Croatia's Luka Modric, top, celebrates with Dejan Lovren after winning the quarterfinal match between Russia and Croatia at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Fisht Stadium, in Sochi, Russia, Saturday, July 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Playing Croatia in semifinal is a harsh reminder for England

July 08, 2018 - 6:56 am
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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Croatia was there at England's lowest ebb this century in international soccer, and it'll be there as the English team tries to peak.

For many England supporters, the 3-2 loss to Croatia in November 2007 was a national embarrassment. Coach Steve McClaren's tactics floundered as he clutched an umbrella in pouring rain on the sidelines at Wembley, and he was dubbed "the Wally with the brolly" following the loss that meant England failed to qualify for Euro 2008.

A decade later a young, vibrant team has earned England a spot in the World Cup semifinals for the first time in 28 years and it will face Croatia again. The euphoria on the streets of London was matched in Zagreb, where Croats celebrated their country's best World Cup run since 1998.

"We respect them and I think they respect us," said Croatia defender Dejan Lovren, who has played in England since 2013. "We're two great teams and it will be a great challenge for us and for them, so let's see who will be better."

Lovren is the only player in Croatia's World Cup squiad who is currently with an English club, although his teammates Luka Modric and Vedran Corluka both previously played for Tottenham, and forward Andrej Kramaric was formerly at Leicester City.

England beat Croatia 4-1 and 5-1 in their last two meetings, World Cup qualifiers in 2008 and 2009, but the abiding memory for England fans remains that defeat in 2007.

Davor Suker, a star of the Croatian team that reached the 1998 World Cup semifinals and president of the national football federation, tried to play down the grudge factor ahead of Wednesday's semifinal match in Moscow.

"Not revenge, it's football," he said, adding that he wished Croatia was facing a weaker England team. "What I would like, England from before, but now England is very strong. We will respect this team."

England won the 1966 World Cup but hasn't returned to the final of the sport's marquee event. In the semifinals in 1990, West Germany advanced on penalties over England.

Suker said England coach Gareth Southgate has built a team of "hungry" players motivated to win for their country and not distracted by the trappings of fame.

"You know, the coach, what he has, football comes home," Suker said, referencing England's "Three Lions" song.

"It's the hungry players, you see," Suker said, explaining that cash and fast cars can't compare for players with competing for the biggest title. "Just 11 against 11 warriors and that's playing in the World Cup."

Besides the semifinal on Wednesday in Moscow, England and Croatia will meet twice more this year in the new UEFA Nations League.

England will play Croatia away on Oct. 12. The game will be played at an empty venue because Croatia is under a stadium ban from UEFA imposed back in 2015 when a swastika was painted on its field ahead of a game. England hosts Croatia on Nov. 18 in the return fixture.

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