Croatia and England met for their UEFA Nations League match on October 12, 2018, in front of an empty Rujevica stadium in Rijeka. TCN was there to experience the quiet.
On Friday, October 12th, the national teams of Croatia and England met for a rematch of sorts, exactly three months after the World Cup semi-final. This time, the two nations fought one another in the Nations League, a new UEFA competition where Spain is also in the same group as Croatia and England. Both Croatia and England lost to Spain in the first round of games, though we’re still trying to forget the catastrophe Croatia experienced against Sergio Ramos & Co. last month. Yes, we are talking about the 6:0 defeat.
Croatia hosted England behind closed doors at Rujevica stadium on Friday as they served the remainder of their UEFA penalty from an incident in 2015. If you recall, Croatia was penalized when a swastika was spotted on the pitch during a Euro 2016 qualifier between Croatia and Italy at Poljud stadium in Split.
With Croatian football euphoria still high and mighty, a punishment of empty stands against a football giant like England was a massive hit to the gut for all fans of Croatian and English football. It was the first time England coach Gareth Southgate and Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić ever played in such a situation, though we can’t say the same for many of our star Croatian footballers who have gone down this road a few times before. While it was anything but the ideal football atmosphere, Croatia and England were the slightest bit lucky to have the comfort of the media supporting them from the stands – and TCN was lucky to be among the many (mostly English) media in attendance.
I decided to make the trip to Rijeka from Split as I had one year before when Croatia played Finland at Rujevica for a World Cup 2018 qualifier. A game many of us quickly hoped to forget, Croatia’s draw against Finland not only forced coach Ante Čačić to be sacked, but it seriously jeopardized Croatia’s chances at playing in the World Cup at all. On the bright side, it was the beginning of the Dalić era – and oh, how much Croatia has accomplished since then.
While I wanted to make the trip to see the World Cup finalists live in action for the first time since Russia, I also knew I’d regret missing the intimacy of watching Croatia play to a group of 50 journalists. Would anyone cheer? Would anyone sing the national anthems? Were we allowed to speak at all? So many questions ripped through my head before the match, and now that the game is over, I’ve compiled some of my favorite observations to share with you.
One thing I knew to expect was hearing a lot of talking, er, screaming, among the players on the pitch – something we don’t get to experience in a full stadium or by watching our favorite football stars on TV. Three Croatian players, in particular, could be heard the most during the game – Rakitić, Livaković, and Rebić. Rakitić orchestrated a lot of what went on in the game, such as ‘Pivarić, go here’ or ‘Watch out for him!’. Livaković was certainly the loudest of all Croatia players, as any goalkeeper should be, and constantly yelled for his defenders to mark, open up, and find certain players on the pitch. Rebić could be heard shouting words of encouragement, such as ‘That’s it!” – and yes, the players were not shy of shouting their favorite Croatian curse words a fair amount of times.
England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford shouted instructions to his players for all 90 minutes, but best of all, some of my favorite one-liners came from the England side: “Just f**king leave it!” one player shouted when the ball was going out of bounds, and “Kick the ball already!” was screamed to Pickford after he took his time with a goal kick.
While I couldn’t hear anything from England coach Gareth Southgate, probably because I was sitting on the opposite side, Dalić did not stop communicating with his players throughout the game. “Play it left!” or “Pull back!” could be heard from the coach, who might otherwise seem like a quiet and collected coach from his sideline shots at the World Cup.
The match between Croatia and England was judged by famous German referee Felix Brych, whose perfect German accent telling players to ‘Knock it off!’ or ‘Next time that will be a yellow!’ made the trip to Rijeka worth it.
Perhaps my favorite bit from the evening was hearing the various nicknames the players have for each other. “Luki” (Luka Modrić), “Raki” (Ivan Rakitić), “Reba” (Ante Rebić), “Krama” (Andrej Kramarić) were heard often, while Josip Pivarić could be heard as both “Josipe” and “Piva”. Vida, however, is a last name that didn’t need shortening.
England, on the other hand, called each other by first names. “Eric”, “Raheem”, “Marcus”, and “Harry” were heard often, though Ben Chillwell could be heard as “Chilly” at times.
While there were no fans allowed inside the stadium, that didn’t stop a group of English fans who watched the game from an area above (and outside) of the stadium. For all 90 minutes, the English fans did not stop chanting and cheering on their beloved national team – and they seemed to get louder as the game progressed. This probably had something to do with their pint drinking progressing, too.
While it was interesting to experience two of the biggest national teams in the world face off without fans, let’s hope Croatia never has to go through this again.