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Football: Croatia relishing fiery World Cup opener

Croatia coach Niko Kovac is intent on challenging golf legend Walter Hagen's claim that 'no one remembers who came in second' at the World Cup.

ZAGREB: Croatia coach Niko Kovac is intent on challenging golf legend Walter Hagen's claim that 'no one remembers who came in second' at the World Cup.

Kovac's Croats, who made the Brazil finals through the play-offs, have the dubious honour of opening the 2014 football showcase against the hosts in Sao Paulo on June 12.

With the presence of Brazil casting a long shadow over Group A, the former national captain has realistically set his team's sights on the runners-up spot behind the five-time world champions to make it into the last 16. Mexico and Cameroon are also in the group.

"I think Brazil are the obvious favourites. They are one of the best sides in the world, after all. But second place is wide open," was his assessment of Croatia's prospects.

Kovac was parachuted in to steer Croatia through the play-offs after Igor Stimac resigned, following Croatia's 2-0 defeat in the final qualifier to Scotland, with the Balkan side claiming second, albeit nine points behind Belgium.

Kovac's elevation from the ranks of coaching the Under 21s proved inspired with Croatia ultimately beating Iceland to their fourth World Cup finals after 1998, 2002 and 2006.

The tense date with Brazil is not the first time the two countries' paths have crossed at a World Cup.

Eight years ago, the pair met in Germany, with Kovac figuring in the side that put up a brave fight before succumbing to a Kaka goal in the group game in Berlin.

Kovac commented: "We will try to make it difficult for them but it won't be easy.

"Look at 2006, though, when we gave them a very difficult game. Dida made some good saves and Brazil needed a cracking goal from Kaka to win.

"I remember that I only played about half an hour in that game and had to go off with an injury. I hope I'll be able to have a bit more influence this time."

Despite the enormity of the task ahead of them, Kovac is relishing his date with Neymar and co.

"Brazil in the first game with the whole world watching will be something," said the 42-year-old.

Croatia are returning to football's top table after missing out on South Africa four years ago.

Their best showing came in France '98 when they secured third spot -- Kovac missed out on that because he had just returned from injury.

Against Brazil, Croatia will be missing Mario Mandzukic, the striker who scored in the play-offs but also picked up a red card ruling him out of the June 12 curtain-raiser.

Croatia are captained by the experienced Darijo Srna, with the midfield inspiration coming from playmakers Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar.

With Mandzukic absent in Sao Paulo, the attack will be led by the likes of Brazil-born former Arsenal striker Eduardo, veteran Ivica Olic and Hull City's Nikita Jelavic.

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