Closed doors fixture a reminder of Croatia’s ills
CROATIA’S first fixture back on home soil after reaching the World Cup final should be a homecoming for heroes who defied the odds to carry a nation of just four million to the biggest game in football. Instead, not one fan will be allowed in to see their country’s World Cup semifinal rematch with England at an 8,000 capacity stadium in Rijeka for a Nations League clash on Friday.
The hosts are completing a UEFA sanction to play two games behind closed doors after a swastika symbol was carved into the pitch during a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy in June 2015.
“It is not fair because we will play against England, two World Cup semifinalists, and we must play without fans,” Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic said.
Just three months on from the highs of Russia it is just the latest example of the clash between Croatia’s ability to develop world class players and the problems it faces off the field.
The Italy match where the swastika appeared was also held behind closed doors as a punishment for racist chanting against Norway in an earlier qualifier. At Euro 2016 a match with the Czech Republic had to be halted as flares rained down on the pitch from Croatian fans as a protest against their own football association.
“Croatia is a football phenomenon, a miracle on the field of play, but there are issues to be solved,” said UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin. “The key problems in Croatia are hooligan-related incidents that can lead to drastic measures, and relatively poor infrastructure, compared to similar countries.”
FIFA’s recently crowned player of the year Luka Modric was castigated by fans in the build-up to the World Cup for his role in the case that saw former Dinamo Zagreb chief executive Zdravko Mamic sentenced to a six-and-a-half year jail term for corruption and embezzling funds from the transfers of players.
Modric was even accused of perjury, but will not face prosecution.
That darker side of Croatia’s football fairy tale also reared its head just after the World Cup final when the players invited a singer known for pro-Nazi sympathies to join them on stage at their welcoming party in Zagreb.