Football

Russia 2018 semis: Odds favour Three Lions, as Croatia seek revenge

The Three Lions of England have come up against Croatia on seven previous occasions – as they were only formed in 1990 as Yugoslavia began to break up.
Over those seven games, England have won four times, drawn once and lost twice.
Five of the matches were competitive fixtures – staged between 2004 and 2009 – with a nine year gap since the last meeting in a World Cup 2010 qualifier at Wembley.
Despite the few meetings, the fixture has produced some classic encounters.
Wayne Rooney shone in the Euro 2004 meeting, and two years later a Gary Neville own goal was a defining moment in Steve McClaren’s ill-fated reign.
An even worse moment came a year later, when England lost at Wembley – partially due to a Scott Carson howler – and McClaren was labelled as the wally with a brolly.
But better memories lied ahead with Theo Walcott scoring a hat-trick in 2008 and the Three Lions winning 5-1 at Wembley to seal World Cup 2010 qualification a year later – the two games being highlights of the Fabio Capello years.
England may have finally broken their penalty curse, but it is their next World Cup opponents who have emerged as the masters of the spot kick in Russia.
Maybe this should come as no surprise, as many of Croatia’s senior players survived far tougher times of tension as children during the bloodbath that was the Balkans War.
That was the latest in a series of conflicts which has moulded this young nation into the hard men of Europe. And Croatia’s biggest star, Luka Modric – ironically just 5ft 5in in this team of giants – suffered horrors worse than his teammates.
The Real Madrid midfielder, who helped his team to four Champions League victories in the past five years, was just six when his remote hamlet of Modrici in central Croatia was plunged into civil war.
Modric, now 32, was named after his grandfather Luka, who cared for him while his father and mother worked long hours in a jumper factory.
In December 1991, Serbian militia rampaged through a nearby village and cornered Luka Snr, who was walking his cattle.
He was executed with five other elderly locals. The surviving members of the Modric family fled for the relative security of Zadar on the Adriatic coast. Their home was burned to the ground by the Serbs.
ven their new surroundings offered no guarantee of safety.
Thousands of grenades rained down on Zadar, bullets tore through the air, and there were land mines buried in the streets.
Modric and his sister Jasmina spent seven years living in cheap hotels with no electricity or running water. It was a world away from his life now as a multi-millionaire with a stunning wife and three adorable children.
Modric passed the days kicking an old, punctured football around hotel car parks, wearing shin pads made of wood.
He recalled: “These were tough times. I remember them vividly, but it’s not something you want to think about. The war made me stronger.”
The Balkans War between 1991 and 2001 claimed the lives of 140,000. Modric’s former Tottenham Hotspur teammate and best friend Vedran Corluka, also 32, saw his small town of Modran in modern-day Bosnia torn apart.
His family fled to the Croatian capital Zagreb in 1992, where his mother Anda became a judge.
He said: “There was death and destruction. When you have done that, other problems seem so small.”
Another player familiar to English football fans, Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren, was just three when his family fled the country to join his grandfather in Munich. Lovren, 29, can still recall the nights of terror in his home village of Kraljeva Sutjeska.
He said: “I remember the wail of sirens. I was frightened of a bomb falling on us. One of my uncles was slaughtered with a knife.
“We were lucky grandfather had the papers and we could move to Germany. If we hadn’t, my whole family might have ended up in the ground.”
Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, 33, the hero of their penalty triumphs, was seven and growing up in Zadar when the war began and has recalled hiding as bombs fell.
Meanwhile two of the team’s other star players, Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic grew up in exile – in Germany and Switzerland – after fleeing. Rakitic, 30, received death threats when he chose to play for Croatia rather than
Switzerland.
Today Croatia is a beautiful country, its population of just over four million outnumbered by the number of tourists who flock each year to see its beautiful mountain resorts, lakes, and the magnificent Dalmatian coastline.
But the nation has been carved up and reborn several times out of bloody wars in the past 1,000 years.
Scientists have found Croats to be among the tallest nationalities, reinforcing their reputation as the hard men of Europe. Men are 5ft 11in on average and women 5ft 5in. In the town of Drnis, men average 6ft 1.5in.
Croatia’s most infamous period of violence came during the Second World War, when Fascist leader Dr Ante Pavelic turned Croatia into a German puppet state. He mobilised Ustasha paramilitaries “who made the Nazis look like boy scouts”.
They have been blamed for massacring 500,000 Serbs, gypsies, and Jews.
After the war Croatia was part of Yugoslavia until the death of Marshal Tito. It then declared independence.

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