You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Top Stories

Croatia invoke grievance procedure for closed-doors rerun with England

The Guardian logo The Guardian 11/10/2018 Daniel Taylor in Rijeka
Luka Modric (top right) said Croatia ‘felt a bit disrespected’ by the ‘football’s coming home’ talk among the English media before the World Cup semi-final. © Getty Images Luka Modric (top right) said Croatia ‘felt a bit disrespected’ by the ‘football’s coming home’ talk among the English media before the World Cup semi-final.

On the hills behind one of the stands, a small group of Croatia fans could be seen investigating whether there was a decent vantage point among the steep inclines and cluster of trees. On Friday night, when two of the World Cup semi-finalists renew acquaintances, it is tempting to think the owners of the high-rise apartments next door could make a few quid in bribes from the England supporters who have travelled to Croatia and might need some balcony space to watch the game. Otherwise, the gates will be closed.

The primitive, caged end that would usually be decorated with St George’s flags will remain padlocked and that epic night in Moscow, with 78,000 people inside the Luzhniki Stadium and millions of others tuning in, will seem a long time ago.

Related: John Stones tells England to start new era by healing World Cup wound

All of which means a slightly surreal evening lies ahead on Kvarner Bay. Croatia, one imagines, must be getting used to it, having played four other matches behind closed doors in the past three years. For England, however, this will be their 988th international since 1872 and the only time they have experienced a “ghost game” of this nature.

Let’s not kid ourselves that England’s followers have always behaved in a way that enables the Football Association to take the moral high ground, but on this occasion it hardly seems fair that Uefa’s attempts to improve the behaviour of the home supporters means the away fans have to miss out too.

Not that the ground will be entirely deserted. Uefa’s rules stipulate both football associations can have 75 passes each. Add in the local police, Uefa representatives, stadium personnel and an oversubscribed press box (where the radio commentators have been told to remember there will be no crowd noise and, if necessary, to talk more than usual), at least some of the 8,500 multicoloured seats in the Stadion HNK Rijeka will be taken.

The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.

All the same, it is easy to understand why Gareth Southgate used the word “strange” – several times – to describe what awaits England and why John Stones said he could not remember playing in an empty stadium since his teenage days with Barnsley in the FA Youth Cup. Southgate was even asked whether he would ask his players to mind their swearing, on the basis that it could be picked up by the microphones because of the absence of crowd noise drowning it out.

“Well, we’ve spent two years encouraging them to speak,” Southgate said, “so to stop them from speaking now would be slightly against what we’ve been trying. It’s for the television to decide where to put their microphones.” Nonetheless, he has mentioned it to his players in private.

Related: Jadon Sancho has followed a path that more English talents should take | Eni Aluko

If nothing else, at least there will be no renditions of the Three Lions song that seemed to get under the skin of Croatia’s players at the World Cup and, judging by Luka Modric’s latest comments, might still be a factor in their motivation.

That always felt like a slightly contrived grievance – the idea that “football’s coming home” was in any way disrespectful – when most people would think of it as just a bit of fun resurrected from Euro 96.

“The song is humour,” Southgate said. “It is English humour but unless you are a fan of Fawlty Towers maybe you wouldn’t get the slant on it. I think it is interesting how we are viewed by the rest of the world when we travel and, as a result, I am always putting across the importance of representing the country in the right way. The rest of the world does view us in a certain way and, yes, feel that we have a sense of entitlement. I can only speak for this group of players and say that is not the way we operate.”

Nevertheless, England’s hosts appear to think it necessary to create a little needle around the occasion. “We felt a bit disrespected,” Modric, Croatia’s captain, stated when the questions turned to the World Cup. “It wasn’t the players or the head coach, more the media and some commentary we could read or watch. We were not appreciated as much as we deserve and it was extra motivation for our team, even in a World Cup semi-final when you don’t need extra motivation. That’s how we felt and that’s how I felt.

“Is that a problem for England? That’s something you have to answer yourself.”

The more pressing matter for Southgate is that, in terms of the Nations League, this tie has the feel of a relegation six-pointer now Spain have beaten them both – in Croatia’s case 6-0. England face Spain in Seville on Monday and Southgate knows his team are in danger of being demoted.

“The group is a strange one because it has only four games. The game at Wembley was really tight but because we lost that [2-1] and Spain got the result it puts a big slant on the outcome straight away.”

More From The Guardian

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon