Monday 11 December 2017

'This will haunt us for the rest of our lives,' weeps devastated lionheart Bilic

In Vienna

THIS morning, Vienna will be a quieter place. The masses of Croatians, clad in those familiar psychedelic red and white checked jerseys, will pack into their cars or the trains and embark on a journey home full of regrets.

It will take longer than that to recover. They have been the life and soul of the party here in Austria for the past fortnight and departed cruelly considering they have given so much.

Slaven Bilic and his players will linger that bit longer on their pillows, trying to make sense of the manner in which they exited this competition.

Wondering, perhaps, if they could have kept some sort of lid on the celebrations that followed Ivan Klasnic's 118th-minute goal that looked to have booked another date with Germany next Wednesday.

When the kidney transplant patient steered the ball across the line after an error by Recber Rustu, Bilic, his backroom staff and substitutes invaded the pitch, celebrating as though the final whistle had been blown. It was 2.30am-in-the-nightclub behaviour. Never mind the fourth official; they could have done with bouncers to clear the field effectively. They didn't heed the pre-match warning. With Turkey, it's never over.

Bilic and his charges stand guilty of the very human crime of getting carried away with the passion that only tournaments like this can bring. It would be wrong to condemn, as most mortals would assume they had finally broken the Turkish resolve. Unfeasibly, Semih Semturk had other ideas.

Stunned to drastically different degrees, the protagonists entered as virgins to the first shootout of their countries' respective major tournament histories. For Croatia, it was innocence lost. They were gone, barely able to take in what had enveloped them. When the brilliant Luka Modric missed the first spot-kick, the shoulders of Bilic and his cohorts on the sideline slumped. What happened next was inevitable.

Those who boarded the night train to Zagreb, having commuted forward and back to festivities here, would not be returning.

In a renewal that continues to amaze, this was another layer of drama. We were due one of these. After all, the party was in danger of getting out of hand. With all these goals, the European Championships had been spoiling us.

This was more like the fare we expect from knockout football. Tense and absorbing rather than footloose and fancy free. More chess, less checkers.

From the outset, there was a noticeable caginess and a sense that this game was going to go the distance. Two of the comparative surprise packages of the tournament up against what they both believed to be beatable opposition. Effectively, with everything to lose.

Until extra time, when the volume cranked up a notch, the capacity crowd sang sporadically rather than incessantly, in tandem with the lack of fluency in front of them. The Croatians outnumbered their counterparts by four to one in the Ernst Happel and, like their side, grew in confidence as the game progressed.

Before Klasnic's lead goal, they had found full voice, almost willing the ball into the Turkish goal. That they achieved it and threw it away within seconds made it all the harder for them to stomach; particularly as Semih chose to celebrate in front of the Croatian masses, earning himself a shower of tin cans in return. The Turks didn't mind; they've now proven that you can throw anything at them and they keep coming back.

That belief will carry them onto Basle to play Germany, a country which is the adopted home for so many Turkish citizens. Croatia will be unable to bring themselves to watch.

It was past midnight when a worn-looking Bilic came in to face the press and the impossible task of framing what he had just gone through.

"This isn't easy to forget", he says. "It's not like the matches you play every week when you win some or lose some.

"No, this is something that not only will we not forget, this will haunt us for the rest of our lives. It's impossible to forget something like this.

"We will weep for a few more days but such is life. Things like this have happened before. Bayern Munich lost the Champions League to Man United in 1999, and they came back. My players have character and will come back stronger."

He shuffled out to gather his thoughts, with his opposite number Fatih Terim springing in to applause from his compatriots, responding by shrugging his shoulders with a smile. How do they keep doing it?

"I tell my players never to give up," said Terim. "When we conceded the goal, I saw some players lying on the pitch and I told Arda to get the ball and tell the defenders to go forward. I hadn't given up."

And thus a new cliché is born. Never write off the Germans? Now there's a new show in town.

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