BBC Chief Football Writer Phil McNulty on Hvar: Talks Croatia World Cup and Croatians in the Premier League

Total Croatia News

July 30, 2018 – He has one of the most enviable jobs in the world – chief football writer for the BBC. TCN catches up with Phil McNulty over morning coffee in Jelsa for his thoughts on Croatia’s World Cup performance and the impact of Croatian players in the Premier League. 

You have been coming to Croatia for 15 years on holiday and also following the football. Were you surprised by Croatia’s achievements at the World Cup?

Yes I was surprised. I think if either both Croatia and England would have taken a final and semi-final finish before the start. But when I saw Croatia play Argentina, they were amazing, and after that it was less of a surprise.

There were a couple of factors which I thought would come into play in the semi-final against England. Croatia had just played two matches with extra-time and penalties, whereas England had a relatively smooth ride against Sweden. But I had this thing in the back of my mind the whole time that Croatia’s midfield – Rakitic and especially Modric – was where they would win the game. I think England could have won the game in the first half, but overall Croatia just deserved to win.

I feared for them in the final. Firstly, due to fatigue, but also because France were the best team in the tournament, but to get to the final was a fantastic achievement for a country which is so small.

What was your opinion of the penalty in the final?

I have a strange relationship with VAR in that I am not totally convinced by it. It is meant to be clear and obvious. And that to me was not clear and obvious. If you watch it, the referee walks back to give the decision, then turns back to have another look. You can make a case that it hit Perisic’s hand, but it was not a clear and obvious mistake, so I feel the penalty was harsh.

You mentioned Modric as the player of the tournament. Who were the other stand out players for Croatia?

I really liked Perisic. Perisic is a really top class player. He is still being linked with Manchester United, as he has been for a while now. I just thought the way he played in the first half of the final, and against England, he was absolutely outstanding. Modric gets all the attention as he is a world-class player, but Perisic was also excellent. Vida was also great, although I am not sure he is a Premier League player. I just think he had a good run in the tournament. The goalkeeper was also good, but I am not sure he was fit for the final. He was injured against, I think, Russia. Looking at some of the goals conceded in the final – from Pogba and Mbappe, I wonder if a fully fit Subasic might have saved them. But the combination of Modric and Rakitic in the middle – they are two class players.

How do you compare the 2018 Croatian team to that of France 98?

That was a very good team with some amazing players, with the likes of Bilic and Suker. That was a different generation and it was possibly even more naturally gifted than the one they have now. But there is something about Croatia and their football teams. They have a real spirit about them. Against England, you expected them in the second half to tire, after the long games before, but once they got the wind in their sales after halftime, and you just felt that Croatia would do it. I think there is a special spirit about Croatia and their football team, which drives them on to do the things they did. There is something about the team and the fans that drives them to do the things they did in Moscow.

Tell us a little about the Croatian fans in Russia.

Not a lot of England fans were in Russia until the latter stages, and the Croatian support was huge. They seemed to vastly outnumber the French in the final. They were very noisy in and around the stadium before the game, and when we left the stadium 90 minutes after the end, there were still thousands of them singing, proud that they had reached the final and what the team had achieved, rather than sad at the loss. They were really great and there was no trouble. They were happy, loud and boisterous, as they deserved to be. And of course the Croatian shirt stands out wherever they go.

How significant is the shirt, do you think? It is really distinctive.

It is hard to say if there is a connection between the team, the fans and the shirt, but it is such a distinctive shirt, and there were thousands of them together. It was really distinctive and stands out, and there were hardly any Croatian fans in anything but the Croatian shirts. It was great.

And if England had got to the final, do you think there would have been anything close to what we experienced in Zagreb?

Haha. Probably not, no, it would probably have been a lot more sedate. Croatia deserved it all – they did such a great job in Russia.

The Croatian national league is not so strong. It is probably one of the weakest in Europe, and yet so many good players come from Croatia and play for the best teams in Europe. Why is that, do you think?

I think every country produces them every now and then. But Croatia is a very sporting country – the land of Ivanisevic and many others. And I hear their waterpolo team is also outstanding. Vlasic, who plays for Everton, has a famous high-jumping sister, and so on. And now they have one of the best midfielders in the world – he has been for years and was outstanding for Tottenham. They are a sporting country and just seem to produce world class players. Modric is obviously one, and Rakitic is not far behind.

England will come up against Croatia again in October, this time behind closed doors. Your prediction?

Behind closed doors will obviously be strange. Playing in front of your own fans, especially England’s passionate fans, is one thing, and behind closed doors could work in Croatia’s favour. I wouldn’t predict that England will beat Croatia, but I think being behind closed doors will work in Croatia’s favour.

Let’s turn to the Premier League. Lots of foreign influences over the last 25 years. How important has the contribution of Croatian players been?

We have some really good ones. Slaven Bilic of course, Suker towards the end of his career, and of course Modric in more recent times. They were big stars. Igor Stimac and Asimovic in Derby. There was someone who played at Aston Villa as well – you might be able to help me with that one (full author disclosure – as an Aston Villa fan, my first contact with Croatia was the legendary Bosko Balaban – enough said…). Lovren is a maligned figure at Liverpool. There was a lot made of him being substituted against Spurs after 31 minutes last season against Harry Kane, something he was reminded of before the World Cup Semi-Final. But he won that battle in the semi-final. He played in both the Champions League and World Cup final, so he has had a huge impact. But by far and away the best was Modric – he was a class act at Tottenham. There has always been a Croatian strand running through the Premier League, something which may now continue with Perisic at Manchester United perhaps?

Slaven Bilic, the manager. Discuss.

And the television pundit. He is doing a great job as a television pundit, even though he is on the wrong channel… Strange one. He had a great first season at West Ham and he got them into Europe. They had that great last season at Upton Park. Very emotional. They played some great football and the fans really liked him, because of course he played for them. And then the move to the London Stadium, where it took a long time to adjust. It was a big change for West Ham, who were so linked to that one stadium at Upton Park, moving to this big bowl of a stadium which was not the same thing. He ran out of steam but he remains very popular in England due to his television punditry, and I don’t think his managerial reputation has been damaged. He is a great pundit – emotional but analytical. He knows what he is talking about.

You mentioned Modric, but apart from Luka, who was the best Croatian player in the Premiership, and who was the worst?

As an Aston Villa fan, I will let you name the worst… The best? I was always a big fan of Davor Suker, even though he was coming to the end of his career. Alen Boksic was also fantastic at Middlesbrough. But the thing that sets Modric apart is his consistency.

Arrogance and disrespect. Your thoughts on Luka Modric’s comments about England, which caused some waves.

There was lots of talk from Moddisrespectdiresepect being shown to Croatian players, which I felt was very unfair. because there was no disrespect shown whatsoever from England’s players. This was the most down-to-earth England group of players I can ever remember, and there were always very respectful of Croatia’s players, particularly Modric. They spoke in glowing terms about him.

I think the song ‘It’s coming home’ was a strange thing. People seemed to latch onto it as this arrogant English attititude, whereas if you actually know the song, it is actually a lament of England’s failures over the years, and it first came out 22 years ago, when England was hosting Euro 96. That was 22 years ago. I think some people were upset that some former England players predicted an England win, which is natural enough. I think the disrespect thing was a little unfair on England.

You are a regular visitor to Jelsa and come every year. One of the things you do each year is your epic BBC Premier League predictions in the same cafe. Any advance hints on who you think will will this year?

Haha, yes I do them in the same Jelsa cafe each year. I will still go with Manchester City, and I think Liverpool will be their closest challengers. Let’s see if anything changes before the transfer window closes, but they will be the top two, with the other four – Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham battling for the top four.

Follow Phil on Twitter.


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