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.
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.Modric, who won the Champions League with Real Madrid and the Golden Ball for the World Cup’s best player, appears untouchable.
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.