Well, today was meant to be the day. England would’ve been once again carrying the hopes of the nation as they were meant to take on Croatia in their opening match of Euro 2020 in front of a home crowd at Wembley Stadium.
We’ll never know if Harry Kane would’ve been fit in time, would Dean Henderson have dislodged Jordan Pickford as England’s number one? And would Gareth Southgate of managed to convince potential premier league golden boot winner Jamie Vardy out of international retirement?
But one thing that would’ve been guaranteed amongst the England faithful is nerves. It’s fair to say England’s results against Croatia over the years have been a bit of a mixed bag. We’re going to take you on a trip down memory lane and have a look back at some of the most memorable match ups between England and Croatia.
The first meeting – 1996
As hosts of Euro 1996, England automatically qualified for the tournament and didn’t have to go through the gruelling qualifying rounds. To combat this, many friendlies were organised in the build up to the tournament so Terry Venables could experiment with the side one of these friendlies was a first ever meeting with the relatively new footballing nation of Croatia.
The game was a low key affair, and finished 0-0 in front of a low Wembley crowd of around 30,000. But as we all know, the meetings between the two nations we’re far from over.
The first tournament meeting between the two sides took place at Euro 2004 in Portugal. England’s “Golden Generation” qualified for the quarter finals in emphatic style, beating Croatia 4-2 in their final group game in Lisbon. Goals from Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard and a second brace of the tournament from a then 18-year old Wayne Rooney ensured of England’s entry into the next round.
This game also knocked Croatia out of the competition where they failed to win a game. England’s eventual exit came in the quarter finals after losing to hosts Portugal on penalties.
Euro 2008 qualifying
Following a second consecutive group stage exit at the 2006 World Cup. Croatia brought in their Under-21 head coach Slaven Bilic to take over the main national side for the qualifying rounds of Euro 2008 where they would once again face England.
But this time was a different story. Croatia managed to do the double over England in two games that will bring back horrible memories for any England fan. The first game was a 2-0 victory for Croatia which included the famous bobble goal which confounded Gary Neville and Paul Robinson.
And then came one of the most infamous games in England history. In the final game of the qualifying rounds, England needed a win to make sure they qualify for Euro 2008. A 77th minute winner from substitute Mladen Petric meant Croatia ran away as 3-2 winners that night in a game where then England manager Steve McClaren became forever known as “The Wolly with the brolly”.
England failed to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since 1994 and McClaren was sacked the following day.
World Cup 2010 qualifying
You would’ve forgiven many an England fan for dreading the prospect of facing Croatia once again in the qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. But England were a completely different side under new boss Fabio Capello and confidence was brewing amongst the England faithful.
Ten months on from the 3-2 defeat at Wembley. Capello’s side well and truly put Croatia to the sword as Theo Walcott bagged a hat-trick in a 4-1 victory in Zagreb, eliminating any memories of that night at Wembley.
England then one further almost a year later in the reverse fixture at Wembley. A win was all Capello’s men needed to secure England’s place in South Africa. In front of a packed out at Wembley, England turned on the style and recorded a stunning 5-1 victory with two goals each from Lampard and Steven Gerrard with Rooney completing the rout in the 77th minute.
World Cup 2018
England wouldn’t face Croatia for another eight years. But the stakes of their next match we’re considerably higher. England defeated Colombia and Sweden on route to their first World Cup semi-final since 1990, whereas Croatia topped their group and needed two penalty victories against Denmark and hosts Russia to secure their first semi-final place since 1998.
England fans we’re dreaming of football coming home from the off as Kieran Trippier bent in a free-kick to give England the lead in the 5th minute. England would go close again later on with Kane nearly squeezing it past Danijel Subasic. But Croatia grew as the game went on as Ivan Perisic equalised in the 68th minute, taking the game to extra time. English hearts we’re broken as Mario Mandžukić smashed home the eventual winner, taking Croatia to their first ever World Cup final against France.
Nations League 2019 qualifying
The semi-final defeat hurt England, but we’re facing off against Croatia three months later as part of the qualifying rounds for the first ever UEFA Nations League. The first meeting between the two sides was held in bizarre circumstances. UEFA punished Croatia for having what appeared to be a swastika imprinted into the pitch during a qualifying match against Italy, by not allowing any fans into two Croatia matches. The fans didn’t miss much, the two sides played out a 0-0 draw in Rijeka. The game did see Borussia Dortmund’s Jaden Sancho make his England debut.
The stakes we’re high for the return fixture at Wembley two months later. A win for either side would’ve seen them reach the Nation League finals in Portugal, defeat would have meant relegation to Division B. Croatia took the lead in the 57th minute through Andrej Kramaric and England feared the worst. But an equaliser from Jesse Lingard and a late winner from Kane saw England reach the Nations League finals in Portugal. A sweet taste of revenge for the England players perhaps?