Kaliningrad: Former World Cup semifinalists Croatia take on African powerhouses Nigeria here Saturday in their opening Group D match that may prove a test of the organisers’ anti-racism drive.
It is 20 years since Croatia surged to the final four at France ‘98 with a resounding quarterfinal win over favourites Germany, and fans will be buoyed by a squad brimming with attacking talent.
Nigeria, long one of African football’s underachievers, boast several players with English Premier League pedigree, and will hope they can secure only their second win in their last 12 World Cup matches.
Saturday will also prove a crucial test for FIFA’s anti-discrimination drive, with tension running high in the build-up to the tournament over a spate of recent incidents.
Racism has plagued Russian football since clubs began purchasing foreign players after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Russia’s football federation was last month slapped with a 25,000-euro fine after racist chants from supporters during a friendly against France.
FIFA has instituted a three-strike policy against any racist abuse from fans across the tournament, threatening to abandon matches if supporters ignore a stadium speaker announcement and then a pause in play.
Nigeria’s Dutch-born defender Will Troost-Ekong told Britain’s ‘The Guardian’ newspaper last month that the players would react as one to any abuse.
Croatia, appearing at their fifth World Cup, boast a host of world-class talent, including Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic of Juventus. Their attacking flair will no doubt be a problem for the Super Eagles, as Nigeria are popularly known.
The Super Eagles are this World Cup’s youngest squad, and the performances of several Premier League regulars, including Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi, Leicester’s Wilfried Ndidi and Victor Moses of Chelsea will be crucial.
Lost 0-2 to Brazil Lost 0-2 to England
Beat Senegal 2-1 Lost 0-1 to Czech Republic