Strange. That’s the atmosphere, or rather lack of it, England must prepare themselves tomorrow.
Gareth Southgate’s side are in the port city of Rijeka on the Adriatic Sea to face Croatia in the Nations League for the first time since suffering defeat in the semi-final of the World Cup in the summer. So far, so familiar.
But while the opposition are well known, one aspect to the match at the Stadion Rujevica won’t be. England’s 988th international will be their first played in an empty stadium.
The reason lies three years back when a swastika was marked on the pitch ahead of Croatia’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy in June 2015 – a match which also took place without supporters due to racist chants at a previous game against Norway.
Croatia complained of “sabotage” but were ordered to play their next two home games behind closed doors by Uefa. The first was served against Bulgaria in October 2015, and now, after a long gap until the next Uefa-sanctioned home game, the second will be tomorrow evening.
The result of Croatia’s misdemeanours is that the players will be involved in one of football’s rare oddities: a match with one important part missing.
Players don’t take atmospheres for granted, but once on the pitch the buzz emanating from the stands acts as a constant – not always reassuring, yet always an indication of fortunes on the pitch.
Aside from the debated benefits to performance they can offer, fans provide a colourful backdrop for the spectacle of sport. They sing, chant and relay emotion. Their addition enhances the whole occasion for all involved.
Those aspects will unfortunately be absent tomorrow. It is a measure designed to punish Croatia – to strip them of some of the advantage that comes from playing at home.
And yet by its very nature it hinders both teams. The Stadion Rujevica may only accommodate just over 8,000 fans, but its emptiness will loom large over the fixture for both sides.
Like for most involved, it will be a new experience for England boss Southgate.
“It’ll be the first time I’ve ever been in a game like that. It will be a very different feel,” he said earlier this week. “In some ways I’d have liked our players to experience going there with the stadium bouncing and Croatia reminding us what happened in the summer. I could then tell them to go and deal with it, but we haven’t got that opportunity. My preference would be for a full stadium but that isn’t the case so we adapt.”
Ever the pragmatist, Southgate has instructed his players to watch a previous incarnation of such a game to get an idea of what they’ll face. Players have been advised to watch their language, with the lack of background noise meaning TV cameras and microphones will likely pick up every word uttered.
England’s players were sent a link to watch Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Las Palmas in front of 98,000 empty Nou Camp seats in October 2017, while Southgate has also viewed Lyon’s 2-2 draw against Shakhtar Donetsk earlier this month played in a similarly eerie setting.
Looking back on those instances, as well as Manchester City’s 2-2 away draw with CSKA Moscow in October 2014 following crowd violence, it’s clear England are preparing for a 90 minutes they’re unlikely to forget, but not for the right reasons.
Barca goalscorer Sergio Busquets described the Las Palmas fixture, played amid the fractious backdrop of political unrest around the Catalan independence movement, as “strange”. Defender Gerard Pique simply stated “the images speak for themselves.”
Then-City manager Manuel Pellegrini, defender Pablo Zabaleta and Lyon coach Bruno Genesio all opted for the same word as Busquets.
“Many may think the local team will suffer the most damage, but I think the biggest loser is the game of football,” Pellegrini added ahead of City’s trip to Moscow.
England will of course be focused on the events on the pitch in Rijeka. They need a result in Group A4 following a 2-1 defeat by Spain in their Nations League opener last month.
Meanwhile, there is also added incentive – if it were needed – to beat the side who four months ago denied them the chance of winning a first World Cup since 1966.
However, there are six players in Southgate’s youthful squad who will be most disappointed by the lack of fans in Rijeka.
Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount, James Maddison, Marcus Bettinelli, Lewis Dunk and Nathaniel Chalobah could all make their international debuts tomorrow. If they do get on the pitch there will not be the fanfare the previous 1,235 debutants received.