England prepare for surreal atmosphere in Croatia rematch
Almost empty ground will make for a peculiar experience for Southgate’s side
Gareth Southgate: “I am always putting across the importance of representing the country in the right way.” Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
On the hills behind one of the stands, a small group of Croatian fans could be seen investigating whether it was possible to find a decent vantage point among the steep inclines and cluster of trees.
Tonight, 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 fans 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 feel a long time ago.
All which means a slightly surreal evening ahead on the Kvarner Bay.
Croatia, one imagines, must be getting used to it, having played another four games behind closed doors in the last three years.
For England, however, this will be their 188th 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 over-subscribed pressbox (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 multi-coloured seats in the Stadion HNK Rijeka will be taken.
All the same, it was 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 would 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 cameras to decide where to put their microphones.” Nonetheless, he has mentioned it to his players in private.
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 in 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 and say that is not the way we operate.”
Still, though, England’s hosts appear to think it necessary to create a little needle around the occasion.
“We felt a bit disrespected,” Luka Modric, Croatia’s captain, reflected 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 issue 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.”