Croatia 2 v 0 England (11.10.2006)
Croatia is a country passionate about its football, with a reputation for fanatical and vociferous support. Backed up with some quality football talent that was located throughout Europe’s top leagues in the form of Modric, Krancjar, Corluka, Simunic, Eduardo, Olic – some of which have plyed their trade in England. This made the visit to Zagreb even more appealing.
I’d heard positive things about Croatia as a rapidly developing tourist destination and was looking forward to visiting the capital city Zagreb for England’s second away game in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign. Things weren’t quite so positive surrounding Steve McClaren and the national team though, following a lack lustre performance 4 days earlier in the 0-0 home draw against Macedonia at Old Trafford.
Flying in from Luton with Wizz air – I touched down into Zagreb just before lunchtime on the day before the game. I opted for the ‘convenient’ if not more expensive option of taking a taxi straight to the hotel, preferring the early outlay of Kuna’s than to try and work out the local bus route into town.
Zagreb is definitely a city that’s worth the effort of a weekend visit – a colourful city with enough culture to cater for all tastes; enough to keep sightseeing tourists happy; enough bars and cafes to keep sightseeing drinkers occupied; and throw in two domestic club sides in Dinamo & NK and you can easily fill up a 2-day itinerary!
My afternoon was spent ticking off the sightseeing box. City tourist maps provided at my hotel suggested two city walks that would encompass most of what the city has to offer from a visual perspective. The walk I chose to do incorporated the main sights of the city centre – Croatian National Theatre, St Marks Church, Zagreb Cathedral, Dolac Market, Zagreb City Parks and the aptly named ‘Street of a Thousand Bars’ (that’s where I recommend the sightseeing drinkers dedicate their time). The final part of my circular walk unintentionally took me past the England team hotel just as the players were exiting the building to board the coach to attend a training session at the Maksimir.
The Maksimir Stadium – home to the ‘Bad Blue Boys’ of Dinamo Zagreb is a classic eastern bloc stadium, complete with athletics track, and four ‘open to the elements’ and separated stands. The stadium is located in the eastern side of the city centre and can be easily reached by tram (no.4) from the central station. How the volatile atmosphere I was expecting could be generated in a stadium like this was hard to imagine – it certainly wouldn’t if this was a typical game in England!
The big surprise for this match was that McClaren opted to try out a new 3-5-2 attacking formation, and brought in Scott Parker to provide additional cover in the central midfield area. Whilst technically it outnumbered their croation counterparts in midfield, it looked the opposite as the fluidity of Croatia’s midfield of Modric and Krancjar et al ran rings round England. They dished out a footballing lesson that included how to play flowing attacking football, with decisive and penetrative movement whilst maintaining possession of a football! Without going into the nitty gritty it was a hugely disappointing performance, one that leaves you feeling frustrated and confused at such a stagnant lacklustre showing. It was a feeling that I would get more often than not when watching England. You stand there in some far flung destinations, slightly bemused as to why players from “the best league in the world” seemingly struggle to play as a team with any real fluidity, creation and pace.
The dismal performance was confounded by Croatia’s second goal which was entirely created by England themselves! A back pass from Gary Neville managed to bobble up and over Paul Robinsons attempt to launch the ball forward, trickling into the empty net behind him. Two nil at the final whistle, and a miserable end to a poor performance, 5 points dropped in 4 days and qualification was already beginning to stack up against England.
My journey back to London wasn’t quite as straightforward as the outbound leg – a pitcuresque 2 ½ hour international train journey across the border into Slovenia to the capital Ljubljana; a coach transfer out to Brnik Airport; and then an Easyjet flight home. It provided plenty of time for reflection on the pros and cons of watching England away!
Goals: Eduardo 61, Gary Neville 69 og.