Croatia v Australia, BBC3
Fuck you BBC, my Radio Times promised me pub landlord Ray Stubbs building up to this game in his own strand. Instead BBC1 and 3 share a build up, which largely centres on the Brazil game. Tight gits. Eventually, after all the guff about Brazil, Lineker leads us into the split, with us Freeview jockeys the first to leave, joining Guy Mowbray and Gavin Peacock. “It’s all down to how these two do tonight,” says our commentator, marvelling at the Australian support, “Going walkabout in Europe, absolutely thousands of them.” Is it me, or was that a sly Aussie bar chain pun in there? He later adds a little perspective, “52,000 Croatian born people in Australia, 20,000 Australians inside this stadium.”
They discuss Guus Hiddink’s surprise decision to drop Mark Schwarzer in favour of Hammer Horror butler Zeljko Kalac who, despite being 6’ 8”, still isn’t tall enough to stop Darijo Srna’s second minute free-kick from curling into the top corner. A blistering start, “fans in Croatia will be glad Graham Poll didn’t play that advantage” says Guy. Australia seem a little edgy after this, “the Socceroos have to settle down” instructs Guy, like a detached playschool teacher amidst a food fight. However once they do get going, they have a good shout for a penalty when Viduka is brought down. Poll ignores him.
Already, on the bench, the Croatian gaffer is getting very excitable, his frenzied gestures looking like an opera ham finally giving in at a cast party to requests that he ‘do that David Brent dance thing you do, Martin.’ “Cat on a hot tin roof…or the Croatian equivalent” is Guy’s offer. (mačka na naljut limenka krov, I’m led to believe). On the other bench, Guus Hiddink is seen manipulating his fingers in a Ted Rogers’ homage.
On the half hour, Tim Cahill races between defenders but pushes his header straight at Stipe Pletikosa. Within 30 seconds, Harry Kewell brings a diving save from the keeper with a rasping drive. Australia knowing they need to score are pressing harder now, running at the defenders and trying their luck from distance whilst Viduka niggles away inside the box. Not long after, Stjepan Tomas leaps over Tim Cahill in the box with his fist flailing high above his head. The ball brushes off the back of his hand and the penalty is awarded. Craig Moore, spotting Pletikosa making an early move to his left, plumbs it straight down the middle. As the euphoria dies down, Guy dusts off the crib sheet he nicked out the pocket of Motty’s sheepy; apparently Scott Chipperfield, “when he was playing semi-professionally in Australia, supplemented his income by driving a bus.” You live, you learn.
Five minutes before half-time and Australia see a chilling vision of things to come, the colossal Kalac dropping an easy catch under no pressure and there is a slight panic as he and the defenders tried to shepherd it away from the goal-line. We go into half-time with the scores level and, it turns out, we will get our own BBC3 family away from Leonardo banging on about Brazil. Manish ‘yeah, I’m still ‘ere’ Bhasin has been annexed to the Berlin studio balcony with Adrian Chiles, in ‘expert’ rather than anchor mode (by virtue of his mum being Croatian). Lee Dixon takes the Aussie perspective, “we’ll call you Bruce” today says Manish. “The key incident [was when] Mark Viduka was rugby tackled, and no penalty. Excellent decision by Graham Poll” quips Adrian. The three of them, feeling a little brushed aside and wishing they’d remembered to bring a jacket out with them, do make the best of the fact that they have no replay clips to punctuate their slightly embarrassed banter.
In full partisan mode, Chiles remains upbeat, “if one things give me hope, it’s Kalac, he’s fluffing everything, I’m not sure he’s not Serbian actually” he says, in what is either a point of order, or a racial slur. There are then brief highlights of Brazil’s game, showing Ronaldo’s right-on-half-time equaliser. “I tipped him to be the top scorer, but he’s got some catching up to do” says Lee, buck-bucking like a rooster. Who cares about Brazil though, this game, particularly due to the finely balanced goal difference, is excellent ebbing and flowing stuff, like a Going for Gold end game. One for you 80’s telly quiz fans there.
Croatia, as you might expect, start the second half the stronger, going close with a couple of long-range shots. Srna wins a free kick and tries to get his assailant booked by waving a card-mime hand. “I think you should be booked yourself if you do that” says Guy, with a retired colonel humph. On 56 minutes, Nico Kovac tries a shot from just outside the box, obviously heeding Adrian Chiles suggestion that Croatia should test Kalac at every opportunity. It should be meat and drink to him, but he spills it over his own felled tree-trunk of a body and it trickles into the net. Hiddink is captured, face like thunder. In the back of my head, I hear Henry Kelly whispering politely “Now. Australia. You’re playing catch up.”
There is a shot of Schwarzer, “what’s he thinking?” asks Gavin Peacock. “How he must wish he was between those posts, how Australia must wish…” says Guy, catching the scent of blood. “The goalkeeper who’s nickname is the spider…you’d want to wash him down the sink,” he adds, with a homicidal zeal. On comes Marco Bresciano as sub, “Italian father, Croatian mother, he’s on to ruin mum’s night.” As we know, the only motivation a player needs in the World Cup is to engineer an argument earlier in the day about the cleanliness of his bedroom.
After 70 minutes, the ball drops to Kewell who belts from point blank range, only for a reflex save from Pletikosa. A minute later there is a bundle on the Croatian line. Pletikosa leaps on top of the ball but this doesn’t stop Mark Viduka trying to drag it in with the keeper still attached, but to no avail. Scott Kennedy comes on, all 6’5” of him, to add more height to the attack. With his first motion, he is about to meet a free kick at the far post, but once again, Tomas’ fist is pointing skywards and gets a heavier touch than for the first half penalty, but this time he gets away with it. “Australia say that a hand was used” spots Guy. “Just the one” says Gavin, promoting an intriguing rule change. Not long after, the ball is again launched into the box by Bresciano, gets a flick off Aloisi’s head, and at the back post Kewell flicks it up with his left boot, and places it home with his right. 2-2.
With Australia back in pole position, and Croatia now chasers of the game, it is in the last ten minutes that the games descends into the most bonkers farce of the tournament thus far. Dario Simic earns a second yellow, but as he attempts to reach for the red, Darijo Srna grabs Graham Poll’s arm to try and prevent the inevitable. The ref’s eyelids disappear as he snorts like a wound-up toreo bull. Srna escapes punishment, but it is clear Poll will not be a man you should cross for the remainder of the game. As if to prove it, he dismisses Brett Emerton for a second yellow handball offence moments later.
Australia are already dropping back looking to protect their lead but are living dangerously, a goal-line clearance required in the 86th. Poll then books Josip Simunic. Mowbray is adamant that Simunic has been booked already, but Poll neglects to show the red card. “I’m certain, I’m certain” gasps Guy, as though he’s at the climax of a particularly tense pub-quiz, and there’s a tankard full of pound coins riding on his ability to name Lieutenant Pigeon’s follow-up single to ‘Mouldy Old Dough.’
“Black mark for the English referee. If Croatia were to score now, it’d be one of the greatest controversies the World cup has seen.” Poll is having a real ‘mare, blowing the final whistle, Clive Thomas style it appears, as Mark Viduka is about to unleash a shot that, indeed, ends up in the back of the net. With Australia through regardless, Viduka seems unperturbed, embracing the ref in such a wide-armed way as to suggest he is honkin’ badly. Certainly Poll’s shirt retains moisture even more dramatically than Otto Pfister’s little pink number. Simunic, not knowing when he’s on to a good thing, berates Poll, earning himself his third yellow card and, finally, a red. With everyone going down the tunnel now anyway, though, he decides simply to lay down on the pitch.
Back on the suicide ledge, Chiles is making the best of it, “I was feeling desperate but the refereeing farce has livened us up.” Lee Dixon adds, caustically, “it’s absolutely ludicrous, but that’s Graham Poll I suppose.” It looks as though Adrian will cope, “I’m used to being on the telly when my team lose” says the put upon Baggie. Still, despite all the mayhem and suggestions of offside for Harry Kewell’s goal (“the game should be declared null and void” says a grumpy Chiles during the later BBC1 highlights programme), what a tremendous game. After covering the disappointing Holland/Argentina game last night, I was delighted to be on shift again tonight for this one, which certainly lived up to its billing as, essentially, a play-off for second spot.
Just prior to the start of the second half, Guy Mowbray had re-iterated the cliché about Graham Poll being the only Englishman who didn’t want England to win the World Cup. Think he can probably get behind his country’s national side now. As Alan Shearer put it later on the highlights, “What have Croatia and Graham Poll got in common? Neither are going into the last sixteen.”
Pee Wee’s Playhouse secret word: and it was all "yellow"
Referee (Graham Poll, England): Keystone Kop.
These things I believe: Is Mark Viduka getting chunkier by the hour? – It’s a daft reflex thing (Baddiel & Skinner podcast listeners will be familiar with the concept of football tourettes), but whenever I hear Vince Grella referred to by his surname, I expect to look up and see him picking bits of grass out of his team-mates body hair or beating his chest -- Did Dado Prso’s parents set up his swing too near the garden wall? -- Bauhaus were wrong, Bela Lugosi isn’t dead, he’s waving them in between the Australian sticks -- Graham Poll: home before the Togo?