In the second of his pieces for us, William Abbs ponders whether having a second team at international level is a worthwhile endeavour.
When Fulham’s improbable run to the Europa League final had writers in The Times and The Guardian trumpeting Roy Hodgson’s charges as everybody’s second favourite team, I asked myself the following question: how does having a second favourite team work at international level?
In the case of Fulham, they earned the backing of British neutrals by virtue of being a Premier League club in a European final. The British love an unlikely hero; when Fulham defeated the best that Europe could throw at them (within the parameters of the continent’s second-ranked club competition anyhow), the London club’s place in the public’s affections was assured. With a few notable exceptions, any side in the country would have received such goodwill under the circumstances. For fans of clubs with nothing left to play for at the end of the season, supporting a British side in a major final is a harmless way to hitch a lift aboard another’s glory.
But what about supporting another country? Developing an affection for a national side other than one’s own is, if anything, a more enduring affair. During a major tournament, with so many games being televised in such a short space of time, watching a group of players perform magnificently over the course of a month can leave long-lasting memories. What’s more, with the international football calendar both less busy and less exposed than that of the club game, it is possible to hold a torch for another country for long periods before having to extinguish said flame – temporarily at least – when that country plays England.
A fondness for another nation does not need to be devotional in nature, but more an appreciation of their way of playing and a derivation of pleasure from any successes that they might have along the way. For more than half my lifetime, since Euro 96 in fact, I have always liked to see Croatia do well. As with any meaningful relationship, I can pinpoint the moment they captured my pre-teen footballing heart: Davor Šuker’s famous chip over Peter Schmeichel. Croatia had arrived in England for that tournament with an immensely gifted squad that featured, along with Šuker, Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Boban, and Aljoša Asanovic. Germany knocked Croatia out in their next game, at the quarter-final stage, but their performances that summer left an everlasting impression on me – as, too, did their kit. Indeed, it was most disappointing to learn from a history teacher that Croatia’s red and white ‘chessboard’ colours had unfortunate emblematic ties with a group of fascists who fought for the nation’s independence during the Second World War.
My soft spot for Croatia has never caused any conflict of interest with England. Indeed, the two nations did not meet in a competitive fixture until they were drawn together in the group stage of Euro 2004. In the last four years, however, their respective fortunes have been somewhat intertwined. Despite their part in England’s failure to reach Euro 2008 under Steve McClaren, though, it still saddened me that Croatia failed to qualify behind England in their World Cup qualifying group. One reason for this was that, in the fourteen years since Euro 96, my affection for one Balkan nation has blossomed into a wider enthusiasm for football from that part of the world in general.
Earlier this month, the web site the Best Eleven speculated as to what a Yugoslavia team might have looked like at this summer’s World Cup. It is a pet theory of mine that, had Yugoslavia not succumbed to civil war at the start of the 1990s, their national side would have won a major tournament by the end of that decade. The talent the country had at its disposal was demonstrated in 1991, when Red Star Belgrade won the European Cup with a starting line-up that featured ten native Yugoslavians. The fighting began soon after that, however, and Yugoslav football ceased to exist in a fully unified sense. The country’s players would turn out for separate national sides in future but continued to star for Europe’s top teams. Boban, a Croat, and Dejan Savicevic, a Montenegrin, both started for AC Milan in the 1994 Champions League final, the latter scoring the third goal as Fabio Capello’s side routed Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona 4-0. Four years later, in the 1998 final, another Montenegrin, Predrag Mijatovic, scored Real Madrid’s winner against Juventus.
Mijatovic and Savicevic both played for a temporarily regenerated Yugoslavia at France 98. Croatia made the semi-finals of that same tournament, reaching heights that they have rarely threatened to scale again since. Had Croatia been able to call upon other players from the former Yugoslavia, they might well have been able to beat France in the last four and go on to beat Brazil in the final. As it was, they went ahead against Les Bleus but lost 2-1, eventually finishing third. In my opinion, it is one of football’s great ‘what ifs?’ of recent times.
In the wake of their Europa League campaign, there was an awareness amongst neutrals that Fulham had possibly reached a high-water mark this season. A collection of players of good experience and ability came together at the right time, but the mix might not be quite as fruitful next year. Likewise, when Croatia’s scintillating group of players during the 90s began to age, then retire, it soon became apparent that their replacements were simply not as good. It is arguable that Fulham, like Croatia, peaked with glorious failure, and there are few more traits that the British cherish more than that.