RIJEKA, Croatia: “Football without fans is nothing,” Celtic’s European Cup-winning manager Jock Stein famously opined many years ago.
If a reminder of Stein’s comment was required, it came during England’s 0-0 draw in Croatia, that did neither side’s chances of progressing in the Nations League much good.
A goalless draw was fitting of an empty experience with supporters shut out of the 8,000 capacity HNK Rijeka stadium, perched on a hilltop overlooking the Adriatic Sea.
Croatia were completing a UEFA sanction to play two matches behind closed doors after a swastika symbol was carved into the pitch during a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy over three years ago.
It was just the latest in a litany of offences for racism that has seen Croatia consistently punished with fans banned for home matches.
However, amid the eeriness of hearing players shake hands before kick-off and shout instructions during the game, the question was raised whether the punishment fits the crime.
“The atmosphere is not easy for anybody, it is sad for football but hopefully this is our last time,” said Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic.
“Football is played for the fans. It’s sad the second and fourth team from the World Cup are playing behind closed doors. I don’t know who it is good for.”
Croatia finished runners-up to World Cup winners France while England lost to Belgium in the third place play-off.
A small band of intrepid England fans did manage to find a nearby hill to catch a glimpse of the Three Lions.
“I could hear the noise,” said England boss Gareth Southgate. “It is a shame for the supporters, some of whom haven’t missed a game for 10 years or more.”
Reversing fixtures so the perpetrators are punished with losing home advantage or even moving games to a neutral venue have been offered as alternative solutions.
“While we all endorse the campaign against racism and want to see all that prejudice and bigotry stamped out of the game, the nature of this punishment against the Croatian FA is also punishing the innocent,” said Kevin Miles, chief executive of the Football Supporters’ Federation in England.
“Because England fans haven’t been convicted of anything like that and yet those regular supporters who travel all over the place supporting the team are now locked out of a match and not able to support them.”
TV CASH PRIORITISED
However, even back in England, the soullessness of seeing the national team play in front of empty stands should be a reminder of the importance of not sacrificing supporters who attend games for increased cash revenue from television deals.
On the same day supporters were shut out in Croatia, the Premier League revealed their TV schedule for the Christmas and New Year period that will see only four days without a match in the fortnight between Dec 21 and Jan 3.
UEFA themselves have been accused of prioritising TV for their new competition with the Nations League adopting the “week of football”.
By spreading matches across six days, many games are taken away from their former weekend sweet spot to attract crowds.
England next travel to Spain for a 2045 (1845GMT) kick-off on a Monday night.
The football authorities would be well advised to remember the game “without fans is nothing.”