Nations League: France Face Croatia In World Cup Final Rematch

France’s goalkeeper Hugo Lloris fails to save Croatia’s forward Ivan Perisic’s equalizer during the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 15, 2018. Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

 

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.

AFP

Ronaldo Misses Second Training With Portugal After Foot Infection

File photo: Portugal’s forward Cristiano Ronaldo in action during the Euro 2020 football qualification match between Ukraine and Portugal at the NSK Olimpiyskyi stadium in Kyiv on October 14, 2019. Genya SAVILOV / AFP

 

 

Cristiano Ronaldo missed a second training session in a row with the Portugal squad on Thursday due to a foot problem ahead of Nations League matches against Croatia and Sweden.

“The national team captain… has an infection in his right foot and is undergoing treatment with antibiotics,” the Portuguese FA said in a statement.

Ronaldo, 35, was restricted to a gym session on Wednesday.

Lille midfielder Renato Sanches has been ruled out of his country’s first two Nations League games with an undisclosed injury.

European champions Portugal won the inaugural Nations League last year, beating the Netherlands 1-0 in the final in Porto.

They begin the new campaign at home to Croatia on Saturday before travelling to Sweden three days later.

AFP

Croatia Votes For New Government As COVID-19 Woes Loom

People queue to cast their votes at a polling station in Zagreb on July 5, 2020, during the country’s parliamentary elections. (Photo by DENIS LOVROVIC / AFP)

 

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.

AFP

ATP Cup: Thiem Slumps As Croatia Upset Austria

Borna Coric of Croatia hits a return during his men’s singles match against Dominic Thiem of Austria at the ATP Cup tennis tournament in Sydney on January 4, 2020. William WEST / AFP

 

Borna Coric earned some badly-needed confidence with a big upset over world number four Dominic Thiem in stifling hot conditions at the ATP Cup Saturday as Austria slumped to defeat against a battling Croatia.

Thiem had won all three previous encounters with the 28th ranked Coric but failed to rediscover that form in Sydney, crashing 7-6 (7/4), 2-6, 6-3.

Veteran Marin Cilic, a finalist at the 2018 Australian Open, earlier used his experience to down Austria’s Dennis Novak 6-7 (7/4), 6-4, 6-4, with Croatia taking an unassailable 2-0 lead in the Group E tie at the 24-team event.

“It was really hot in the beginning but in the second set I started to feel better because I think the temperature went down,” said Coric.

“But it was really physical. It’s really nice to beat him because at the end of last season I was not playing well and this will give me a lot of confidence.

Coric had six losses in a row at the end of 2019 but dug deep against Thiem, who worked six break points in the third set but couldn’t convert any of them.

Former world number three Cilic showed similar fight in his tough three set victory.

“I’m very excited. It was absolutely very difficult,” said Cilic, who has fallen to 39 in the world, his lowest since 2013.

“Dennis played a great level. It was our first meeting, and it was absolutely a thriller and difficult match… and also a great match to start the year. I think the level was really, really good.”

Cilic sent down 15 aces and won all of his service games after losing the opening set.

Earlier in Group E, Poland’s top player Hubert Hurkacz stunned Argentinian pocket-rocket Diego Schwartzman, who blamed searing heat for his defeat.

Temperatures soared well above 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in Sydney, although fears that smoke haze from bushfires burning across New South Wales could impact the action proved unfounded.

World number 14 Schwartzman, one of the smallest players on tour at just 5ft 7ins (1.70 metres), looked destined for victory after winning the first set but wilted 4-6, 6-2, 6-3.

Guido Pella, ranked 25, had earlier battled past Kamil Majchrzak 6-2, 2-6, 6-2 to give Argentina the edge in their tie.

Hurkacz returned to partner two-time Grand Slam winner Lukasz Kubot in a deciding doubles rubber, but his energy was sapped and they fell 6-2, 6-4 to Maximo Gonzalez and Andres Molteni, handing Argentina a 2-1 victory.

“The first match with this weather, you know, 45 degrees inside the court, difficult to play, difficult to be ready every single point,” said Schwartzman, who has improved his year-end ranking in four straight seasons.

“Then I think he deserved to win. He played much better than me.

“You know, that part of the game with this weather, it’s difficult to do every point. So every single point was difficult for me at the end,” he added.

AFP

Croatia Sentences Ex-PM For Corruption

Croatia’s former prime minister Ivo Sanader attends a hearing during his trial in Zagreb, Croatia.  STR / AFP

 

A Croatian court on Monday sentenced former prime minister Ivo Sanader to six years in jail and the boss of Hungary’s MOL energy group to two years for bribery.

Sanader — already serving time for a separate graft conviction — and MOL’s Zsolt Hernadi were convicted for “receiving and giving a bribe” concerning a 2009 deal after the Hungarian firm purchased shares in local oil and gas group INA, the judge said.

Judge Maja Stampar Stipic said the deal allowed then-PM Sanader to pocket 10 million euros ($11 million) in exchange for granting the Hungarian firm control over INA.

MOL, whose main shareholder is the Budapest government, has a 49 percent INA stake, while Zagreb holds a 44 percent stake.

“As the top state official, Sanader … jeopardised Croatia’s vital economic interests,” prosecutor Tonci Petkovic said in his final statement.

Defence attorneys for CEO Hernadi, who was tried in absentia, argued that the prosecutors did not prove an “incriminating tie” between the two defendants.

Both men pleaded not guilty and can appeal the verdict.

The former premier was already found guilty of the charge in 2012, but the country’s top court overturned his eight-and-a-half-year jail sentence and called for a re-trial.

Croatia has sought Hernadi’s arrest for years, but Hungary has refused to extradite him.

Sanader, conservative prime minister from 2003 to 2009, has faced several other graft cases in which he is suspected of embezzling millions of euros.

In April he was jailed to serve a six-year sentence in another corruption case.

In 2018 he was also sentenced to two and half years for war profiteering, but acquitted of abuse of power charges in another trial.

Sanader is the highest official to be charged with corruption in Croatia since independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Tackling corruption was key for the country’s successful bid to join the European Union in 2013.

AFP

Croatians Take To The Poll In A Three-Horse Presidential Race

A man walks past a placard of the current Croatian President and candidate Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic for the presidential election, from outside a window, in downtown Zagreb, December 21, 2019. Croatia voters will go to the polls on December 22, 2019 for the Croatian presidential election.
Denis LOVROVIC / AFP

 

Croatia went to the polls for a presidential vote on Sunday that could weaken the ruling conservatives just as the country takes the helm of the European Union’s rotating presidency.

The pre-Christmas election, likely to be decided in a January 5 run-off, has evolved into a tight race between conservative incumbent Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and front-running rivals on the right and the left.

Voters braved heavy rain in the capital Zagreb to reach polling stations that opened at 7:00 am (0600 GMT), with the voting set finish 12 hours later.

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Grabar-Kitarovic has been president since 2015 with backing from HDZ, the center-right party that has led Croatia for most of its independence since 1991.

The 51-year-old has often wavered between representing the party’s moderates and pandering to its nationalist faction.

In her re-election bid, she is struggling to hold on to hardliners shifting to a right-wing folk-singer turned politician, Miroslav Skoro.

Playing on an emotive symbol of the 1990s independence war, Grabar-Kitarovic held her final campaign rally on Friday in eastern Vukovar, the town whose bloody siege by Serb forces became a byword for Croatian suffering during the conflict.

She told the crowd she believed those who fought and died in the war “don’t regret being killed since Croatia is (now) here”.

The comments were seen as an effort to burnish her nationalist credentials in the battle with Skoro, who has been wooing the far-right with promises to deploy troops to halt migrants at the borders and pardon a convicted war criminal.

Running as an independent, the 57-year-old singer was polling in third place in the run-up to election day.

Meanwhile, the split on the right has carved out a space for leftist former premier Zoran Milanovic, 53, to gain traction. He was running neck-and-neck with Grabar-Kitarovic in the latest opinion polls.

Prime minister from 2011 to 2016, Milanovic was previously derided for his arrogance but is trying to make a comeback with the promise to make Croatia a “normal” country with an independent judiciary and respect for minorities.

Christmas Calculation

Analysts say a loss for Grabar-Kitarovic would deliver a blow to HDZ Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, a moderate in the party, ahead of parliamentary elections next year.

Starting on January 1, his government will be tasked with hosting the EU’s rotating presidency for a six-month term, with thorny issues like Brexit and the Western Balkans’ membership bids on the agenda.

Critics of the government have speculated that the pre-Christmas poll in an overwhelmingly Catholic country was purposefully scheduled to take advantage of the diaspora who are home for the holidays — and typically vote HDZ.

Of the 3.8 million people eligible to vote, some 170,000 are living abroad, mainly in neighbouring Bosnia.

Matija Horvat, a 27-year-old economist preparing to vote in Zagreb, said he was disappointed with a campaign that focused on the past instead of the future.

“They stole the space for issues of vital importance for most people’s lives, including the young who are leaving in increasing numbers,” he said reflecting the view of many Croatians.

The government has struggled to halt an emigration exodus as huge numbers of Croatians pack their bags for better pay and professional opportunities in wealthier member states.

Many who leave also cite a culture of nepotism and corruption at home, plus poor public services, as key motivations.

The presidential campaign has however been light on policy ideas with many candidates instead attacking each other with war-era grievances.

Initial results are expected from 1900 GMT.

AFP

Two FUTO Students Detained In Bosnia To Return Home Soon, Says Dabiri-Erewa

 

Two Nigerians students of the Federal University of Technology, Owerri (FUTO) held in an illegal migrants centre in Bosnia and Herzegovina are expected back into the country soon.

This is according to the Chairman, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, Abike Dabiri-Erewa who disclosed this in a statement.

She explained that their return is a sequel to a series of diplomatic interventions from the Nigerian Mission in Hungary and Mr. Geoffrey Onyema, Hon. Minister of Foreign Affairs, who directed for full investigations to be carried out.

Five students from the university, without the knowledge of the Nigerian Table Tennis Federation, attended an international table tennis competition in Croatia.

“According to a report, Abia Alexandro Uchenna, Eboh Kenneth Chinedu, and three other students arrived in Zagreb, capital of Croatia, on November 12, for the fifth world inter-university championships held in the country.

“They were allegedly arrested while taking a walk around the country’s capital on November 18 as they couldn’t produce relevant documents to the police.

“The police officers were reported to have transferred the students to
the country’s Bosnia-Herzegovina border, where Croatian authorities had gathered a group of illegal migrants attempting to cross into the
country.”

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While two of them returned over two weeks ago, three of them stayed back, one had already applied for asylum.

“Arrangements have been concluded to send the two Nigerians back to Croatia anytime from yesterday, Friday, December 13, 2019, adding that the Nigerian Mission in Hungary has taken steps to ensure that the matter is resolved and the welfare of the two Nigerians protected.

“Five of them went for the table tennis event without the knowledge of the Nigerian Table Tennis Federation, two returned over two weeks ago, three of them stayed back while one already applied for asylum.

“Although the Croatia Authorities through our Ambassador in Budapest denied the allegation involving maltreatment by the Croatian Police, the Hon. Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama has demanded a full investigation into the matter.”

She said the conditions attached to their release include the usage of their return tickets from Zagreb, Croatia back to Nigeria and must not seek Asylum in Croatia, just as one of them did already.

Dabiri-Erewa appealed to Nigerians to always inform relevant authorities whenever they go on such trips outside the country and be of good behaviour.

Footballer In Trouble For Killing Chicken On Pitch

 

A Croatian animal rights group said Wednesday it would file charges against a local footballer who kicked a chicken to death during a semi-professional match over the weekend.

The incident took place on Sunday when a brood of chickens ran onto a pitch in eastern Croatia.

One of the players, Ivan Gazdek from the home team NK Jelengrad, ran after the birds, kicked one with his foot and then chucked it over the fence in a flurry of feathers.

The 23-year-old was red-carded for unsporting behaviour.

READ ALSO: All 39 Victims Found Dead In UK Truck Confirmed As Vietnamese

The NGO Animal Friends also strongly condemned the “shameful act and cowardly behaviour of the player against an innocent animal who died with crushed bones and in pain”.

The group said it would file charges against the player for the “criminal act of animal killing or torture”.

If formally charged and found guilty, the player could face up to one year in prison.

Gazdek, who claims to be an animal lover that owns several pets, argued to local media that the killing “was not intentional”.

“I ran towards the chickens to chase them away, swung my foot and accidentally killed one,” he said.

“Chickens are constantly entering the pitch interrupting the match. The pitch is full of faeces, these are unhygienic conditions,” he added in comments to the local 24sata paper.

Bosnia Boss, Prosinecki Resigns After Euro 2020 ‘Failure’

 

Former Croatia international Robert Prosinecki resigned as Bosnia and Herzegovina coach on Sunday after “failing” to reach Euro 2020 following a 4-2 defeat by Armenia.

Prosinecki, who featured for his country as they finished third at the 1998 World Cup, had been in the post since January last year but his side sit fourth in their group on seven points from six games, eight behind leaders Italy.

“I discussed with everyone and I resign. Since I began the position, I thought we would qualify. We failed,” the 50-year-old said after the match in Yerevan.

As a coach he worked as an assistant with Croatia before being appointed as Azerbaijan boss after a playing career which included spells at Real Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla.

Bosnia’s only appearance at a major tournament was the 2014 World Cup in Brazil where they finished third in their group behind Nigeria and eventual runners-up Argentina.

Man Commits Suicide After Shooting Six Dead

Police officers stand guard at a checkpoint near the place where six people were shot dead in Zagreb on August 1, 2019. PHOTO: Denis LOVROVIC / AFP

 

A man suspected of shooting six people dead in Zagreb took his own life on Friday after police tried to arrest him, Croatian authorities said.  

Local media reported the suspect was the former spouse of one of the victims, who was killed along with her partner and four members of her family, including a child.

“The man linked to the crime was located and committed suicide during the arrest operation,” police said in a brief statement Friday.

Neighbours raised the alarm late Thursday night, police said, after hearing gunshots from the house in the Kajzerica area in the south of the capital.

The neighbourhood was sealed off and a manhunt launched.

The victims included “two men, three women, and a child”, Zagreb police chief Marko Rasic told reporters.

Another child found at the same house was unharmed, he added.

AFP

EURO 2020 Qualifier: Croatia Slump To Hungary Defeat

Croatia’s forward Ante Rebic (L) vies with Hungary’s defender Tamas Kadar during the UEFA Euro 2020 football 1st round Groupe E qualification match between Hungary and Croatia on March 24, 2019 in Budapest.
ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP

 

World Cup finalists Croatia slipped to a 2-1 defeat to Hungary in a Euro 2020 Group E qualifier on Sunday when Mate Patkai notched a 76th minute winner in Budapest.

Croatia had struggled against Azerbaijan in their opening qualifier last Thursday before escaping with a 2-1 win, but they made the perfect start in the Hungarian capital when Ante Rebic put them ahead on 13 minutes.

READ ALSO: Reus Calls For Patience From Fans As Germany Battle Netherland

But Hungary pulled level through Adam Szalai’s fifth goal in as many games and with a quarter of an hour left, 31-year-old Patkai scored his first international goal to pull off a famous victory.

AFP

Croatia Court Clears Lovren Of Perjury Charges

Croatia’s defender Dejan Lovren celebrates after winning the Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final football match between Croatia and England at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 11, 2018.
Jewel SAMAD / AFP

 

A Croatian court said on Monday it had dropped perjury charges against Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren, who was accused of giving false testimony in a major football-related corruption trial.

Lovren, 29, was charged in September with committing perjury over his testimony at the 2017 trial of former Dinamo Zagreb boss Zdravko Mamic, who is accused of multi-million-euro graft.

The player had provided details about his 2010 transfer from Dinamo to French side Lyon.

But the Zagreb municipal court “on January 25 rejected the indictment … against Lovren,” a tribunal statement said without elaborating.

The ruling can be appealed, it added.

In December the court dropped similar charges against Real Madrid’s Croatian superstar Luka Modric.

Mamic, considered the kingpin of the Balkan state’s football scene, was sentenced in June to six-and-a-half years in prison over multi-million-euro corruption.

He fled the country and is hiding in neighbouring Bosnia.

Mamic was accused of embezzling cash through fictitious deals related to player transfers, notably those of Lovren and Croatia’s captain Modric to Tottenham.

Like Modric, who won the 2018 Golden Ball, Lovren was part of the Croatian national team that finished runners-up in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Croatia lost to France in the finals but the small nation was overjoyed by its historic run, which temporarily quieted anguish over corruption and other problems plaguing the sport.

AFP