By Jack Wilkinson
Football journalist – @jacktwilkinson
Stadion HNK Rijeka hosted England’s first match behind closed doors
Last Updated: 13/10/18 12:27am
Just under 1700 miles lie between Wembley Stadium and Stadion HNK Rijeka but after England’s goalless Nations League draw in Croatia, the two grounds could not have been further apart, writes Jack Wilkinson.
As those fortunate enough to be granted access to the behind-closed-doors game made their way through deserted roads to the stadium, it had the making of a once in a lifetime experience. Gareth Southgate’s England, three months on from their heartache in Moscow, had the chance to avenge their World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia, and a very select few had the chance to witness it in person.
But what transpired was an eerie evening, an evening bereft of the characteristics that make football the engrossing sport we all love. The streets were empty, the hubbub of excitable fans missing, the scarf-sellers nowhere to be seen.
It was clear the atmosphere, or lack of it, had an impact on proceedings, as the two sides who served up a thriller at the Luzhniki Stadium in July took their time to settle to the unfamiliar surroundings. It took 37 minutes for either side to register the first effort on target, as Ivan Perisic made sure Jordan Pickford’s concentration levels had not dropped with a drive from 18 yards.
Despite a heightened security perimeter, a few England supporters, no more than 50, congregated on top of a hill that rose behind one of the stands, although their efforts proved fruitless in the first half, with action at a premium on the pitch.
As much as the travelling contingent tried, their attempt at creating an atmosphere proved too big a task, with faint renditions of ‘God Save the Queen’ drowned out by the audible running commentary from both sets of players, and the assembled television commentators in the stands.
“I could hear noise [from the supporters],” England manager Gareth Southgate said in his post-match press conference. It’s a shame for the supporters, some of whom have not missed a game for 10 years or more.
“When I’m on the bench I’m engrossed in the game, so the atmosphere did make a difference to me. But we understand the situation and hope ourselves or Croatia don’t find ourselves in that situation again.”
Things improved in the second half and England will feel they should have won the match after striking the woodwork through Harry Kane and seeing Marcus Rashford spurn two glorious chances.
Perhaps England would have won the game had they had the support of their loyal fans, or maybe Croatia would have done in their first competitive match on home soil following their run to a maiden World Cup final this summer.
With the second and fourth-placed sides at this summer’s World Cup meeting just three months after their semi-final showdown, though, it begs the question whether UEFA could have adopted a different form of punishment that is felt by those culpable rather than innocent fans and players.
“The atmosphere is not easy for anybody, it’s sad for football but hopefully this is our last time,” Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic said. “Our next match against Spain there will be 30,000 people in a full stadium in Maksimir and that will be more fun than today.
“Football is played for the fans, it’s sad that Croatia and England are playing behind closed doors. I don’t know who that is good for.
“It’s a new competition, the Nations League, maybe UEFA could have done something different with their decision but that is not my job, it is what it is, although I think this kind of game deserves a full stadium, bigger than this one.”
There will be fans and an atmosphere when England take on Spain in Seville on Monday. As many as 3,000 travelling fans are expected at the Estadio Benito Villamarin and, if Southgate’s side rise to that occasion like they did this, it looks like a trip that will be well worth making.