Of the thousands of Croatia fans who turned the home of Les Verts red and white on Friday, one had a unique privilege, the significance of which will be clear to all those who still hold the country and its national team dear despite being on the other side of the world from the ‘Beautiful Homeland’.
Milan Batur attended the game against the Czech Republic as a supporter, but holds the distinction of captaining Melbourne Knights, traditional powerhouses of football in Australia and the club that gave the world Mark Viduka.
An intrinsic part of the proud community in the west of Victoria’s capital, Knights – formerly known as Melbourne Croatia – have continued to nurture and inspire a love for Vatreni, despite the tyranny of distance posing challenges that followers of the beautiful game Down Under will know only too well, wherever their allegiances lie.
Batur skippers his team, two-time winners of the defunct National Soccer League, in the second-tier National Premier Leagues Victoria.
But this month he is fulfilling a long-held ambition to cheer on the country so close to his heart, up close and personal.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to follow Croatia at a tournament,” he told Omnisport at chic venue Les Cafetiers, a fittingly Australian-inspired cafe in Lyon.
Finally being able to watch your team live and in person is often a cathartic experience for long-suffering Antipodean fans, with anti-social kick-off times in the southern hemisphere wreaking havoc with the body clock – not that it has ever stopped Batur from cheering on his boys in the wee hours before school, work or even his own team’s matches.
“I don’t think I’ve missed a game,” he said.
“Whenever they’ve played I’ve got up to watch it.”
Being in the stand for the game against Turkey in Paris and at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard afforded Batur, who will have the opportunity to mix it with Australian football’s top flight should Knights draw an A-League club in the FFA Cup, the opportunity to witness the elite practitioners of his craft up close and personal.
“Watching Luka Modric is unbelievable, how he glides across the pitch. He sees passes that not many players see – you see why he’s one of the best in the world.”
Sadly for the thousands of other proud fans who had made the journey to back their boys, the game against the Czech Republic was marred by the use of flares by a group opposed to the Croatian Football Federation, prompting trouble in the stands in Saint-Etienne.
And Batur, who was thankfully unaffected by the troubling scenes that took place in one end of the ground, can sympathise with the challenges the authorities face in attempting to stamp out the determined efforts of some to disrupt matches.
“To be honest I think it’s really hard to stop these things. They might come in to the ground separated and then congregate together. I think it’s really difficult to stop,” he said.
“I guess everyone tries their best [to make sure] these things don’t happen but unfortunately they do. It’s just disappointing.
“You can’t stop a group of people, a small minority, from causing trouble for so many Croatians that have done so well so far in the tournament.”
Having already conceded one goal before the demonstration halted play for several minutes, Croatia went on to give away a penalty and draw the game 2-2.
“You feel for the players,” Batur said of their plight.
“Because that [the disruption] can stop their momentum and changes the shape of the game – which it did. You could see the captain, he was really trying to calm everybody down.”
No one was more deserving of what had appeared to be a certain Croatia victory than skipper Darijo Srna, who had the courage to play the match despite losing his father in the week before the game.
Batur has huge admiration for the bravery of his national team counterpart in declaring himself ready for duty just days after attending the funeral.
“I don’t think anyone can compare that situation … you have to be put in that situation just to see how you would react,” he said.
“It must have been very hard. I’m very proud of him coming out, stepping out onto the ground after what’s happened with his family.”
And while key man Modric is now in doubt for the final match of Group D against Spain in Bordeaux on Tuesday due to muscle tightness, Batur – who will be in attendance again with his girlfriend – remains optimistic about his team’s chances in France.
“We’ve still got good players on the bench with [Mateo] Kovacic. He’s another world-class midfielder, so he can step into Modric’s position. They’re all professionals so they can all step up again and hopefully we can get a good result against Spain.”
With the prospect to extend his holiday should Croatia advance in the competition, Batur will hoping Ante Cacic’s men respond to the disappointment of Saint-Etienne by giving him a reason to postpone his return to Knights duty for a little while yet.
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