Written by King Bronk (Branko Tomasović)
Croatia were extremely unfortunate to draw Spain and Italy, two traditional footballing powers, as well as minnows Albania, in the Group B Euro 2024 draw. When analyzing this group from a Croatian perspective, the group draw could not have been any worse. From a footballing standpoint, Croatia can compete with any of these nations and should not fear their play on the pitch. The Vatreni proved they can play with Spain in the Nations League Final, where they lost in penalties. Croatia also boast an undefeated 3-0-5 record against Italy, who are the reigning European champions, but their recent form has not been anything to write home about. Albania is also an up-and-coming footballing nation that should not be underestimated. They can trouble any team on any day. So, if Croatia can compete with these countries on the pitch, why is the draw so bad?
The reason Croatia should be concerned is the underlying officiating bias against small nations. We all witnessed what happened to Ukraine a few weeks ago, where a seemingly clear penalty at the end of the game was ignored by both VAR and the on-field official, leading to Italy’s automatic qualification for the Euro 2024 tournament this summer. Despite Croatia’s recent impressive tournament record, they have not been grouped with two traditional footballing powers since 2012. In 2012, Modrić and company were similarly grouped with both Italy and Spain; and controversially eliminated in the group stage finale.
The match against Spain was particularly controversial due to the dubious officiating by German referee Wolfgang Stark, who denied Croatia two clear penalty shots with fouls on Mandžukić by Ramos and another foul by Busquets on Ćorluka late in the game. Croatia was subsequently punished by a controversial “handball-offside” goal by Navas, which eliminated them from the tournament instead of sending the eventual Euro 2012 champions home. Croatia’s manager at the time, Slaven Bilić, complained, “I don’t want to talk about referees, but I have a similar impression as against Italy. When you play world champions, they do not need help from referees.”
The Croatian coach was stating the obvious — that officials tend to favor big, traditional footballing nations. As a result, Croatia should be concerned with their opponents in this group and the innate officiating bias that is always present in these types of matches. Let’s hope for the best. But if history repeats itself, don’t expect any calls to go Croatia’s way against Spain or Italy.