The first time that the Croatian national anthem was ever played and the Croatian flag raised to the highest pole at the Olympic Games was at the Atlanta Olympic Games thanks to the men’s handball team. The Croatian handball team’s path to the gold medal was full of thorns. Few would have predicted such an outcome if they had judged by the first game against Switzerland.
During the second half, Croatia was losing 13-19, but then, the youngest player on the team, goalkeeper Venio Losert, “locked” the goal and deserved the most credit for the tie towards the end of the game. In the last moments of the game, Patrik Ćavar scored for the final 23-22 for Croatia from a penalty shot. In the second game in Group A, Croatia defeated Kuwait 31-22 and the USA 35-27 in the third. Many believe that the deciding game for one of the two top positions in the group, which led to the semi-final, was the one against Russia. Although Croatia had a bad start and were losing 11-13 at half time, it was the goalkeeper again, who was the star of the second half; this time, it was Valter Matošević, who saved a penalty shot by Torgovanov at 24-24 in the last minute of the game. Croatia’s best player in that game, pivot Božidar Jović, scored his seventh goal in that game in a counter-attack and secured a place for Croatia in the semi-finals. In the last game in the group, Croatia lost to Sweden 18-27 and advanced to the semi-final as the second-ranked team. Then World Champions France were the opposing team in the fight for the final. Croatia was leading 12-8 already at half time and ended the game routinely, winning 24-20. Patrik Ćavar scored eight of those goals. The final was again against Sweden, who had defeated Spain 25-20 in the other semi-final and reached the final undefeated. The Olympic gold medal was the only one, which the many-time European and World Champions hadn’t won yet. Still, the experienced Swedish players could not hold out against the vigorous Croatian team who were leading 16-11 at half time. Captain Goran Perkovac, wing player Irfan Smajlagić and pivot Božidar Jović scored six goals each in that game. Thirteen seconds before the end of the game, pivot Nenad Kljaić scored the key goal for the final 27-26. Ecstatic celebration broke out at the sound of the siren and the players went down on their knees to form a “caterpillar” before an audience of 25,000 at the Georgia Dome and millions of TV viewers – a form of their victory celebration still well-known today. Before the Croatian flag was raised and national anthem played, IOC Member and then COC President Antun Vrdoljak presented the gold medals on behalf of the International Olympic Committee to Patrik Ćavar, Valner Franković, Slavko Goluža, Bruno Gudelj, Vladimir Jelčić, Božidar Jović, Nenad Kljaić, Venio Losert, Valter Matošević, Zoran Mikulić, Alvaro Načinović, Goran Perkovac, Iztok Puc, Zlatko Saračević, Irfan Smajlagić and Vladimir Šujster. The second medal for Croatia at the Atlanta Olympic Games was won by the men’s water polo team. In Group B, hey first defeated Greece 8-5 and then Romania 11-6. They lost to Italy 8-10 and defeated Ukraine 16-8. Team USA won the decisive second-place game in the group 10-8. With two defeats, Croatia finished third in the group, which made them play Yugoslavia in the quarterfinal. In it, the Croatian team led by coach Bruno Silić were leading from the beginning to the end and Dubravko Šimenc was the hero of this game, which Croatia won 8-6 (3-1, 2-1, 1-2, 2-2). He scored three goals, among which also the last two ones for 7-5 and 8-6. In the semi-final, Croatia played Italy, then led by coach Ratko Rudić, and won 7-6 (0-1, 2-1, 1-0, 1-2, 1-2, 2-0) after two overtimes. Joško Kreković scored four goals in the game. Head coach Bruno Silić was ejected from this game and suspended from the final game against Spain. Many believe that this was the key reason for Croatia’s defeat in the final. Croatia took a lead in the first quarter. Thanks to the goals scored by Damir Glavan and Tino Vegar Croatia were leading 3-0 in the second quarter, which finished 3-1. But then they started making mistakes that were hard to understand and after captain Perica Bukić was ejected, Spain tied 3-3. Croatia still had some strength left for the third quarter, in which Spain scored 4 shots and Croatia 2 and the third quarter ended with a 5-5 tie. Croatia’s goalkeeper Siniša Školneković did a great job throughout the game and he was the team’s only strong support. He had a few excellent saves in the last quarter, as well, but he couldn’t stop two Spanish shots and Croatia lost 5-7 (1-0, 2-1, 2-4, 0-2). The silver medal was earned by: Maro Balić, Perica Bukić, Damir Glavan, Igor Hinić, Vjekoslav Kobešćak, Joško Kreković, Ognjen Kržić, Dubravko Šimenc, Siniša Školneković, Ratko Štritof, Tino Vegar, Renato Vrbičić and Zdeslav Vrdoljak.