'Sports terrorists' bring shame on Croatia as Czechs keep hopes alive
Czech Republic 2 Croatia 2
Published 18/06/2016 | 02:30
What should have been a victory that demonstrated Croatia's billing as the swiftest dark horses of this tournament ended with flares being thrown on to the pitch, a steward struck by a firecracker, fans fighting among themselves and both sets of players taken off.
Croatia manager Ante Cacic afterwards branded the supporters who started the incident "sports terrorists".
UEFA said that they would open disciplinary proceedings against Croatia. Since this is the second successive time there has been an incident inside the stadium involving their fans, they are likely to join Russia in being threatened with expulsion if there is a repetition.
Croatia have a beautifully balanced football side who might just win this tournament but they also have a psychotic minority who appear determined to embarrass their FA at every opportunity.
In qualification, Croatia were docked a point and ordered to play two matches behind closed doors after chemical agents were used to carve a swastika on the pitch before they played Italy in Split 12 months ago.
That match itself was being played in an empty stadium because of racist chanting during a 5-1 win over Norway less than three months before. Their first qualification game against Italy, in Milan, saw flares thrown on to the San Siro pitch.
"They are ruining everything we are doing," said Cacic. "Ninety-five per cent of our supporters are ashamed. I hope the Croatian FA are doing everything they can to stop it but these people are really scary.
"We learnt of threats of violence before the game but these people are sports terrorists. The main thing is that our country doesn't seem to want to mess (deal with) these kinds of hooligans."
On the pitch, Croatia's iron grip on the game had begun to loosen when Cacic substituted Luka Modric - the Real Madrid playmaker was complaining of muscle fatigue.
Since Croatia needed to win their final match, against Spain, to ensure they would avoid the probability of facing Italy in Paris in the round of 16, Cacic took the reasonable decision to rest his best player.
However, a quarter of an hour later, Tomas Rosicky, who was to finish the evening far more seriously injured, produced a fine cross that Milan Skoda headed home.
Then, a legion of black-clad riot police marched into the stadium and cordoned off the stand behind Petr Cech's goal.
This was ostensibly to prevent Croatian fans getting on to the pitch.
The arrival of the riot police had the opposite effect, the latest failure in an abysmally organised tournament. It produced a volley of flares that went on to the pitch. One struck a steward trying to remove them.
After referee Mark Clattenburg had taken the players off, some, led by their captain, Darijo Srna, went over to the stand, yelling at their own fans to stop fighting among each other.
A sort of calm was restored but, once the game restarted, Croatia fell apart completely. Domagoj Vida conceded a stoppage-time penalty for handball that was icily converted by Tomas Necid.
Had the game lasted much longer, it is probable that Croatia would have lost.
Ivan Perisic, who scored what looked certain to be the winner with a delightful finish past Cech, said the stoppage had drained the momentum from his side.
Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic, who had been voted man of what had become a bizarre and ugly match, spoke for his team when he said: "We just have to say sorry to UEFA, the Czech Republic and all people around the world who love football.
"I hope UEFA can understand this. We have to play our World Cup qualifiers in empty stands because of all these stupid supporters."
The sadness was that Croatia's footballers had started the match intending to honour the dead and they so very nearly achieved their aim.
Srna and their goalkeeping coach, Marijan Mrmic, had lost their fathers in the past week. (© Independent News Service)