Saturday, September 22, 2018 12:32:26 AM
Still riding the wave of their historic World Cup run, Croatia are heading for a potential reality check as their new season starts with a friendly against Portugal in Faro on Thursday.
It will be the tiny Balkan nation's first match since the side led by star midfielder Luka Modric succumbed to France in the World Cup final in July -- a loss celebrated like a victory by underdogs who had never made it so far on the world stage.
That fairytale glow took the spotlight off controversies plaguing football in Croatia, from the unsavoury ultra-nationalism of its hardcore supporters to a litany of legal problems.
But fans will be reminded of the former when Croatia face England in its first Nations League home match on October 12.
The game will be played in an empty stadium -- punishment by UEFA for the swastika drawn on a pitch in Split, on Croatia's Adriatic coast, ahead of a Euro 2016 qualifier with Italy.
The perpetrators were never found, but it was not the first time Croatian fans have tainted the team's image by using fascist slogans and symbols.
That darker side of Croatia's football fairytale also reared its head during the World Cup celebrations, when the players invited a singer known for pro-Nazi sympathies to join them on the bus and stage at their welcoming party in Zagreb.
- Legal woes -
Even during the euphoria of the World Cup one local paper warned that "after showering in the champagne of victory, not only cosmetic but deep changes should be made" in the sport.
It may be only a matter of time before fans resume calls for the departure of the federation's president, Davor Suker, accused of being a puppet in the hands of Zdravko Mamic, the self-exiled strongman of Croatian football.
Mamic, the former head of the Dinamo Zagreb club, fled to Bosnia after being sentenced in June to a six and a half years in prison for corruption and embezzling funds from players' transfers.
"His influence on Croatian football maybe did not disappear overnight, but now he cannot influence Dinamo or even less the federation as he used to," prominent sports journalist Davorin Olivari told AFP.
The controversy also ensnared Modric, who was charged with giving false testimony during Mamic's trial over his transfer from Dinamo.
For now Modric, who won the Champions League with Real Madrid and the Golden Ball for the World Cup's best player, appears untouchable.
His reputation as a national hero was further cemented when he won the UEFA Player of the Year last month.
- Player shake-up -
Both Modric and Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic, who will skip the Portugal match, will continue to be the pillars of the "Vatreni" -- Croatian for "Fiery Ones".
But they are ageing fast. Modric turns 33 on Sunday while goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, striker Mario Mandzukic and defender Vedran Corluka all ended their international careers in August.
Coach Zlatko Dalic admits it will take time to rebuild.
"We are world vice-champions, we reached our peak in Russia and now everything will go down, which is normal," he told the Sportske Novosti daily paper.
Eight of his 22 World Cup players will be missing on Thursday -- as will Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal.
But the coach says he is focusing on the long game.
"I am not worried or restless. My goal is Euro 2020, not the match with Portugal or the Nations League... We will try to win, but our real goal is the Euro."
Dalic sees the upcoming matches, including a Nations League match against Spain on September 11, as a good opportunity for younger players who did not get a chance in Russia.
They include promising midfielders Marko Rog (Napoli), Mateo Kovacic (Chelsea) and Mario Pasalic (Atalanta), as well as strikers Marko Pjaca (Fiorentina), Ivan Santini (Anderlecht) and Marko Livaja (AEK Athens). In goal, Lovre Kalinic of Belgian club Gent will replace Subasic.
"We will use Portugal and Spain for real preparations, to find a new energy," said Dalic. "Our goal is to shape... three to four new players in order to find a new energy and get to the Euro in the same shape as at the World Cup in Russia. Not weaker!"
THE United Nations was established with a mission to stop brutality and promotion of human rights across the globe but at present is apparently helpless to stop the Myanmar military atrocity on Rohingya ethnic community. Though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the ...
AFP, Dubai :India crushed Pakistan by eight wickets in their long-awaited Asia Cup match which failed to live up to its hype in Dubai on Wednesday.Pace spearhead Bhuvneshwar Kumar (3-15) and part time off-spinner Kedar Jadhav (3-23) sent Pakistan, who won the toss and batted, collapsing to just 162 all ...
Bangladesh U-18 national women's football team head coach Golam Rabanni Choton said they aim to play the final of the SAFF U-18 Women's Championship which is scheduled to be held from September 28 to October 7 in Thimpu, Bhutan.He was speaking at a pre-departure press conference on Thursday at the ...
President Donald Trump on Wednesday said US relations with North Korea are making "tremendous progress" from the days before his presidency when the two countries appeared close to "going to war."Trump said a recent letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un confirmed the positive track, which he said has ...
Actress Yami Gautam, who stars in Batti Gul Meter Chalu, says it is neither necessary nor possible for an actor to do issue-based films all the time. Yami was interacting with the media here on Wednesday at a promotional press conference of the film that releases on Friday. She was ...
Tributes flowed Wednesday for charismatic Japanese Mixed Martial Artist ( MMA) Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto, who died at age 41, three weeks after announcing a battle with cancer.Born to a family of wrestlers and martial artists, the wiry, tattoo-covered Yamamoto took on larger opponents in a wide range of MMA events, ...
A STUDY has revealed that 4,300 acres of hills and forests have been razed in Cox's Bazar to set up refugee camps and cooking fuel for Rohingyas who fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Quoting the study, news media reported that about 3,000-4,000 acres of hill land at Teknaf and Ukhia ...
AP, Pyongyang :The leaders of North and South Korea announced a wide range of agreements Wednesday which they said were a major step toward peace on the Korean Peninsula. But the premier pledge on denuclearization contained a big condition, with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stating he'd permanently dismantle ...
Stormy Daniels, the porn star who claims to have slept with Donald Trump over a decade ago, says in her upcoming tell-all book that it may have been the "least impressive sex" she'd ever had, The Guardian reported Tuesday.In her book, "Full Disclosure," Daniels also provides a graphic description of ...
Actor Hina Khan believes Bigg Boss helped her showcase her real personality, which is that of a woman who does not shy away from speaking her mind. The actor became one of the most talked about contestants on the 11th edition of the reality TV show, which has just begun ...
PAKISTAN government has decided to grant nationality to all Pakistan-born refugees of Bangladeshi and Afghan origins staying there for decades. Prime Minister Mr Imran Khan on Sunday made this announcement during his maiden visit to Karachi, saying the Bangladeshi and Afghan refugees who were born in Pakistan would get National ...
AFP, Barcelona :FIFA president Gianni Infantino has expressed concern about La Liga's proposal to stage a fixture between Girona and Barcelona in the United States.The two clubs have each approved a request submitted to the Spanish Football Federation for the match to be played at the Hard Rock Stadium in ...