herald

Tuesday 25 September 2018

Clouds over Croatian game despite their World Cup success

FINAL FLING: Dejan Lovren celebrates Croatia’s World Cup semi-final win over England on
Wednesday night
FINAL FLING: Dejan Lovren celebrates Croatia’s World Cup semi-final win over England on Wednesday night

A small country with a population of less than five million which is in the shadow of a larger neighbour, their relationships often fought out on the field of war. A nation which has suffered from emigration and often relied heavily on money sent home by the diaspora.

All the same, a country which has coped with all hurdles placed in its path and reached the World Cup final, Croatia in with a real chance of beating France in Sunday's final in Moscow.

Already the question has been asked: if Croatia can do it, why can't the Republic of Ireland? All those big nations who went to Russia 2018 but came home early (Germany, Spain, Brazil, Argentina), all the might powers who didn't even get there (USA, Italy, Holland), and all that's left between France and the Jules Rimet trophy is Croatia.

A lesson for Ireland? We do have advantages over them, more people for starters (the Republic's population is bigger by half a million, not including those we call on from the six counties) and a diaspora which adds to our pool of talent (only two players in this Croatian squad were born outside of the old Yugoslavia). We also have the financial muscle to pay the national team manager three times the salary which Zlatko Dalic earns with Croatia.

But let's not get carried away with this Croatian success. Yes, getting to the final is an astonishing achievement for a small nation and while smaller nations have gone close in recent World Cups with semi-final qualification for Sweden, Bulgaria and Turkey, this Croatian side is the first to make it to the final. Kudos to the Croats.

There's lots to admire about this Croatian team and Irish football can only dream of having a player like Modric to call on.

But hold off on the idea that Ireland can match their achievements by copying the 'Croatian way', if there is such a thing.

Their domestic league is a mess, dominated by two giants (Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split) but outside of that pair, the Croatian championship makes the much-maligned League of Ireland look good.

Omitting the games involving Dinamo and Hajduk, on the final weekend of last season, the average attendance in Croatia's top flight was 763. Dinamo's home ground can hold 35,000 but they rarely get more than 4,000. Lokomotiva Zagreb finished mid-table there but get smaller gates than Bray Wanderers, which is saying something.

On top of that, you get events which read like a script ditched by writers of The Sopranos as too unbelievable.

National team heroes Luka Modric and Dejan Lovren were, only months ago, appearing in court in relation to corruption charges involving key figures at Dinamo.

A court found that ex-Dinamo players Modric and Lovren received a cut (an astonishing 50%) of the transfer fees which sent them to Spurs and Lyon, but they in turn fed that back to Zdravko Mamic, a godfather figure (and not in a good way) at Dinamo and the Croatian FA.

Three senior figures in Croatian football have been sentenced to jail for their part in the scam and Modric could yet face prison. Though it may be hard to put a World Cup-winning captain behind bars.

Lots to envy in Croatia when looked at through Irish eyes.

But also much to be wary of.

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