Friday 20 June ~
Just in case you hadn't realised, Clive Tyldesley reminded viewers during last night's Portugal-Germany match that England's qualifying group was the only one to produce two quarter-finalists, in Croatia and Russia. “Perhaps it was the group of death after all,” he said with a sigh. The notion that England had got a raw deal is rubbish, of course. Russia and Croatia are both good teams but neither needed to be outstanding to finish ahead of England. Both proved themselves to be mentally tougher than Steve McClaren's millionaires at crucial times – Russia in coming back from a goal down to win 2-1 in Moscow, Croatia in winning at Wembley. Now the Croats have a strong chance of reaching the semi-finals with their Turkish opponents missing several first choice players through injury and suspension – indeed they may have only 15 players available tonight.
England's absence from the tournament has restricted commentators' opportunities to make war references, although the relentlessly fatuous Tyldesley did have the Portuguese “digging an escape tunnel” against Germany last night. The fact that Croatia v Turkey takes place in Vienna, besieged by the Ottoman armies in the 17th century, might prove useful for the researchers helping to prepare Gary Lineker's introductory preamble. The Telegraph today offered few pointers in this direction in describing the arrival of fans in the Austrian capital: “Not since the Ottoman armies were stopped at the city gates in 1683 has there been this kind of Turkish tide”, while a Turkey win will be greeted by ”noise louder than any Ottoman cannon”. We can also expect to hear about impending “Turkish delight” and a warning to Croatia that they shouldn't expect a “Turkey shoot”.
Croatia don't offer quite the same variety of cultural references from an English media perspective. Instead we have heard plenty about Slaven Bilic's personal interests, notably the fact that plays in a rock band that recorded the country's official Euro anthem. In the largely conformist world of football, Bilic's interest in rock, and the fact that he has a law degree, have led to him being presented as a beacon of unconventionality. A far more startling fact is that a recent doubling of his salary took his annual wage up to 'only' £100,000 a year. Some English players now topping up their tans have earned more than that each week since the end of the season. Bilic himself has commented that his players are “closer to common folk” than players from wealthier countries although that will be put to the test if, as has been predicted, several players from his squad join the Croatian contingent already at Premier League clubs. Their transfer values will edge upwards the longer they stay in the competition, so expect a few million to be added on after tonight.