Football Tennis and International Relations
The old Wembley was a fortress for England, although truth be told it was a crumbling fortress held up by the memories of '66. The new Wembley needs time to create its own history, but in the crucial match against Croatia recently, a memory was created which will take a long time to erase, the golden generation of '66 are well and truly a thing of a past, as well as this generation of underachieving world beaters. It would be overly melodramatic to say this is the death of English football, but it is certainly on life support. England, Croatia and their sporting histories have been intertwined in more ways than one can imagine since the creation of Croatia in 1991, more often than not Croatian destiny has been dwarfed by English defeat.
The last time England failed to qualify for a major tournament was when they missed out on the 1994 World Cup, that year I opened a box of promotional cornflakes to find the equivalent of a baseball card, only that it was a football card. The cornflakes company was promoting the World Cup by giving a free card profiling some of the best players in the world and my sugar coated fingers pulled out none other than Paul Gascoigne. I had never heard of him and even before I read the card I became a fan. For months it was my prized possession, kept between the pages of the fattest book I owned which happened to be a Wisden Cricket Almanac and I brought it out ever so often to see it, bask in the glory of merely owning it and to show it off to my friends who gasped with shock and awe at the mere mention of it.
Goran Ivaniševic wears the Croatian football team's jersey after playing his last match at Wimbledon.
Years later, only when I fully understood the landscape of English sport did I realise the irony of that card, and my fascination with it. Firstly it was kept between the pages of my 1990 Wisden Cricket Almanac, a book that for the previous decade and the one that followed it chronicled every unimaginable low in English cricket from the West Indian black washes to their 'worlds worst' status in '99. The text in the card never really interested me, but even then it provided more insight into the English game then one could imagine. After blabbing on about how good a player Gazza was, it ended on a cheeky note, stating that England failed to quality for the World Cup, while their Irish counterparts did. The green of their shamrock was collectively mirrored in the faces of their English counterparts; it was not a good year to be an English footballer.
While most of the worlds attention was firmly fixed on the tournament in the USA, across the pond a Wimbledon myth was being created. The big serving Croatian Goran Ivaniševic made it to his second final in three years and faced none other than his archenemy 'Pistol' Pete Sampras. The final proved to be a mismatch of epic proportions as the American steamrolled over his opponent, even taking the last set to love. The English footballers seemed more interested in Wimbledon than the World Cup, as their green neighbours managed a creditable performance in the tournament, including a victory over mighty Italy. While Sampras may have won the tournament, Ivaniševiæ won the hearts of the crowd, the first Croatian victory in England, and as we have found out, not the last.
Gazza got over his disappointment of missing the World Cup by helping England qualify for the next tournament across the channel, a tournament he was famously dropped from. His omission was dubbed Gazzagate, British tabloids printed pictures of a drunken Gascoigne in the early hours of the morning eating kebabs only a week before the final squad was due to be chosen, sparking fears over his ability to participate due to poor health and dietary issues. 1998 was another stellar year for British-Croat sporting relations, having both qualified for the World Cup, Croatian fever took over in SW19 yet again as Ivaniševiæ made his third appearance in the final of Wimbledon against a familiar foe, Sampras.
Croatian players celebrate their famous win over England
The moth of June and early July must have been an extended holiday for Croatians, as their first genuine sporting hero made his way to yet another grand slam final in the heart of England and barely two hours away in France they were carving up the best in the world trying to make it another final, that of the world cup. England and Croatia crisscrossed each others paths on more than a few occasions that summer. Croatia were drawn in the same group as Argentina, and had Croatia beaten Argentina, they would have faced England in the round of 16. but it was not to be, Argentina qualified top of their group and thus faced England in the round of 16. England went on to lose a famous match in St. Etienne on penalties, it was also the game that branded their future captain David Beckham public enemy number one for his silly red card. Less than three days after losing to Argentina, England were sent reeling from yet another sporting loss, Tim Henman lost to Sampras in the semi-finals at Wimbledon.
The final at Wimbledon was a real thriller, the crowd was firmly behind Ivaniševiæ as he battled more than just Sampras but the daemons within. Every point lost was met with anger and aggression and just as his mind fell apart, so did his game. Sampras wrapped up his 5th Wimbledon in a row with a fifth set master class. Two days later it was more heartbreak for Croatia as they went down to the eventual champions France in the semi-finals. But for a nation less than a decade old the success of '98 was something to cherish, while at the same time the English tore every sport played by them as a nation, to shreds.
Ivaniševic did eventually win Wimbledon in 2001, that too the only ever wildcard to win it. It was a fairytale ending for him as his victory in 2001 brought his playing career to a close. He was the man who once said he would win a title at Wimbledon, even if it was the over 40 mixed doubles. England adopted him with open hands and even now he is idolised around Wimbledon, by players and most importantly by the English fans.
Barely a week ago England played Croatia at the new Wembley needing only a draw to qualify for next years European Championships. They have arguably the best league in the world and some of the best players in the world, yet they set their stall out right from the start. Within a quarter of an hour they were two down and looked like they would choke at the last hurdle. The nation's hopes were restored as they came back strongly in the second half to score two unanswered goals. With the scores level, and a place in Europe secure England took their foot off the gas and then it happened. Croatia scored with 13 minutes remaining and extinguished the English dream of a European Cup next year. It was as big a loss as one could get, the manager was sacked and newspapers performed public autopsy after public autopsy. Who knows sometime next year a kid in Bangladesh may crack open a box of cornflakes and find a card with a picture of Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard or John Terry, there may even be a joke, that when all England needed was a draw to qualify, they lost. All they need is for a Croatian to win Wimbledon next year and then even Ivaniševic will be laughing.
One day after writing this article the qualifying draw for the 2010 football World Cup was made. England and Croatia were drawn in the same group, surprise, surprise.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007