Is it really coming home? England soccer team supporters have reason to be optimistic of reaching a first World Cup final since 1966, as the team takes a number of huge advantages into its crucial semifinal match against Croatia on Wednesday.
Croatia has a lot to thank England for when it comes to soccer. After all, it was the English who introduced the country to the sport, in its modern form, in the late 19th century.
The first soccer match ever recorded in Croatia was in 1873, according to The Palgrave International Handbook of Football and Politics, and was played by English workers who were building a factory in Rijeka, a coastal town approximately 160 kilometres west of Zagreb.
English sailors helped popularise the sport in Croatia over the decades that followed, in seaside cities like Zadar, Trogir, and Split. English engineers then helped push soccer further into the country and professional soccer clubs began to form. Eventually, a league was founded and a set of rules was needed. So, Croatians naturally turned to the English Football Association, the oldest FA on the planet, to establish the laws that helped the game gain structure.
A lot has happened between that first recorded soccer game in Croatia and today. But 145 years after that random game in Rijeka, the Croatia national team is set to embark on the most significant match in its history — a crucial 2018 FIFA World Cup semifinal at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. The team is just one game away from a momentous World Cup final.
But Croatia is set to face England — and the English may well be poised to teach them yet another valuable lesson in soccer.
This is because England has three massive advantages heading into the Croatia clash — and these could all be key in determining which team progresses to Sunday's final.
Croatia's three top-performing attacking players, Luka Modrić (32), Ivan Rakitić (30), and Mario Mandžukić (32), are all the wrong side of 30.
This would not normally be an issue. Not when they have the talent that they clearly posses. But matches are coming around thick and fast (every four days), Croatia has been dragged into extra-time and sudden-death penalty shootouts in both of its knockout matches, and has not won a game in normal time since the group stage.
England, in contrast, is the youngest team left in the tournament and its key players, Harry Kane (24), Kieran Trippier (27), and Harry Maguire (25), are collectively younger than Croatia's and should, in theory, be able to handle the rigours of tournament soccer better than their older opponents.
Croatia was dragged into extra time in both of its knockout matches, and it has not won a game in normal time since the group stage of the competition.
On Saturday, England confidently and efficiently dispatched Sweden by a 2-0 score in 90 minutes. Later that day, Croatia had to play an energy-sapping 120 minutes of soccer against Russia. England was able to get in the ice baths and begin the recovery process earlier in the day, while Croatia will have been forced to nurse exhausted players deep into the night, and through the days that followed.
Influential defender Šime Vrsaljko was subbed out of the game because of injury, goalkeeper Danijel Subašić appeared to struggle with a hamstring problem, and Mandžukić looked knackered. Indeed, Vrsaljko, Subašić, and defender Dejan Lovren all missed a training session on Monday, according to the Mirror, so the stresses and strains of competing in additional soccer are, here at least, clear.
Croatia boss Zlatko Dalić even admitted that the team's route to the semifinal "has taken its toll." According to The Guardian, Dalić said: "We’ve played five difficult games, they’ve taken their toll. We’re tired but there can be no excuses."
He did, however, hasten to add: "We've come to the semi-final. We’re here to play football, enjoy ourselves and give our all. We do not want to say we are fatigued. We have not been exhausted. There is still opportunity for us to exhaust ourselves."
Being younger as a unit, and playing less football, are two advantages England has for Wednesday's game.
But there is also a third — if Lovren is fit to feature, he may wobble at the thought of having to deal with Kane, England's captain, striker, and the tournament's top goalscorer with six goals so far.
Lovren plays his club-level soccer at Premier League team Liverpool FC and is therefore no stranger to the Tottenham Hotspur hitman Kane. Last season, Kane showed Lovren what may lie in store on Wednesday when Spurs smashed Liverpool by a 4-1 score in October. At the heart of Tottenham's win was a key battle between Kane and Lovren — which Kane won and Lovren lost.
Kane scored twice, set up Heung-Min Son's goal, and witnessed England teammate Dele Alli get in on the action. At the heart of Tottenham's intricate passing and movement was Trippier, another player who has proven formidable at the World Cup.
Kane and Trippier embarrassed Lovren so bad he was hurled off the pitch on the hour mark.
When Croatia defender Lovren was asked about that game earlier this week, he raised his hackles and barked back. According to The Guardian, he said: "It's completely irrelevant… you are just nitpicking my poor performances."
But he also conceded that Kane is "one of the best strikers in the Premier League. He is constant. He bangs in goals. He’s one of the greatest threats."
Yes, England has the advantages and, no matter what happens, the result will live long in each country's sporting history — as long, perhaps, as that random English game in the Croatian town of Rijeka, 145 years ago.