Grasshoppers 0 Croatia Zagreb 5

Ian Plenderleith recalls an usual cup tie consisting of flares, invading fans and a surreal amount of goals

Have you ever had your home stadium taken over by away fans? I don’t just mean being outsung by supporters of a victorious opponent, or having your end steamed in on by a bunch of future novelists. We’re talking here about an occupying army, a cacophonous, flag-waving force running on the adrenalin of new-found nationalism, a rabble which banged, bayed and basked in its superiority of numbers for 90 minutes and more while the awe-smitten home supporters barely squeaked.

Normally an evening out at the Hardturm Stadium, Zurich, goes like this. You turn up a few minutes before kick-off, buy a sausage and a beer, choose a good seat with a view of both goals and then sit back and bask in the evening sun before watching it set, sometimes in a spectacular purple, behind the main stand. Oh, and Grasshoppers knock a few past Luzern or Young Boys and you politely applaud. Tonight the game is sold out, interest awakened by the bizarre 4-4 score in the first leg. The Grasshoppers used up a season’s luck in that game, scoring four times from five shots, while the Croats missed chances every few seconds or so. But a draw of almost any kind will suit the home side tonight, and confidence is still high after the big names they beat in the Champions League the season before.

Getting to the game proves difficult because Zurich is not used to dealing with large numbers of people going to a football match. The trams are delayed, there’s a jam at the turnstiles, and we get into the stadium one minute before kick-off. Already in the queue we sens-ed something different about tonight, the sound of structures shaking, metal hoardings being battered, hostile whistling, the chorus of “Di-na-mo!” Then when we take our seats it’s clear why – the home fans are outnumbered, making up well below half of the 16,000 present. Migrant Croats in Switzerland and Germany are making the most of a rare chance to watch their home side.

Fans of city rivals FC Zurich often sneer that Grasshoppers’ followers consist mainly of teenage girls. This claim is substantiated tonight when, during rare lulls in the Zagreb noise, a high-pitched chorus of “Up GC!” struggles to be heard. This is met with a wall of derision from the away support who then drown it out with storming chants and heavy stomping on the shuddering wooden stands. Meanwhile, on the pitch, the Grasshoppers have started steadily, in control but playing it safe. Their coach, Christian Gross, probably made them chant “Draw! Draw! Draw!” for half an hour before they left the changing-room.But they’re caught out by a swift and brutal counter-attack finished off by the classy Igor Cvitanovic, a goal celebrated with a shower of flare rockets which look impressive but hold up the game for several minutes.

The Grasshoppers’ first real chance to get back into the game comes when the UEFA delegate warns the Croatian fans that if they throw one more flare rocket on to the pitch then the game will be abandoned. But they obey and refrain, even after Cvitanovic’s second enthralling counter-attack goal in the 33rd minute. Grasshoppers’ second chance comes after an hour, the score still 0-2, when the Zagreb centre-back Mladinic is sent off for forcing Kubilay Turkyilmaz to take an outrageous dive on the edge of the penalty area. But Turkyilmaz wafts his free kick over the bar for the fifth time that night (he was far more accurate the year before against Rangers, of course) and then two minutes later Grasshoppers defender Mats Gren redresses the balance by getting two yellow cards in 60 seconds for stupid, unnecessary tackles. It’s at this moment everyone in the stadium realises the home side is going out.

Seventies nostalgia bores should have seen the second half. The Hoppers’ Ghanaian midfielder Augustine Ahinful, coming on as a substitute, is greeted with chimp noises every time he touches the ball.There is real scrapping on the terraces, apparently between rival factions of Croat fans unintimidated by the Swiss riot police and their wicker riot shields (weaved on all those quiet nights when Grasshoppers were at home in front of 3,500). Their team rolls on regardless, walking in three more goals in the last three minutes as home keeper Zuberbuehler is sent off and his hapless outfield replacement watches Prosinecki place two penalties and Cvitanovic complete his hat-trick in between. The only thing missing is Franjo Tudjman in the executive box.

Then, the final humiliation as departing Swiss fans are serenaded in their own language: “Auf Wiedersehen, Auf Wiedersehen!” Like most of their countrymen they are probably thinking: “If this is Europe, you can stick it.”

From WSC 136 June 1998. What was happening this month