REPINO (AFP) – As excitement builds in England in the run-up to the country’s first World Cup semi-final for 28 years, midfielder Dele Alli insists Gareth Southgate’s team are keeping a cool head in their tournament “bubble”.
England’s matches so far in Russia have attracted huge television audiences at home and wild celebrations, with affable coach Gareth Southgate and his vibrant young squad capturing the hearts of a nation.
In sharp contrast to the feverish atmosphere, Alli and his teammates are in relaxed mood in the sleepy seaside resort of Repino, 45 kilometres (28 miles) northwest of Saint Petersburg.
“You are in your own little bubble when here – training camp, coming back, getting ready for the next game. It is not until you look at social media and the internet that you realise how big it is,” Alli said on Monday.
“Obviously we know we are playing in the World Cup, in the semi-final. We are so focused on the games that you forget what we have done so far.
“It is important that we stay like that, keep going and hopefully we achieve something to make it even more special to get to the final and win it.”
Alli scored his first World Cup goal as England cruised into the last four with a 2-0 win over Sweden on Saturday.
A much tougher test is expected in Moscow tonight against a Croatia side that swept past Argentina in the group stages and boasts the midfield talents of Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona.
But while many pundits and even England fans are surprised by their progress, Alli says the squad always believed they could go far.
“We had to believe and we know how talented we are as a squad,” he added. “We know we have some unbelievable players and a great manager and everyone is clear on what we want to do.
“When you have such a solid foundation, you have the basics and clear understanding of what we want to do and achieve, it’s not a surprise that it’s going well for us.”
The calmness in England’s camp on and off the field is in stark contrast to Croatia’s experience.
In the latest in a series of controversies, former international Ognjen Vukojevic was kicked out of their delegation on Monday and fined by FIFA for posting a pro-Ukraine video clip following their penalty shootout victory over Russia on Saturday.
Defender Domagoj Vida, who scored against Russia, escaped with just a warning from FIFA, which bans political statements, for also appearing in the video and shouting “Glory to Ukraine!”
Earlier in the tournament, AC Milan striker Nikola Kalinic was sent home, reportedly over a disagreement with coach Zlatko Dalic about his fitness.
Despite that, Modric’s three man-of-the-match performances and two winning penalties from Rakitic in shootout wins over Denmark and Russia have seen them match Croatia’s best-ever World Cup performance 20 years ago in France.
Physical exertions to reach the last four could take their toll but Dalic believes his side will have the energy reserves to end England’s dream.
“Of course there is some power left for the English,” said Dalic. It will be a battle again but I trust us. I have belief in us.”
In 1998, Croatia, which had emerged from a bitter independence war only three years earlier, made its debut at a World Cup finals.
With a team featuring Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki wearing blues shirts with a distinctive red and white chequerboard pattern, they beat World Cup giants Germany 3-0 in the quarter-finals in France, sparking delirium at home.
Although Croatia went on to suffer an agonising 2-1 defeat to host nation France in the semi-finals, they beat the Netherlands 2-1 in the third-place playoff.
Nicknamed “the Fiery Ones”, that team has stood as an example to their successors ever since.
Now, finally, there is a team ready to join them in Croatian football’s pantheon of heroes.
Robert Prosinecki, a member of the 1998 squad, said: “I would so much like that they be better than us.
“1998 will never be forgotten and should not be, but I would love it if eventually the 1998 ‘Fiery Ones’ can be moved aside so that we can talk not only about 1998 but also a bit about 2018,” the former Real Madrid player said.
The coach of the 1998 side, Jaroslav Ciro Blazevic, told AFP that for a long time he did not want any other team to match his players’ achievements.
“Until five or six years ago I was bit vain, and in a way glad that in 1998 we set the bar so high that it was difficult to even contemplate, let alone jump over it.
“But now … I pray and I would give anything in the world that this squad eventually ‘confines us to history’. That in future we talk about them,” said Blazevic, now 83, and known in Croatia as the “coach of all coaches”.
The penalty shootout win against hosts Russia in the quarter-finals on Saturday seems to have gone a long way towards achieving that.
“We’ve been always returning to the 1998 team…. putting a new burden on Modric and his team. Until last night, when all the pain was removed and when we finally experienced a revival of 1998,” the Sportski Novosti newspaper said after that match.
Squares packed with red-and-white painted fans, stalls selling football jerseys and flares, and drivers blaring their horns, people hugging and singing – scenes reminiscent of 1998 are all around as the country of around four million people lives and breathes football.
“We are glad that this generation experiences its own 1998, that they can see live what football euphoria looks like … at least we will not have to explain it to them on YouTube any more” Sportske Novosti newspaper said.
During the group stage in Russia, coach Zlatko Dalic said it was difficult to compare generations when events were separated by a 20-year gap.
“We have nice memories from France, our players did a great job … We want to get close to them, although it is difficult to repeat this endeavour, but we will try,” the 51-year-old told reporters.
Two days before the clash with England he sounded more confident.
“We respect everyone – England, Belgium, France. But none of the three squads is better than us!”