Australia v Croatia by Thomas Esamie

Croatia 7 - Australia 0

Well what can you say about this game that isn't painfully obvious from the scoreline?

Croatia, playing their final warm-up prior to the World Cup, played Australia in Zagreb whose only real motivation was to say goodbye to Terry Venables who heads off to Crystal Palace. I've always advocated that if a game is worth playing it is worth playing well but from the time the squad was announced you got this nasty feeling that this was going to be a lost cause.

Only a week before Croatia had beaten Iran 2-0 with two lateish goals and I expected Australia to be beaten by 3 or 4 goals considering the Australian squad and the fact that they had only pride to play for. Apparently pride is no longer of much value.

Only a few hours prior to this game Australia absolutely murdered the touring English Rugby Union team to the tune of 76-0. I was cheering every try. It didn't cross my mind that I could be sitting on the other side of the fence so soon. Croatia could have had 2 men sent off and still dominated the game, not that the famous Balkan temper ever bothered to reach such levels. In the end they were chipping the keeper from the penalty spot and playing cute little flicks as if they were in the training camp. The only difference is that in the training camp they would have had a bit of competition.

Croatia lay claim to be the Brazil of Europe, personally I don't see what's wrong with being just Croatia, but I'd nominate Romania for that particular title. Still it is noteworthy that Brazil only managed to beat Australia 6-0 in December the previous year. Of course that was a 10-man team, exhausted from too many games and still mourning the failure to get to France. The team which came up against Croatia had very little resemblance to the one who played Brazil. I suspect they had trouble recognising themselves because the preparation must have been minimal and a few of the players who pulled on the Australian shirt really didn't deserve to.

As the score mounted up I started to get angry. Angry that this was happening and that Australia was unable, or unwilling, to stop this rout. Angry that we had allowed ourselves to suffer this indignity which will surely live longer in the minds of potential European opponents than any game which Australia had played well in (say against Hungary) and angry that I had stayed up until 3 in the morning to watch this travesty.

I also could not help pondering, as Ante Seric played against the nation whose resources he had used and then turned his back on, that all the other Australian-born Croat wannabes would have been cheering for Croatia eventhough most of them have never even been there. I blame the parents. No doubt when Croatia tour here next year they will be hoping for more of the same.

It was such a contrast to the first tour by Croatia when Australia dominated and won 1-0, 3-1 and drew 0-0 in an ill-tempered series which featured Josip Biskis before he himself turned his back on Croatia and played for Belgium. At least Australia still has a winning record, if not goal difference, against the Croats.

Oh well to the game itself, which was broadcast on Channel 7 rather than the more common football channel SBS and David Fordham and former Socceroo captain Paul Wade provided at home commentary. Even before the kickoff the commentators were remarking on the liklihood of being outnumbered, and hence overpowered, in midfield. That's pretty much how it turned out. Soldo got an early injury, apparently a cut to the head, and was replaced and Australia even managed to get two consecutive corners early on in what looked like a muted but promising start.

If only.

Croatia held the ball remarkably well in midfield and looked like they weren't exactly overexerting themselves, of course such assessments are misleading. Australia on the other hand were pressured in defence and when looking to come forward resorted to long balls to Viduka and Aloisi. Australian soccer is such that I don't even know all that much about Aloisi but certainly Viduka is a less than stellar player of the high ball and he much prefers the ball to his feet. If this longball stuff was a tactic we should have tried to get someone like Paul Agostino who is magic with headers and such.

Robert Jarni too was fairly tearing up Croatia's left flank. He was going to be a problem. You could sense it. He's also much better than Ante Seric so you wonder whether the latters decision was wise.

The first goal came from the spot and it, unlike the second penalty, was a fair decision. Boban it was who got to the ball, near the goal line, first and prodded it forward and fell over Kalac who had little option but perhaps the whole thing could have been better handled. Still the ref gave the penalty and carded Kalac, and you could have few complaints no matter who you supported. Suker sent the ball to Kalac's right and made it 1-0. Only seconds earlier I had a vision of an Australian break but the Croats were on my wavelength and cut the chance out before it became noteworthy. Oh well.

So anyway on the game went and Australia continued to be their ineffective selves. The camera cut away to a crowd shot and an Australian flag with "Newcastle NSW" written on it. I had seen that very flag many times in Australia so I guess there are some who are making the trek to the World Cup despite Australia's absence.

Eventually, after several alarms, Robert Jarni managed to run down the sideline and square the ball to Suker who just slammed the ball into the net. Simple stuff really but well executed, and I use the word on purpose. Just when I was accustoming myself to a 2-0 halftime scoreline and pondering if there was any chocolate left in the house (there was) Prosinecki made it 3.

A sweeping legth of the field move, including taking out 2 defenders with a cute little backheel, resulted in Prosinecki marauding down just left of centre, sweeping past a hapless (and frankly useless) Kalac before changing feet and right footing the ball into goal from an acute angle.

Any hope I had of a fiery halftime talk causing a massive form reversal and perhaps an Australian goal or two was quickly vanquished when Zvonimir Boban scored just over a minute into the second half.

It was an amazing goal, the ball was played to Boban just inside the area and Boban just flicked the ball up and volleyed it across his body, and the face of goal, just inside the far post. I had to wait for the replay to make sure it actually went in it was so out of the blue. Even the chocolate wasn't helping much now.

Even with the raft of changes Blazevic had made at halftime the Croats still looked very together and sound. Of course the true test comes when there is real pressure, not some two bit game against, sadly, two bit opposition.

Australia hadn't forced either Croat keeper into anything resembling a save. There were some nice crosses with nobody there to head them in, and some nice passes which weren't quite where they should have been to make them a goalscoring opportunity. Aloisi and Viduka were getting no real service and had to go into midfield to get the ball and then of course they had nobody to play the ball to. A lot of this had to do with a complete lack of familiarity between the players.

Goal number 5, and it was always coming, was a complete joke of a penalty. Well that is what it looked like at first glance at least. Silvio Maric who had been released by Krpan was bearing down on goal and Kalac came out. Kalac dove at Maric's feet and the ball ended up behind the player so I thought the keeper had got the ball and I was incensed that the ref had awarded another penalty. On the replay there was a suggestion that the player had perhaps, at the instant of collision, checked back and dragged the ball back. Still it was a lousy decision with the score as it was.

After that Australia had a slightly better time in front of goal. An opportunist lob had to be cleared by a defender after Mrmic was beaten and a few likely looking free kicks came close. Of course this being Australia we are talking about those free kicks never got on target.

Brett Emerton chanced himself from long range, why the hell not, and actually made Mrmic save a shot. The whole thing was so saddening I was bemused rather than excited that Australia had finally managed to do something "constructive". As Babic proved if you get enough work you're bound to make one or two nice looking interceptions and tackles.

The Australian defence was again made to look pretty benign when Krpan terrorised the defenders and got free in the box and squared the ball to Kozniku who even had enough time and space to lose the ball behind him before slotting the ball into the net from right in front.

Epitomising the entire affair was the final goal which has to be seen to be believed. Not that it was contender for goal of the year, more something you'd see in a Danny Baker video. Tony Popovic tried either to pass the ball to Tobin or Kalac when under pressure. In the end he couldn't decide and put it between the two and Krpan swooped on the ball and laid it off to Boban and he would be unlikely to ever score a simpler, or easier, goal. A 7-0 thumping is not likely to endear Australia to anybody, certainly not to their fans and one can only hope that the young players here, like Emerton and Rizzo, can take something home from this game as a learning experience.

4 more years in the wilderness for the Socceroos and on this performace many more.

Written by Thomas Esamie