Well, it looks as if Lee Bowyer has upset the Croatian Football Association. Following Bowyer’s tackle on Luka Modric during the match between Tottenham Hotspur and Birmingham City on Saturday, which resulted in a broken leg for the Croatian international, the president of Hrvatski Nogometni Savez (the Croatian Football Federation), Vlatko Markovic, has concluded that there is a conspiracy amongst English clubs to injure Croatian players. Last year, Birmingham City’s Martin Taylor injured Eduardo sufficiently seriously for the Arsenal to have to miss out on Euro 2008, and Markovic is now pretty certain that a pattern is starting to form:
Maybe someone has something against us and our national team. In the past year, they [English footballers] have injured Eduardo and now the same has happened to Luka Modric. I can only ask whether someone did it deliberately on the eve of the game with England. I can only ask myself whether it is a coincidence or not.
Of course, there are a couple of issues that Markovic should take into account before making such pronouncements. Firstly, neither Taylor nor Bowyer are England squad players and, as such, wouldn’t have anything to gain from taking it upon themselves to injure Croatia’s best players. This, therefore, would seem to indicate that the players concerned had no particular to injure Eduardo and Modric. Secondly – and more relevantly – the Premier League has nothing massive to gain from England reaching the finals of the 2010 World Cup.
It hasn’t ever been thus, of course. In 1990, with the wounds of Hillsborough, Heysel and the Bradford Fire still raw, the peculiar run to the semi-finals of the World Cup that the national team managed rekindled interest in club football that had been lying dormant in some for a number of years. There is a case for saying that the reinvention of the game in England that has left us where we are today started somewhere between Cagliari, where England ground out their unimpressive opening round performance, and Turin, where they lost the semi-final to West Germany after having put in their best performance of the tournament.
That was then, though, and this is now. The Premier League now seems to regard international football – including the England national team – as some sort of enemy, and supporters of the biggest club sides have a far more ambivalent than they used to, often supporting the national teams of their clubs’ players. England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008 was treated with indifference by many supporters, who have come to regard international football as being somehow passé, with many thinking that, if anything, international football gets in the way of their clubs’ ambitions and needs.
The Hrvatski Nogometni Savez isn’t stupid, however, and neither is Vlatko Markovic. He knows fully well that there is no conspiracy against Croatian footballers in the Premier League. It’s possible that Markovic is merely trying to unsettle the England squad – make them think for just a fraction of a second longer before making their tackles at Wembley next Wednesday. It is also possible likely that next week’s referee is the target of his attention. Any extent to which the Croatian team can gain favour from the referee would be priceless. If his comments have no effect, it still wouldn’t have done them any damage.
Crazy? Probably, but Croatia have nothing to lose. Fabio Capello, the England coach, must be wondering what all this fuss about international football is. With seven wins out of seven in their World Cup qualifying group and a win next Wednesday will qualify his team for the finals with two matches still to play. A win for Croatia next week, however, will turn the heat back up on the group. England’s match after this is a very tricky away match in Dnepropetrovsk, against Ukraine. Defeat in this match as well and the mother of all chokes could be on, with England, in this situation, needing a result from their final match against Croatia. It’s unlikely, but it’s not impossible.
Of course, the British press is happy to lap this stuff up and several different news outlets have already expressed their own peculiar brand of outrage at the comments made, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the comments made are nothing more than a little pre-match gamesmanship. It’s a worthwhile reminder, however, that England’s qualification for the 2010 World Cup isn’t quite a done deal yet.