RIJEKA, Croatia, Oct 10 – 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 semi-final 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 semi-finalists, and we must play without fans,” Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic told AFP.
“I know UEFA punished us but it is not right to play without fans.
“We have to accept it and try to do the best we can from our side.”
Just three months on from the highs of Russia, the sight of two of the final four playing a competitive match in front of empty stands is just the latest example of the clash between Croatia’s ability to develop world class players and the structural and cultural 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.
– Dark side to a fairytale –
“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.”
Yet, even those revered on the field have been embroiled in controversy.
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, still seen by many as the strongman of Croatian football, 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 according to a report last week.
That darker side of Croatia’s football fairytale also reared its head in the days 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.
The joy as 100,000 fans greeted the team back from Russia in July on a open-top bus parade through the capital contrasts sharply with the soullessness of the empty stadium that will greet them on Friday night.
Croatia also suffered a hangover on the field against Spain last month to already leave Dalic more focused on Euro 2020 than another attempt at glory in the Nations League.
“We lost the first game 6-0 against Spain! We have to improve and play a good game but it is not easy to play against England without fans,” he added.
“Our target is the Euro 2020. I know now we have the Nations League but now we are tired and gave everything we had in the World Cup. Now we need time for a fresh start.”
A similar reset is needed off the field to let Croatia’s stars shine without being shrouded in controversy.