No fans, no goals: Croatia and England play out surreal encounter
RIJEKA, Croatia -- Football supporters are a determined bunch and, if they want to see a game involving their team, it is often a case of "where there is a will, there is a way." However, Friday's UEFA Nations League clash between Croatia and England was a step too far for one fan of the visiting team.
He attempted to enter the HNK Stadion in Rijeka dressed as a steward -- orange bib and all -- but failed to get into a match that was played behind closed doors to complete a two-game stadium ban imposed by UEFA following the daubing of a swastika symbol on the pitch in Split prior to a Euro 2016 qualifier vs. Italy in June 2015.
Others had more luck, despite the English Football Association urging fans not to travel. The Football Supporters Federation, who provide support and advice for English fans at home and abroad, were aware of just 20 supporters making the trip to the Adriatic coast.
Most, if not all, of them found a vantage point on the hillside behind one of the goals, from where they spent 90 minutes singing and urging their team on. One chant -- "F--- off UEFA, we'll do what we want!" -- gave a clear indication of their persistence and refusal to miss a game, whether they are in the ground or not.
Three sides of the ground were empty, with only UEFA officials, media and VIPs from the Croatian and English associations allowed to watch from the main stand in the 8,100-capacity home of HNK Rijeka, three miles outside the port city.
It was quite a contrast to the sides' previous meeting, just over three months ago, when Croatia and England played out a World Cup semifinal in front of 78,000 fans in Moscow. Here, there were moments when you could hear the flapping of bats flying around the stand, which merely added to the eerie atmosphere.
The game also put paid to any suggestions that football could be played without fans inside stadia. Even if the Premier League is so wealthy that clubs could cover wages and transfer fees without supporters coming through the turnstiles, this encounter proved that such a scenario would be dull and worthless.
UEFA have to mete out some form of punishment when rules are broken, but nobody benefits when a game is played in an empty stadium. It hurts both teams, both sets of supporters and does absolutely nothing for the sport as a product.
The game featured strong challenges, near misses and two good teams playing at an impressive pace, but it was nonetheless flat and sterile to watch because there was no noise, colour or passion from the stands, just banks of empty seats.
"It was strange," England midfielder Eric Dier said. "A couple of fans got up on the hill, but once the game started it was in the back of our minds. We could easily hear them on the hill. They were the only ones here."
Before kickoff, the thud of the ball was audible as players warmed up before the national anthems of both teams were met by just a ripple of applause from the dignitaries.
The absence of the England band was one plus point -- there was no repetitive, tuneless playlist to endure -- but it might have helped drown out the noise from the pitch, which is one thing you never hear when supporters are inside a stadium.
That Jordan Henderson shouts a lot became evident during this game, and the Liverpool midfielder also topped the expletive count, at one stage shouting, "Are you the f---ing ref?" at Zlatko Dalic following the Croatia coach's attempt to influence Felix Brych and the other officials into giving his team a free kick.
Jordan Pickford was another loud presence, with the England goalkeeper continually urging his teammates on from the other end of the pitch, but by contrast, the Croatia players were much quieter; perhaps they knew what each other was doing in the first place, without having to shout all the time.
As for nicknames, let's just say that there is a lack of imagination among the modern-day footballer, judging by the shouts of "Ross!" "Eric!" "Luka!" and "Harry's ball!" Ben Chilwell, the Leicester full-back making his first England start, was addressed as "Chilly" whenever he was in possession; perhaps he will get "Ben" once familiarity kicks in.
For the players, autopilot will have kicked in once the game began, with the lack of noise unlikely to affect their focus. It did, though, have an impact on the game as a whole, with the home side especially feeling the effects of the muted atmosphere.
Croatia are blessed with the ability to feel the pulse of a game, as England discovered to their cost in the summer, but did not enjoy long spells of possession to push their opponents deeper into defensive territory.
With no fervent crowd to contend against, England did not have to endure the hostility that can unnerve even the most experienced of performers. Indeed, the only real noise came from those fans high on the hillside, who were rewarded by an acknowledgement from Pickford when they chanted "Jordan, give us a wave!" in the closing stages.
As for what happened on the pitch, Gareth Southgate's side hit the woodwork twice, while Marcus Rashford failed to score from two one-on-one situations, and the game petered out to a goalless draw.
It was a result somehow symbolic of a largely unsatisfactory occasion.