Sun, Oct 14, 2018 - Page 11 News List

Croatia, England goalless before empty stands

AFP, RIJEKA, Croatia

England players walk off the pitch after their UEFA Nations League match against Croatia in an empty stadium on Friday in Rijeka, Croatia.

Photo: Reuters

“Football without fans is nothing,” Celtic manager Jock Stein famously opined many years ago.

If a reminder of Stein’s comment was required, it came during England’s 0-0 draw in Croatia that did neither side’s chances of progressing in the UEFA Nations League much good.

A goalless draw was fitting of an empty experience with supporters shut out of the 8,000-capacity HNK Rijeka Stadium, perched on a hilltop overlooking the Adriatic Sea.

Croatia were completing a UEFA sanction to play two matches behind closed doors after a swastika symbol was carved into the pitch during a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy more than three years ago.

Amid the eeriness of hearing players shake hands before kick-off and shout instructions during the game, the question was raised whether the punishment fits the crime.

“The atmosphere is not easy for anybody. It is sad for football, but hopefully this is our last time,” Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic said. “Football is played for the fans. It’s sad the second and fourth team from the World Cup are playing behind closed doors. I don’t know who it is good for.”

A small band of intrepid England fans did manage to find a nearby hill to catch a glimpse of the Three Lions.

“I could hear the noise,” England boss Gareth Southgate said. “It is a shame for the supporters, some of whom haven’t missed a game for 10 years or more.”

Reversing fixtures so the perpetrators are punished with losing home advantage or even moving games to a neutral venue have been offered as alternative solutions.

“While we all endorse the campaign against racism and want to see all that prejudice and bigotry stamped out of the game, the nature of this punishment against the Croatian FA is also punishing the innocent,” said Kevin Miles, chief executive of the Football Supporters’ Federation in England.

Even in England, the soullessness of seeing the national team play in front of empty stands should be a reminder of the importance of not sacrificing supporters who attend games for increased cash revenue from television deals.

On the same day supporters were shut out in Croatia, the English Premier League revealed their TV schedule for the Christmas and New Year period that will see only four days without a match in the fortnight between Dec. 21 and Jan. 3.

UEFA itself has been accused of prioritizing TV for their new competition with the Nations League adopting the “week of football.”

By spreading matches across six days, many games are taken away from their former weekend sweet spot to attract crowds.

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