Domagoj Bradaric's stoppage-time goal hurt. England had only been a few minutes away from the two-goal win they required to salvage their wretched European Under-21 Championship campaign and avoid a fifth group stage exit in six attempts. Instead, they were going home and Croatia were progressing in their place.
Curtis Jones, scorer of what might have been England’s critical second goal, took exception to the jubilant Croatian celebrations at full time, spinning away from a member of Aidy Boothroyd’s coaching staff attempting to hold him back and jumping into the melee. The final whistle had already blown, of course, but that didn’t stop Jones from being sent off.
If you seek out footage of the brawl on YouTube, you will find more than a few comments rejoicing in England’s elimination, several of them ostensibly from Croatian users and uniting around a single theme. “It’s coming home, it’s coming,” the most popular of them reads, “the team bus comin’ home”.
That incident in Koper on Slovenia’s Adriatic coastline a little more than two months ago is the most recent flashpoint between two nations who have repeatedly run up against each other in international football over the past 17 years. One is old and established, the other young and emerging, and yet they have shared a lot of history together in a short space of time.
Since Croatia’s recognition by Fifa in 1992 following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, they have played England in eight competitive internationals. Remarkably, the majority of those games have had more than just the result riding on them. For all the anticipation around Sunday’s Group D opener at Wembley, it is a rare meeting between England and Croatia when defeat would not necessarily be fatal for either side.
The 2018 World Cup semi-final is the only straight knockout tie between the two nations during that time but four other games - from the group stages at Euro 2004, to Steve McClaren’s Wembley debacle three years later, to the Nations League contest two seasons ago - had tournament qualification, progression or elimination on the line.
Those high stakes have not usually led to heightened tensions and certainly nothing like the scenes in Koper. But the fall-out from that Moscow semi-final and, in particular, the controversy over ‘it’s coming home’ has created a perception that there is an edge to this fixture; a budding, emerging rivalry; that they just straight up don’t like each other. It is a nice line but not necessarily true.
The first hint of any animosity whatsoever came from Luka Modric’s interview to ITV not long after the final whistle had sounded at the Luzhniki, where he complained that Croatia had been disrespected. “People were talking… English journalists, pundits from television. They underestimated Croatia tonight and that was a huge mistake,” he said. “They should be more humble and respect their opponents more.”
There were more cutting remarks off camera. Vedran Corluka, the former Tottenham and Manchester City defender who is now an assistant to head coach Zlatko Dalic, was invited to stop and speak to journalists from the British press in the Luznikhi’s mixed zone later that night. “It’s not coming home,” he told them, without breaking his stride and continuing towards the team bus.
One Croatian player punctured England’s fragile sense of progress after their best tournament finish in 22 years. Sime Vrsaljko, the Atletico Madrid right-back, did not think much of the supposed new style under Gareth Southgate. “The all-round perception was that this is a new-look England who have changed their ways of punting long balls upfield, but when we pressed them it turned out that they haven’t,” he said.
Within the England camp, it is fair to say there was some bewilderment. The players did not feel as though they had spoken out of turn in the build-up to the semi-final. “It wasn’t the best thing to read,” John Stones later said regarding Modric’s comments. “As players we always show whatever team we are playing the utmost respect, never come out and say anything to the media that disrespects another team or do anything to make teams think that.”
But if you speak to those close to the Croatia squad, they will insist that the respect is mutual. As Modric reiterated at Saturday’s pre-match press conference, their issue was not with the England players, several of whom they counted as current or former club team-mates and friends. Their issue was with the talk around the semi-final, particularly from ex-professionals appearing as pundits and sections of the English press.
Part of that was the adoption of ‘it’s coming home’, which even Gareth Southgate insists was misinterpreted. “The song is humour isn't it - it is English humour,” he would later say, before meeting Croatia again in the Nations League. “Unless you're a fan of Fawlty Towers and stuff like that maybe you don't get the slant on it.” He’s right. It was unquestionably at least partly ironic, though it also reinforced perceptions of English arrogance and entitlement.
But equally, ‘it’s coming home’ was probably the least offensive part of what surrounded the build-up to the semi-final for the Croatian players, and if anything caused more irritation among Croatian fans. The context was better appreciated inside the dressing room. As Ivan Rakitic said, when asked whether it offended the players in a 2018 interview with The Guardian. “Offended? No. It’s something positive you created around the team that wasn’t [designed] to offend.”
“It's normal, everyone does that,” says a source close to the Croatia squad. “It’s part of the whole charade”. What annoyed Modric and his team-mates more was a perceived assumption that Croatia would not be much of an obstacle for England. There was a widely-held belief, for example, that they would be exhausted after playing for 240 minutes in back-to-back penalty shoot-out wins against Denmark and Russia. This was not well received.
“All these words from them we take, we were reading and we were saying: ‘OK, today we will see who will be tired,’” a triumphant Modric said in his post-match interview. “We showed again that we were not tired – we dominated the game mentally and physically. We should have killed the game even before extra time.” This fatigue theme ran concurrently with the view that England had positioned themselves on the ‘easier’ side of the draw, which the Croatian players also found frustrating.
However many factors there were, though, the point was that their pride was hurt and football is a fundamental source of pride in Croatia. One figure in Croatian football describes the team themselves as “nationalistically motivated”, as though their act of playing is itself a display of patriotism. “We are a young country that has excelled in football and it's one of the main things we pride ourselves in, and that we are recognised through in the world.” With that pride stung, a reaction was inevitable.
It would be wrong, though, to claim that any bad blood still lingers three years later, between the two sets of players at least. If there is a rivalry between Croatia and England, it is only a competitive one rather than anything personal. Sunday’s game at Wembley is not viewed by those in Croatian football as any different from one against France, Germany or another of European football’s powerhouses. It may even be that, rather than Croatia harbouring any grudge towards England over events in 2018, the scars run deeper on the other side.