Croatia secured their place at the 2022 World Cup with a 1-0 win over Russia on Sunday, a late own goal from Fedor Kudryashov swinging the game in their favour after a hard-fought battle in boggy conditions in Split.
Finalists at the last World Cup in 2018, Croatia looked bound for the play-offs for much of Sunday’s game, as they toiled on a waterlogged pitch against a resolute Russian defence.
But Kudryashov’s error saw them snatch top spot from the visitors eight minutes from time and secure their passage to next year’s tournament in Qatar.
“It was a difficult match from the beginning because of the rain. We never gave up, we were patient and I think we won deservedly. We are the best team in this group,” Croatia captain Luka Modric was quoted as saying by the UEFA website.
An early header from Andrej Kramaric set the tone for a first half in which Croatia had the lion’s share of possession and piled on the pressure in search of an opener.
Marcelo Brozovic also shaved the bar with a long-range effort, before both he and Josip Juranovic forced saves from Russian keeper Matvey Safonov.
Safonov beat away another Kramaric header with a reflex save just after the break, before denying substitute Bruno Petkovic on the hour mark.
The conditions made it harder and harder for Croatia as the second half progressed, with the pitch becoming ever more boggy under the heavy rain.
The chances had all but dried up when Borna Sosa sent a hopeful ball into the box on 82 minutes.
Though under no pressure, Kudryashov struggled to control the ball as it skidded on the wet ground, and watched helplessly on as it bounced off his knee and inside the post.
While Croatia qualify automatically as Group H winners, Russia can still make it through via the play-offs.
Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic, who scored the winning goal against England in the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, has retired from the game, three years after playing his last international.
The 35-year-old announced his decision in a post on Instagram, which included a photo of a pair of boots, on Friday night.
“While you put on these boots for the first time, you can’t even imagine what you will get to experience in football,” he wrote in a message in English addressed to his young self, “Dear little Mario”, and signed “Your big Mario”.
“You’ll recognize the moment to retire, to put these boots in a cabinet and you’ll have no regrets.”
Mandzukic appeared 89 times for Croatia, scoring 33 goals. He also played for Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Juventus and appeared 11 times this year for AC Milan. Plagued by injury, he was used mostly as a substitute and did not score a goal.
He won the Croatian league three times with Dinamo Zagreb, the Bundesliga twice and the Champions League at Bayern, and won four Serie A titles with Juventus.
“You will score goals on the biggest stages and win the biggest trophies in the jerseys of the biggest clubs,” he wrote.
“In the jersey of greatest pride, the Croatian national team, you will write some of the most important moments of Croatian sport.”
Juventus quickly responded.
“Glad to have shared part of your story together,” the club posted on Instagram.
His former Juventus team-mates Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi, Croatian tennis player Marin Cilic and NBA small forward Bojan Bogdanovic all joined the online chorus of praise.
“Thank you mister no good!!” wrote another former Juventus team-mate Patrice Evra. “Such a warrior.”
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic thanked Mandzukic in a statement, calling him “a fighter on whom the team could always rely, a player for big games and the toughest challenges.”
Born in Slavonski Brod, Mandzukic began his career in 2004 at home town club Marsonia. He signed his first major contract with Dinamo Zagreb in 2007.
He then played for Wolfsburg (2010-2012), Bayern Munich (2012-2014), Atletico Madrid (2014-2015) and Juventus (2015-2019).
He ended his post by recalling his dramatic World Cup semi-final winner.
“P.S. If you happen to play vs England in the World Cup, just be ready around 109th minute,” he wrote, adding a smiley.
Croatia’s prime minister publicly received his first dose of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 jab on Wednesday to quell fears over its safety, as the country battles an infection surge.
Andrej Plenkovic, who had the disease in November, is trying to ease concerns from Croatians who have been rejecting the vaccine after fears were raised of a link to rare blood clotting disorders.
More than a dozen mostly European countries briefly suspended its use earlier this month, with most resuming rollouts after the EU’s drug regulator deemed it safe.
Yet the controversy threatens to rollback growing support for vaccination in Croatia just at the moment when infections are on the rise.
A survey showed on Sunday that 65 percent of Croatians either wanted to get a Covid jab or had already received one, compared with a poll in December that suggested less than a half would get the vaccine.
A quarter of respondents told the latest poll they were against vaccination and the remaining 10 percent were undecided.
Hundreds of people were unable or afraid to return home in central Croatia Wednesday as rescue workers sifted the rubble of a deadly earthquake that claimed at least seven lives.
A series of morning aftershocks jangled nerves in towns south of Zagreb, the day after Tuesday’s 6.4-magnitude quake crumbled village homes, tore off slabs from buildings and crushed cars under mountains of bricks.
Many in and around the hard-hit town of Petrinja spent a sleepless night in fear of new tremors. While hundreds sheltered in a nearby military barracks, others opted to stay in their cars.
“We go inside to quickly grab what we need and we return here,” said Visnja, a 66-year-old sitting around a fire outside her home in Petrinja Wednesday morning after having slept in her car.
Sinisa Sremic, a 53-year-old in the town of 20,000, spent the night in a sleeping bag.
“My flat is completely turned upside down,” he told AFP. “It still has no electricity, all the food in my fridge will be wasted.”
In the nearby village of Majske Poljane, the quake killed five people as well as mangling homes and farm buildings in the poor community.
“I can hardly wait for this horrible year to end…. we have only one more day,” whispered Silvana Velic, a 29-year-old mother of four huddled in the cold outside her damaged yellow house.
After spending the night in a car her family will now sleep in a donated camping trailer.
“The house is not for living any more. The roof collapsed, walls are cracked, the kitchen is destroyed,” she added, still pale from the shock.
– Containers and tents –
Local volunteers delivered food, clothes and blankets to those in need, while civil protection workers promised containers or camping trailers for those unable to sleep at home.
The European Union said it was mobilising aid from other member states, including containers, winterised tents and electrical heaters.
The bloc’s crisis management chief, Janez Lenarcic, landed in Croatia Wednesday to assess the wreckage and “assure the Croatian people that the EU stands in full solidarity with them”.
Rescue teams with dogs spent Tuesday night scouring ruins in the area, but no new victims were found by the mountain rescue service, the organisation’s chief Josip Granic told reporters in the morning.
Tuesday’s toll included a young girl struck by falling debris on a street in Petrinja, a man who had tried to resuscitate her told local media.
Another victim was buried beneath rubble in a village church, a priest told state news agency HINA.
At least 20 people were injured, Croatian police said, while six survivors were rescued from the wreckage.
The quake, which was felt across the Balkans, shook buildings that had already been weakened by a moderate tremor in the same Croatian region on Monday.
The Balkans lie near fault lines and see regular seismic activity.
From the Vatican, Pope Francis expressed sympathy for the victims in the mainly Catholic country.
“I hope that the authorities of the country, with the help of the international community, will soon be able to alleviate the suffering of the dear Croatian people,” he said.
A powerful 6.4 magnitude earthquake tore down buildings in central Croatia on Tuesday, striking near the town of Petrinja where rescue teams raced to comb through the rubble.
The tremor, one of the strongest to rock Croatia in recent years, collapsed rooftops in Petrinja, home to some 20,000 people, and left the streets strewn with bricks and other debris.
“We are pulling people from the cars, we don’t know if we have dead or injured,” Darinko Dumbovic, the mayor of Petrinja told regional broadcaster N1.
“There is general panic, people are looking for their loved ones,” he added.
Rescue workers and the army were deployed to search for trapped residents, with no casualties initially reported.
“I’m scared, I can’t reach anyone at home as the phone lines are dead,” one worried woman in Petrinja told N1.
The quake was also felt in the capital Zagreb, 50 kilometres (30 miles) north of the epicentre, where tiles were ripped off roofs and panicked residents gathered streets, according to an AFP reporter.
Electricity was cut in the city centre.
– Two quakes –
The quake, which struck around 1130 GMT according to the US Geological Survey (USGS), rattled Petrinja just one day after a smaller earthquake struck the town, causing some damage to buildings.
The tremors reverberated across neighbouring countries, including Serbia, Slovenia and as far away as the Austrian capital Vienna.
As a precaution Slovenia moved to shut down the Krsko nuclear power plan it co-owns with Croatia.
European Union leaders said they were closely following the “devastating earthquake” in member state Croatia.
“We are ready to support,” European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen wrote on Twitter, adding that the bloc’s civil protection team was “ready to travel to Croatia as soon as the situation allows”.
Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said “our thoughts go out to the injured and frontline workers”.
In March, Zagreb was damaged by a 5.3-magnitude quake, the most powerful to hit the capital decades.
The Balkan region lies on major fault lines and is regularly hit by earthquakes.
An 5.2-magnitude earthquake rattled central Croatia and the capital Zagreb early Monday morning, the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) said, with initial reports indicating no casualties.
The tremor was felt at 530 GMT in Zagreb, with an epicentre some 50 kilometres south outside the town of Sisak, home to some 35,000 people, EMSC reported.
“We have not yet been informed of damage,” Kresimir Kuk, head of the Croatian Seismological Institute, told the national television (HRT).
“The Prime Minister is feeling well at the moment, continues his activities and carries out his duties from home, following the instructions of doctors and epidemiologists,” the cabinet said in a statement.
After broadly keeping its caseload under control, Croatia has been battling a steep surge of infections in recent weeks, with some 2,300 patients currently hospitalised in the country of 4.2 million.
On Monday authorities announced a record 74 deaths in the past 24 hours.
Health Minister Vili Beros also recently tested positive for the virus but said Monday he would resume work.
Hospitals in Croatia — and in the wider Balkans region — are struggling with a surge in patients, limited beds and equipment and staff shortages, as more than 1,000 doctors have themselves become infected.
A Croatian court on Friday sentenced former prime minister Ivo Sanader to eight years in jail for siphoning millions of euros from public funds in a long-running corruption case.
Sanader, who led Croatia into NATO during his 2003-2009 spell in office, organised a plot with other officials to “acquire significant financial gain” for himself and to finance their HDZ party, which was also accused in the case, the Zagreb court ruled.
Sanader directed embezzlement involving illegal donations and fictitious deals involving state-run firms, according to the verdict.
The former prime minister, currently serving a prison sentence for another corruption case, will also be required to pay 15.8 million kunas (two million euros, $2.5 million) once the verdict becomes final.
The conservative HDZ, which is still in power, was “responsible” for the crime and must pay some two million euros to the state budget, judge Irena Kvaternik said.
Of three other HDZ officials on trial, two were convicted and jailed and the other was acquitted.
The party said in a statement it rejected “any collective responsibility” and said it would appeal the ruling.
Sanader was first sentenced to nine years in jail for this case in 2014, in what was the first trial of its kind against a Croatian political party.
But the top court scrapped the ruling citing violations of criminal proceedings.
During the retrial all the defendants pleaded not guilty.
Since 2019 Sanader has been serving a six-year sentence for a separate corruption conviction and faces a slew of other allegations.
The 67-year-old did not attend Friday’s hearing as he is recovering from surgery.
Croatia international Ivan Rakitic on Monday bid farewell to the national team with whom he reached the final at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the country’s football federation said.
“Saying goodbye to Croatia squad is the most difficult decision in my career.
“But I felt that is the moment when I have … to make this decision,” the 32-year-old Sevilla midfielder said in a Croatian Football Federation (HNS) statement.
“I enjoyed every match I have played for my homeland and unforgettable moments from the World Cup will remain among favourite memories of my life.”
Rakitic, who did not elaborate on the reasons for the decision, made his debut for Croatia in 2007. He won 106 caps and scored 15 goals. His last appearance came against Wales in a Euro qualifying game last October.
HNS recalled that Rakitic converted the final penalties in the shootouts against Denmark in the round of 16 and Russia in the quarterfinal in 2018 as Croatia advanced to their first ever World Cup final.
Croatia lost 4-2 to France.
Coach Zlatko Dalic said he talked with Rakitic about his decision and added that, despite regrets, respected it.
“Ivan had a great career in the national team and no one will forget his cold-bloodedness during decisive penalties at the World Cup,” Dalic said in a statement.
Croatia’s next match is a friendly against Switzerland on October 7.
Barcelona agreed to sell Rakitic back to Sevilla in early September for 1.5 million euros ($1.8 million).
Rakitic, who had a year left on his contract at the Camp Nou, spent three seasons with Sevilla and won the Europa League in 2014 right before moving to the Camp Nou.
He was one of several Barcelona players who were reportedly told they were not part of new manager Ronald Koeman’s plans.
A little over two years after the World Cup final in Moscow, France and Croatia meet again, this time under very different circumstances, in the second round of Nations League matches in Paris on Tuesday.
What should have been a festive full house at the Stade de France, a chance to relive the excitement of Les Bleus’ 4-2 win that July afternoon in Moscow, will be more downbeat, thanks to coronavirus. European football body UEFA has directed that all the games be played behind closed doors.
The atmosphere in a stadium with no spectators will inevitably be flat and the teams on show will be markedly different as the coaches try to manage players who, because of the upheaval in the calendar over the last six months, are not fully fit.
Squad rotation is a necessity, not a choice.
“I’m going to make a lot of changes because it’s very difficult to keep going,” France coach Didier Deschamps said after Saturday’s scratchy 1-0 win over Sweden in his side’s Nations League Group 3 opener in Solna.
“Already, playing 90 minutes with this deficit at the start is taking risks with the players.
“It may go against cohesion and my instinct but I think I have no choice.”
The Croats will be glad to welcome back their veteran midfield pair of Luka Modric and Ivan Ratikic who were rested for the 4-1 thrashing in Portugal on Saturday to be fresh for Paris.
That means Kylian Mbappe, who scored with France’s only shot on goal to beat the Swedes, is likely to be the highest profile absentee.
Part of that is his fitness — the 21-year-old took a nasty blow to his right ankle which had barely recovered from a major sprain — and part of it is club/country politics.
Mbappe is expected to be in Lens on Thursday as Paris Saint-Germain, who have lost six players including Neymar to positive Covid-19 tests, make a belated start to their Ligue 1 season.
– Rotation opportunities –
The promise and need for rotation may open some doors in Deschamps’ starting line-up.
Manchester United’s Anthony Martial, who returned in attack in Solna after more than two years out of the reckoning, may have a further opportunity to press his claims.
The same goes for Real Madrid midfielder Ferland Mendy if Lucas Digne is given a rest, and Lucas Hernandez who has been used sparingly at Bayern Munich.
But the name that is garnering much of the attention is that of Rennes teenager Eduardo Camavinga.
At 17 years and nine months, Camavinga missed out on a first cap on Saturday which would have made him France’s youngest player since World War II but there is every chance that will come in Paris on Tuesday.
To make the starting line-up Camavinga will need to dislodge either Adrien Rabiot, who played in Sweden for the first time since his refusal to be a reserve for the 2018 World Cup, or N’Golo Kante who put in a big performance in Scandinavia.
But Deschamps has all but promised Camavinga some game time, allowing the French to take a look at a young player who is likely to figure largely, alongside Mbappe, in the future.
Croatians went to the polls Sunday for a government to navigate the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, in a tight race pitting ruling conservatives against leftist rivals and a new nationalist party on the rise.
The pandemic has put Croatia’s tourism-dependent economy on course for a contraction of nearly 10 percent — its steepest decline in decades — even as the country’s own health situation has remained stable.
The ruling conservative HDZ party, which has led the Adriatic country for most of its independence, has been touting its relative success in containing the country’s virus outbreak thus far, with an official tally of roughly 110 deaths and 3,000 infections.
But a fresh rise of cases in recent weeks, with dozens recorded daily, has renewed fears over the health situation and given the opposition fresh ammunition.
“Whoever wins will face major economic problems to deal with in autumn. It won’t be easy,” said Igor Ivic, a 49-year-old economist among the first crowd of voters to cast ballots in Zagreb.
Polls put Croatia’s two main camps — Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic’s HDZ and the left-leaning ‘Restart’ coalition led by the Social Democrats (SDP) — in a close contest.
With neither expected to carve out an absolute majority in the 151-member house, tricky coalition talks are expected to follow the vote.
That leaves the new populist ‘Homeland Movement’ of folk singer-turned-politician Miroslav Skoro, polling in third, a potential kingmaker.
– ‘New start’ –
With the European Union member facing a fresh uptick infections, voters were advised to wear masks and bring their own pens to polling stations, which opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT).
Officials also paid home visits to the collect the ballots of 500 people — some 10 percent of those in self-isolation — who requested to vote, while others infected with the virus can do so through a proxy.
SDP leader and prime minister candidate Davor Bernardic has accused the government of “consciously pushing Croatia into a risk” by deciding to go ahead with the election in the middle of the pandemic.
He and other rivals also highlight HDZ’s history of graft, which has been brought back to the fore with a recent scandal involving a top official.
“We have offered…a clear alternative, clear changes for Croatia’s new start,” 40-year-old Bernardic said after casting his vote in the capital.
Plenkovic, meanwhile, is hoping the uncertainty of the health crisis will inspire voters to stick with HDZ, in power since 2016.
Now is the time for “serious choices and not for political quackery,” said the former MEP with strong backing from Brussels, who has dismissed his rivals as ill-prepared.
“Croatia doesn’t have time for experiments like Bernardic or Skoro,” he said.
Petar Dragic, a taxi driver from Zagreb, told AFP agreed with the 50-year-old prime minister.
“I’m pragmatic, don’t care who is left or right. Only Plenkovic is capable of pulling funds from Brussels and this is what we need now,” he said.
Yet some Croatians are hungry for new faces in a country struggling with massive emigration driven by low salaries and corruption at home.
“There is not enough focus on Croatians leaving for abroad, unemployment and poor salaries of young people,” said retired teacher Branka Tekavec.
Right-wing Skoro is also trying to capitalise on fatigue with the country’s two-party dominance, arguing that only his new party “guarantees a change, while SDP and HDZ guarantee the continuity of bad governance”.
The popular musician made his big debut when he finished third in Croatia’s December presidential election, inspiring him to form a new movement.
Analysts say HDZ could ultimately accept a tie-up with the singer, despite anger over his moves to break off a segment of their traditional voting base.
SDP, on the other hand, is unlikely to consider such an alliance given 57-year-old Skoro’s nostalgia for Croatia’s pro-Nazi past and accusations of sexism.
Some 3.8 million people are eligible to vote with first official results due late Sunday.