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Jun 13, 2014

Croatia seething after bitter defeat

Referee Yuichi Nishimura is pursued by irate Croatia players after awarding a controversial penalty for an alleged foul on Fred.

Hysteria -- there's no better word to describe how the morning after the night before looks in Croatia. The Vatreni lost 3-1 to Brazil in the World Cup opener despite putting on a decent performance and, for the vast majority of those who cared to express their opinion, there is no doubt whatsoever who was to blame for the defeat.

Referee Yuichi Nishimura is the name's on everyone's lips -- barely anyone opted for a rational analysis of how Croatia played, instead focusing on the Japanese's officiating of the match.

The Croatia press was incandescent with rage as each media outlet dissected the evening. All were united in their condemnation of Nishimura, who incidentally oversaw Brazil's exit at the 2010 World Cup to Netherlands. The columnists almost exclusively focused on the referee's perceived shortcomings.

- Marcotti: Controversial opener

But that was just a follow up to what manager Niko Kovac and his players told the media after the game. Speaking to HTV, the national public broadcaster, Kovac was very harsh: "If that was a penalty, then we don't need to play football anymore. Let's play basketball. It's a shame. We talk about respect, but that wasn't respect -- Croatia didn't get any."

Dejan Lovren, who was judged to have made the foul in the box on Fred, was furious: "I can barely hold back the tears," the Southampton defender said. "Why don't they just hand out the trophy to Brazil right away? The ref didn't speak English. How can you have a top international ref officiating the opening match when you can't even speak to him?"

Captain Darijo Srna added: "We expected the referee to be biased, but not like this. But we must begin our preparations for the Cameroon match -- in five days nobody will ask us how we lost to Brazil." Croatian Football Federation president, Davor Suker, perhaps cleverly, declined to comment on the issue.

All in all, it was an ugly night for Croatia and an even uglier morning followed. Now Kovac needs to move on and focus on the challenges ahead. That was the message that the country's Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, who was present at the match, also tried to convey -- albeit perhaps in a less than subtle way.

Milanovic is facing an all-time low in approval ratings these days, but he still managed to make himself even less popular when he declared: "We need to forget about the referees. They've been known to make mistakes that benefited us as well, but now they harmed us. I know this from politics: when you lose, you don't blame the refs or your constituency. You move on."

It may sound reasonable to an outsider, but it doesn't in Croatia. Not today, anyway.