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Tensions rise, sparks fly as Greece, Croatia go their separate ways


ATHENS -- Friday should have been a night of triumph for Greece. A 2-0 win over Croatia moved it back to the top of its Euro 2012 qualifying group, and a draw away to Georgia on Tuesday will guarantee the top spot in the group, while Slaven Bilic's Croatian side has to go through a playoff. But the events in the stand that caused the match to be stopped for seven minutes cast a long shadow. None of Greece's 11 national sports papers led with the hooliganism, but these were serious outbreaks, not something to be brushed under the carpet of a satisfactory result.

Walking from the center of Piraeus to the Karaiskakis Stadium, there was little sign of anything amiss. In the bars outside the ground, fans mingled happily. About 90 seconds into the game, though, there was an enormous bang from the section housing the main body of Croatian fans, along to my right. A few flames could be seen. Seconds later, there was another bang, and this time the flames flared 15 or 20 feet in the air. As smoke billowed across the pitch, the referee, Howard Webb, stopped the game.

There was some booing, and then a handful of lit flares were thrown, looping almost gently into the mass of check-shirted fans, the slow parabola of their descent contrasting weirdly with the panicked surges away from the point of landing. Bottles began to be thrown in both directions. I saw, quite clearly, a Croatian fan catch a bottle thrown toward him, and hurl it back, a remarkable feat that wouldn't have been out of place in high-level baseball or cricket training. A few seats were ripped out and thrown but fortunately, as riot police moved in, everything calmed down. There was one more loud bang -- the first two, it seems, were caused by Molotov cocktails -- but seemingly no fire.

The oddest thing about it was the sense of the incident being self-contained. There were a handful of Croatian fans in the seats in front of the press box, and there was never a suggestion either that they were in any danger or that they might start laying into Greek fans around them. This was entirely about ultras at the far end of the ground, or at least, about the ultras and the innocents who had the misfortune to be seated near them.

There has, as yet, been no investigation into the exact causes of the trouble or who was to blame, but it seems that around 100 Greek ultras, angered by the behavior of Croatian ultras, who had shouted anti-Greek slogans in central Athens earlier in the day, managed to breach security to attack Croatian fans. That, of course, raises serious questions about the organization of security (after all, this wasn't just ultras getting into the wrong part of the ground; they took in petrol bombs with them), and recalls the disgraceful lack of ticket-checks at the 2007 Champions League final, when several thousand fans without tickets gained access while many with tickets were stranded outside.

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While Greek soccer remains shamefully disorganized off the pitch, it is supremely disciplined on it. The man-marking system with which Otto Rehhagel led Greece to Euro 2004 may have gone, but in many ways this Greece side retains many of the characteristics of the European champions. It is compact, stubborn, pragmatic in the extreme, threatening from set plays and undeniably effective. Since Fernando Santos replaced Rehhagel in July last year, Greece is unbeaten, with nine wins and six draws from 15 matches.

The first half on Friday was poor, the crowd disturbances seeming to sap the life from the game. Croatia had the better of what little soccer was played, but -- as countless sides have in the past seven or eight years against Greece -- never looked like penetrating the Greek back four. The balance had probably just about tipped Greece's way in the second when it won a corner on the right after 71 minutes. The ball was partially cleared and worked back to the corner-taker, Giorgios Karagounis, a survivor of the 2004 side. He crossed, and when Dejan Lovren's weak header out fell for Giorgios Samaras, he smacked the dropping ball into the bottom corner. Eight minutes later, Lovren misjudged the flight of another Karagounis corner and Theofanis Gekas headed in unmarked.

It was, in other words, typical Greece. Two goals scored from four attempts, while Croatia was restricted to two attempts. This is soccer stripped to its simplest components: stop the opposition playing and rely on muscle and set-piece expertise to nick a goal at the other end. Just 12 goals scored and four conceded in nine qualifiers tells its own story. Logically, such an approach should falter against the very best sides, but 2004 exists as a permanent reminder that soccer is not always a logical game.

Effective as Greece was, Croatia was deeply disappointing. Since Semih Senturk's late equalizer for Turkey against Croatia in the quarterfinal of Euro 2008 (which came a minute after Croatia had taken a 119th-minute lead), it seems the trajectory has been down. The highly fluent attacking midfield that looked so potent in qualifying four years ago faltered when the platform that made it possible, the energy and the positional sense of the holding midfielder Niko Kovac, disappeared on his retirement.

On Friday, the coach Slaven Bilic opted to pair Ognjen Vukojevic and Luka Modric at the back of midfield in a 4-2-3-1, with Eduardo on the right, Niko Kranjcar in the center and Mario Mandzukic on the left. It never jelled, never had any sense of fluency. Kranjcar, in particular, looked frustrated, and there was next to no link-up with the center forward Nikica Jelavic. Add in the sloppy defending, and it was hard to have much sympathy with Croatia, at least on the pitch. Bilic was revered four years ago; now, as his relationship with the press has soured following stories about his private life, there is a sense of staleness.

Croatia could yet qualify automatically should Greece slip up in Georgia and it beat Latvia at home, and at worst it will be in a playoff. If it is to make any sort of impression at the finals, though, then on the evidence of Friday there is desperate need of a spark. Greece, meanwhile, is a side that seems to operate without need of sparks.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.