Slaven Bilic: We know smaller teams can win - and I fancy our chances
Writing for The London Independent, the Croatia coach says he is confident his team can meet the rising expectations of his country and bring home the trophy
Let's be honest: the gap in football is getting smaller. The gap between the big football nations and the so-called smaller nations is closing and at this European Championship is smaller than ever. It is what makes this tournament more exciting than ever and it is what gives hope to every team, my Croatia side included.
If you go back 20 years in European football then there were certain teams you could bet your life were going to win games. They were the big nations and they are still very good now. I'm talking about the likes of Germany, Italy and France. But now football is changing, it is not so easy for these teams to dominate matches. Football has so many emerging nations that the old order can never be so sure that they will win games.
Are there any easy matches in European football anymore? People say that games against teams like San Marino and Andorra are easy. But hang on a minute, even Andorra managed to make it to half-time at 0-0 against you English in that Euro qualifier in Barcelona last year.
The way I look at it is like this: if Germany or France were to play 20 games against teams like Turkey or Switzerland the bigger countries would win the majority of the games. But they would not win them all. And this is what we have over the next three weeks, one-off matches in which there is a difference in class and ability. But not such a big gulf that it cannot be overcome in one game. Greece have shown us the way in Euro 2004.
That is why this tournament is so difficult to predict. I have read that this is Spain's time to come alive. That the Netherlands have a chance. Greece are the defending champions. You only have to look at the preliminary groups that these teams came through to know that every team that made it through has done a great job to reach Euro 2008.
At this stage it is important to try to channel the pressure the players feel in the right way and keep the mood around the training camp positive. And before you ask, no, I haven't performed my Euro 2008 song to the players. My band Rawbau got together with a few friends a couple of months ago and we recorded "Vatreno Ludilo", a song about supporting the Croatia team. The media in Croatia have billed it as the team's official song. It's not the official song. I wrote it and recorded it with the band because I wanted to do something for the fans and we have been giving away copies of it free with newspapers in Croatia. I'm on guitar by the way.
Rather than music, I've tried to keep the players calm by doing the same things we would before any game. They are bright guys, they realise the significance of being at Euro 2008 and they know that the expectation in Croatia is huge. Back home, people believe that we can win this tournament. We have kept training schedules the same and we haven't overloaded the players with lots more information. We have just kept it simple.
You Tottenham supporters watching our games are in for a treat. I have complete faith in Luka Modric, he is a world-class player. Let's just say he is a top, top, top footballer and any manager in this competition would want him in his team. He can make a great impact for Croatia and I'm sure he will do the same for Spurs next season.
I have heard all the arguments about our striker situation but I am very happy with the players we have. Of course we miss [injured Arsenal striker] Eduardo da Silva. There are very few players like him in football today but we have had to cope without him for a while. My team can cope but there is no point pretending otherwise: we are less dangerous without him. And it's not just scoring goals. In open play he can hold the ball up as we build attacks. He is even important defensively.
We play tomorrow against the hosts Austria in Vienna and of course that won't be an easy game even if – with respect to our opponents – I believe that we have the better team on paper. I know they have been waiting for this moment for years but we are going to give everything to start with a win.
There are few surprises in modern football when it comes to players. With the coverage of European football through television, the internet and the availability of DVDs of every match that is played, you never come up against players you have never heard of at this level. Put it this way, everybody knows how Manchester United play. It just happens to be the case that not everyone is good enough to stop them. It will be the same at this tournament: we know the qualities of our opposition, but can we stop them.
Am I nervous? Of course I am a little nervous but then so is everyone. I reckon even Guus Hiddink is a little nervous because it is not every day you coach a team in the European Championship. But I am not afraid. I feel ready, I feel calm and I feel motivated. And I can't wait to make the people of Croatia happy.
Slaven Bilic is a Unicef ambassador. The fee for this column has been donated to charity.