Zagreb: Still riding the wave of their historic World Cup run, Croatia are heading for a potential reality check as their new season starts Thursday with a friendly against Portugal in Faro.
It will be the tiny Balkan nation’s first match since the side led by star midfielder Luka Modric succumbed to France in the World Cup final in July – a loss celebrated like a victory by underdogs who had never made it so far on the world stage.
That fairytale glow took the spotlight off controversies plaguing football in Croatia, from the unsavoury ultra-nationalism of its hardcore supporters to a litany of legal problems. But fans will be reminded of the former when Croatia face England in their first Nations League home match, October 12.
The match will be played in an empty stadium – punishment by UEFA for the swastika drawn on a pitch in Split, on Croatia’s Adriatic coast, ahead of a Euro 2016 qualifier with Italy.
That darker side of Croatia’s football fairytale also reared its head during the World Cup celebrations, when the players invited a singer known for pro-Nazi sympathies to join them on the bus and stage at their welcoming party in the capital city.
Both Modric and Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic, who will skip the Portugal match, will continue to be the pillars of the ‘Vatreni’ – Croatian for ‘Fiery Ones’.
But they are ageing fast. Modric turns 33, Sunday while goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, striker Mario Mandzukic and defender Vedran Corluka all ended their international careers in August.
Coach Zlatko Dalic admitted it will take time to rebuild. “We are world vice-champions, we reached our peak in Russia and now everything will go down, which is normal,” he was quoted as saying by a local newspaper here.
But the coach said he is focusing on the long game. “I am not worried or restless. My goal is Euro 2020, not the match with Portugal or the Nations League. We will try to win, but our real goal is the Euro,” Dalic added.
Dalic sees the upcoming matches, including a Nations League match against Spain, September 11, as a good opportunity for younger players who did not get a chance in Russia. “We will use Portugal and Spain for real preparations, to find a new young energy,” said Dalic.
“It is natural that players will retire. It is important we find their proper replacements. We will start doing it now”
Zlato Dalic – Croatia coach