bergkamp (Pierre van Hooijdonk 58), Patrick Kluivert, Boudewijn Zenden.
Croatia: Drazen Ladic; Igor Stimac, Slaven Bilic, Zvonimir Soldo, Robert Jarni; Aljosa Asanovic, Robert Prosinecki (Goran Vlaovic 86), Zvonimir Boban (Igor Tudor 78), Mario Stanic, Krunoslav Jurcic; Davor Suker.
Goals: Croatia - Prosinecki 13; Netherlands - Zenden 21; Croatia Suker 36.
Shots at goal: Netherlands 20, Croatia 5.
Shots on goal: Netherlands 8, Croatia 3.
Corner kicks: Netherlands 6, Croatia 1.
Fouls: Netherlands 16, Croatia 19.
Offsides: Netherlands 3, Croatia 5.
Yellow cautionary cards: Netherlands - Davids, 88, Jonk 88; Croatia - Jurcic 33, Stimac, 51, Asanovic, 58, Stanic 75.
Red ejection card: France - Laurent Blanc 74.
Referee: Epifanio Gonzalez (Paraguay).
Attendance: 45,500.