Analysis

Why some Croatian football fans would actually be glad to see their side lose to England

Croatia are in a World Cup semi-final, but that hasn't been a cause for mass celebration back home. Michael Yokhin on a nation divided between their admirable football team and behind-the-scenes turmoil

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Croatia are responsible for England's biggest football fiasco of the millennium so far. In November 2007, they came to Wembley and defeated Steve McClaren's team 3-2 even though they had sealed their qualification already, and enabled Russia to go to Euro 2008 at the Three Lions' expense. Now, having defeated Russia in the World Cup, Croatia are about to face England in a semi-final.

None of the England players from 2007 remain in the squad, but Croatia still have Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Vedran Corluka, and – quite significantly – Ivica Olic on the bench as the assistant coach. Olic scored one of the crucial goals at Wembley that night, and his tireless work and never-say-die attitude were his strengths as a player. That spirit is of extreme importance at the current tournament.

A different mood

Ironically, though, the public atmosphere around the team has changed significantly over the last decade. Once, footballers used to unite the nation and were a source of pride. That is no longer the case, and the national team now divides Croatia, even if most of the players themselves are not at fault.

Croatian football administrators are seen as the guilty party. Most are perceived to be rotten to the core. The level of disgust is so acute that many fans want the national team to fail, while coaches are largely seen as puppets of the FA president Davor Suker and former Dinamo Zagreb director Zdravko Mamic (below), widely viewed as the most powerful man in Croatian football, who was found guilty of fraud in 2018.

There was a general consensus that the previous coach Ante Cacic, who used to work at Dinamo in the past, was indeed a puppet. He was sacked towards the end of the qualifiers when Croatia were in serious danger of missing out on the World Cup, replaced by the largely unknown Zlatko Dalic. The immediate results were sensationally good – the team won a crucial away fixture in Ukraine, then convincingly overcame Greece in the playoffs. Dalic was hailed as hero by some, but others were more sceptical.

Croatian journalist Juraj Vrdoljak of Telesport explains: "Dalic is not as connected to Mamic as Cacic, but he still worked as a coach and sporting director at Varazdin with people who are very close to the Mamic regime. He said that he never had to do anything with him, but numerous photos of them together were found. His connections with the current FA setup make him suspicious". 

In short, Dalic wasn't able to prove clean image beyond a reasonable doubt. Meanwhile even star player and captain Modric has felt the impact. He's been charged with perjury on suspicion of making false statements in the trial of Mamic, regarding his transfer from Dinamo Zagreb to Tottenham in 2008. Modric faces up to five years in prison if found guilty.

The situation is sad and bizarre, but that is what Croats have had to deal with in recent years. While some claim that the national team should be supported no matter what, others will actually be disappointed if they win the World Cup.

One last tournament

Such a possibility is real, as Croatia have reached the World Cup semi-finals for the first time since 1998, in what could be a last chance for the golden generation of midfielders, led by Modric and Rakitic. On the pitch, one of the most important issues over the years have been finding the ideal tactical solution that will enable the two to flourish together, not unlike the difficulties England experienced with Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, and the problem remains unsolved.

Under Dalic, the team has proved to be especially successful when playing in transition, such as in the magnificent 3-0 win over Argentina. They have been much less effective against sides who haven't allowed them space to create swift attacking moves.

The match against Nigeria was largely disappointing, even though Croatia eventually won 2-0, and they have ridden their luck in the knockout stages so far, beating inferior Denmark and Russia sides on penalties. After scoring a fortunate early equaliser, they barely managed to threaten against the organised Danes in the last 16.

A team with vulnerabilities

As Juraj Vrdoljak says: "Dalic is a flexible coach who tried various tactical systems, but he is unable to change the course of a game, and Croatia lacks cohesion in midfield. That is the most frustrating thing. It would have been much easier to beat Denmark and Russia if they knew how to get the best out of Modric and Rakitic. The conclusion is simple – deny them space, play deep, and you'll cause Croatia a lot of trouble"

Are England capable of playing like Denmark? Even more importantly, are England willing to do so? Those questions are most important ahead of the big game at Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday.

The fact that Croatia's best game was counterattacking an Argentina side that needed to win suggests that a cautious approach could be logical. However, England might be fragile if they invite pressure - especially with a playmaker like Modric in his present mood.

The Real Madrid superstar has been imperious throughout, despite the tactical issues and off-pitch distractions. His attitude has been phenomenal, and the way he sprinted to save a lost ball during the extra time versus Russia was remarkable. The 32-year-old is playing his heart out, and he had the courage to take penalties in two shootouts even after missing a seemingly crucial spot-kick after 116 minutes against Denmark.

Positives on the pitch

Modric is ably supported by players who have long been known for those battling qualities - especially versatile striker Mario Mandzukic and speedy winger Ivan Perisic. There are young performers too, and Ante Rebic has been a revelation at this World Cup. After finishing the season strongly and helping Eintracht Frankfurt to beat Bayern Munich in the German Cup final, he arrived at Russia in top form.

Rebic was used as a substitute and got sent off against Mexico in the 2014 World Cup, but now he is one of the key players. His physical strength and technical skills could pose significant problems for England.

In short, Croatia can't be considered underdogs against Gareth Southgate's team. Despite all of the turmoil behind the scenes, they have a very good chance of winning in Moscow, even though numerous fans back home would actually be left disappointed if that happens.  

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