Manuel Veth –
It was the 37th minute of the Group D match between Croatia and the Czech Republic. The Croats have been the more dominant team, but were unable to find a way through the Czech Republic’s defence.
But then Croatia’s Milan Badelj won a decisive tackle just inside the Croatian midfield. The ball bounced to Ivan Perišić on the left side and the attacking midfielder proceeded to run down the side of the pitch, entered the Czech penalty box, and used a Czech defender as a dummy to slot the ball low past Czech keeper Petr Čech.
It appeared that the ban was broken, and the Croats indeed took firm control over the match. Guided by a fantastic Luka Modrić in midfield, Croatia time and time again threatened the Czech Republic’s goal.
Then in the 59th minute the Czech defence was unable to properly clear the ball from defence. Marcelo Brozović was able to intercept an errant pass, and played the ball onwards to Ivan Rakitić. With plenty of space Rakitić run towards the Czech goal, and chipped the ball over the approaching Čech.
With the Game Up 2:0 the Game Seemed to be Done and Dusted
With Croatia up 2-0 the game seemed done and dusted. Croatia could even afford to take off the fabulous Luka Modrić after he picked up what appeared to be a small groin injury in the 62nd minute.
In fact Croatia’s performance might have been the most convincing of any team in the tournament to that point.
Even without Modrić, Croatia stayed in control. When the Czech Repulbic scored in the 76th minute after a wonderful cross by Tomáš Rosický, which found Milan Škoda in the centre, the Slavia Prague striker was able to head the ball into the Croatian goal to make it 2-1.
But even after the goal the Croats stayed in charge of the game. That is until the 86th minute when Croat fans caused the latest fan-related incident at these European Championships when they started throwing flares onto the pitch.
Croatian players moved in front of the stand and tried to calm down the fans, but had to withdraw when a member of the stadium crew was hit with a firework while attempting to remove the flares from the field.
Referee Mark Clattenburg therefore had no choice but to suspend the game until the flares were removed and the disturbances on the stands had stopped.
The Match Suspension Hurt Croatia
After a few minutes of stoppage the game could be resumed, but the break seemed to have substantially hurt Croatia’s game, as the Czechs began to take control of the match. Then in extra time the ball was once again passed high into the Croatian penalty box, and in an attempt to clear the ball Domagoj Vida played it with the hand.
Czech striker Tomáš Necid then converted the resulting penalty making it 2-2. A few minutes later Clattenburg sounded the final whistle completing an unlikely comeback for the Czech Republic.
— UEFA EURO 2016 (@UEFAEURO) June 17, 2016
The Croats were furious, with several members of the Croatian national team pointing at the fan disturbances when it came to explaining the collapse in the final minutes of the game.
Croatia’s coach Ante Čačić was upset after the match and exclaimed “That was terror. These people are hooligans, and not fans in fact they are terrorists! Their place isn’t in the stadium. There were swasitkas displayed in the match against Italy in Milan. They are bringing shame to us in front of all of Europe.”
Ivan Rakitić meanwhile told the German television station ZDF: “The right term for these people can’t be used on television. I want to apologize to UEFA and the Czech national team for what happened today.” But Rakitić also believed that the incident was the reason for Clattenburg to give the final penalty. “It is no coincidence that there was a penalty, it was a punishment [for what happened].”
UEFA has since announced that they will investigate the incident at the match, and Croatia, who is a repeat offender, could receive a similar punishment to what the Russian Football Union received after disturbances in Marseille.
Davor Šuker “We Don’t Have the Power to Punish Perpetrators”
The president of the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) Davor Šuker meanwhile told Spox.com that the HNS couldn’t be held accountable for what happened. “In the last 15 years we have suffered from hooliganism. No judge, politician, or government has ever done anything against it.” The HNS, according to Šuker, has no power when it comes to punishing the perpetrators. “We are just a football organization. All we can do is to give financial penalties from €50,000 to €100,000, or to close stadiums.”
Finally Šuker stated that the 100 fans who were involved in what happened in the stadium, had “destroy[ed] our game.”
This is just the latest incident of fan violence at these European Championships. But in this case it is important to add some context, as the fans involved in the incident at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in Saint-Etienne had an underlining political motivation to their actions.
Fans Were Motivated by HNS Politics
Shortly after the flares were thrown, the prominent Croatian football writer Aleksandar Holiga tweeted information that brings some context to the story.
“To be clear – of course I don’t support or condone people doing this and there are now ‘buts’ about it. However these people aren’t doing it because they hate Croatia. They hate what [Croatian] football has become so much that they don’t care.” Holiga further added that “Croatian football is run by a criminal, Zdravko Mamić, and his puppets. They are hypocrites, fake patriots and thieves. None of that is an excuse for the so-called ‘fans’, but you have to ask yourself one question: how has it come to this?”
Holiga also points fingers at the HNS, and therefore the supposedly helpless Davor Šuker, for being responsible for what happened. “Are these people enemies of the state or something? Of course not. Why has the federation/society let things escalate so much?”
Hence what happened in Saint-Etienne is comparable to previous fan protests like the one that was staged last October at a Champions League game between Bayern Munich and Dinamo Zagreb. The target of the protests was also Ždravko Mamić, who has run Dinamo Zagreb like his personal fiefdom since February 2000, as if he were the owner of the club (he currently holds no official position).
Zdravko Mamić has run Dinamo Zagreb, and to a certain extent all of Croatian football like a criminal organization (read more about that here). Mamić officially resigned from his positions at Dinamo Zagreb in February 2016, but remains very much in charge of Dinamo Zagreb, and therefore also of the HNS, where Šuker is in a puppet-like position.
This has led to an atmosphere of open conflict between the HNS and its fans (once again Holiga describes this well in his piece for the Guardian). This conflict has resulted in actions where some fans have set out to actively damage the national team in order to wage war against those in charge of the HNS.
Holiga states that it was for that reason that there were flares thrown onto the pitch on Friday’s match against the Czech Republic.
How Will the Fan Protests Affect the Croatian National Team?
These actions are of course inexcusable, however they had their intended effect on the match nonetheless. Those who watched the match could see that Croatia would have likely won had it not been for the interruption, and could therefore have therefore qualified for the next round of the competition. Now Croatia will most likely have to get a positive result against Spain, which convincingly beat Turkey 3-0 on the same evening, in order progress, and they will have to do it without Modrić, who is going to miss the match due to the injury he picked up against the Czechs.
It will be interesting to see how the team will react to the atmosphere of hate that has now been created because of years of mismanagement and corruption in Croatian football. Goal scorer Perišić stated “it might be best if we don’t play at all.”
— The Final Third (@TheFinal_Third) June 17, 2016
As for UEFA, questions will once again have to be asked as to how flares were able to find their way into the stadium. Furthermore, UEFA will have to punish Croatia for what happened. It is unlikely that the team will be disqualified from the tournament. But Holiga tweeted that Croatia could be disqualified from taking part in the World Cup 2018 qualifiers.
Such a harsh penalty seems unlikely given the fact that the Russian national team didn’t receive a harsh penalty either. Yet the damage could already be done and politics could therefore destroy the progress of one of the most talented, and beautiful to watch, teams at the tournament.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist, and holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London. His thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States”, and will be available soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @homosovieticus