World Cup finalists Croatia face Portugal but look to the future

Lajla VESELICA
Croatia midfielder Luka Modric led his nation to the World Cup final

Still riding the wave of their historic World Cup run, Croatia are heading for a potential reality check as their new season starts with a friendly against Portugal in Faro on Thursday.

It will be the tiny Balkan nation's first match since the side led by star midfielder Luka Modric succumbed to France in the World Cup final in July -- a loss celebrated like a victory by underdogs who had never made it so far on the world stage.

That fairytale glow took the spotlight off controversies plaguing football in Croatia, from the unsavoury ultra-nationalism of its hardcore supporters to a litany of legal problems.

But fans will be reminded of the former when Croatia face England in its first Nations League home match on October 12.

The game will be played in an empty stadium -- punishment by UEFA for the swastika drawn on a pitch in Split, on Croatia's Adriatic coast, ahead of a Euro 2016 qualifier with Italy.

The perpetrators were never found, but it was not the first time Croatian fans have tainted the team's image by using fascist slogans and symbols.

That darker side of Croatia's football fairytale also reared its head during the World Cup celebrations, when the players invited a singer known for pro-Nazi sympathies to join them on the bus and stage at their welcoming party in Zagreb.

- Legal woes -

Even during the euphoria of the World Cup one local paper warned that "after showering in the champagne of victory, not only cosmetic but deep changes should be made" in the sport.

It may be only a matter of time before fans resume calls for the departure of the federation's president, Davor Suker, accused of being a puppet in the hands of Zdravko Mamic, the self-exiled strongman of Croatian football.

Mamic, the former head of the Dinamo Zagreb club, fled to Bosnia after being sentenced in June to a six and a half years in prison for corruption and embezzling funds from players' transfers.

"His influence on Croatian football maybe did not disappear overnight, but now he cannot influence Dinamo or even less the federation as he used to," prominent sports journalist Davorin Olivari told AFP.

The controversy also ensnared Modric, who was charged with giving false testimony during Mamic's trial over his transfer from Dinamo.

For now Modric, who won the Champions League with Real Madrid and the Golden Ball for the World Cup's best player, appears untouchable.

His reputation as a national hero was further cemented when he won the UEFA Player of the Year last month.

- Player shake-up -

Both Modric and Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic, who will skip the Portugal match, will continue to be the pillars of the "Vatreni" -- Croatian for "Fiery Ones".

But they are ageing fast. Modric turns 33 on Sunday while goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, striker Mario Mandzukic and defender Vedran Corluka all ended their international careers in August.

Coach Zlatko Dalic admits it will take time to rebuild.

"We are world vice-champions, we reached our peak in Russia and now everything will go down, which is normal," he told the Sportske Novosti daily paper.

Eight of his 22 World Cup players will be missing on Thursday -- as will Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal.

But the coach says he is focusing on the long game.

"I am not worried or restless. My goal is Euro 2020, not the match with Portugal or the Nations League... We will try to win, but our real goal is the Euro."

Dalic sees the upcoming matches, including a Nations League match against Spain on September 11, as a good opportunity for younger players who did not get a chance in Russia.

They include promising midfielders Marko Rog (Napoli), Mateo Kovacic (Chelsea) and Mario Pasalic (Atalanta), as well as strikers Marko Pjaca (Fiorentina), Ivan Santini (Anderlecht) and Marko Livaja (AEK Athens). In goal, Lovre Kalinic of Belgian club Gent will replace Subasic.

"We will use Portugal and Spain for real preparations, to find a new energy," said Dalic.

"Our goal is to shape... three to four new players in order to find a new energy and get to the Euro in the same shape as at the World Cup in Russia. Not weaker!"