Outside the Poljud Stadium, a group of boys kicks a ball against the green wire fence around the players entrance. An old church stands still on the other side of a small, dusty parking lot. Mountains stretch to the clouds on the horizon over the water that surrounds much of this Croatian city.
The familiar cries and sounds of training echo from the gigantic shell-like stadium. It is the home of Hajduk Split, the second largest club in Croatia. It is a bit tired and worn out these days, comparable to the team, which has not won the Croatian league in 16 years.
‘It’s a bit like Only Fools and Horses,’ laughs a Hajduk-supporting taxi driver. “We’ll be champions at this time next year.” Dinamo Zagreb, who has since won 15 of the 16 titles, may think otherwise.
Tottenham’s three rebels, Giovani Lo Celso, Cristian Romero and Davinson Sanchez, keep fit at a shelter in Croatia
For the locals it feels like any other afternoon. Yet two of the shouts in the stadium come from Premier League stars.
Aston Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez and Emiliano Buendia, the record £40million signing, train in Croatia as they go into quarantine before returning to the UK at the end of the most bizarre and controversial international pauses in memory.
The pair were two of four top-class Argentine players detained a week ago in those remarkable scenes in Sao Paulo, when Brazilian authorities stormed the field five minutes before the World Cup qualifier between the two countries and demanded that they left the field. country accused of violating Covid protocols, as evidenced by: The post on Sunday.
The Spurs players trained at NK Zupa Dubrovacka, an amateur club near Dubrovnik
To avoid being quarantined in a hotel in the UK with little chance to keep fit or train, Villa sent them to Hajduk. Lovre Kalinic, the Croatian goalkeeper currently on loan from Villa there, helped arrange it.
A hundred miles down the coast, three Tottenham players did the same. Giovani Lo Celso and Cristian Romero, the other two Argentines, plus Colombia defender Davinson Sanchez trained with NK Zupa Dubrovacka, an amateur club from the provincial leagues in a village near Dubrovnik.
Both Spurs and Villa were keen to keep their locations secret. Hajduk was ordered not to take pictures of the training. They were told not to watch journalists.
On Thursday morning, Hajduk’s press officer confirmed that we could attend the press conference with manager Jens Gustafsson the following day. By noon, that was no longer the case.
It was whispered that the stars would be smuggled out and that a darkened passenger carrier was leaving
We waited outside the gates. A group of junior girls from the club asked if we could get autographs from the foreigners when they came by. They did not. Instead, there were rumors that they were about to be smuggled out of a side entrance. A darkened passenger carrier soon took off like a scene from Line of Duty.
Nevertheless, Gustafsson was happy to reflect on how wonderful it was to have such talented Premier League stars around.
“They trained with us for two days as part of the Aston Villa partnership,” he said. “It was an agreement through Lovre Kalinic, and we wanted to help. It was good for them, but also good for the inspiration of our players, because they are very good players.’
There was talk of spending the weekend in Hvar, an idyllic island off the mainland, but they are expected to continue training in Hajduk until Friday.
Romero (top left), Lo Celso (top right), Emiliano Martinez (bottom left) and Emiliano Buendia (bottom right) are accused of violating Brazil’s Covid-19 quarantine rules
If they didn’t want to be found, that would have been a good option. Michael Jordan traveled there a few months ago and none of the Croatian media got a sniff.
At NK Zupa Dubrovacka, in the village of Cibaca, Spurs players told a local journalist not to speak.
Lo Celso, Romero and Sanchez flew to Croatia last Sunday. Spurs boss Nuno Espirito Santo has confirmed they will return to Tottenham next Saturday, the day before their home game against Chelsea.
They will miss the club’s Europa Conference League game against Rennes, but after yesterday’s 3-0 defeat at Crystal Palace, with Eric Dier limping and Japhet Tanganga seeing red, Nuno is in desperate need of centre-backs.
The four England-based players all left the UK despite the Premier League preventing teams from playing in red list countries
Their current hideout is beautiful, with mountains on one side, hills on the other. It was Dubrovnik that Tottenham owner Joe Lewis sailed his superyacht this month.
Of course, the facilities are a world away from the cryotherapy rooms of the Premier League training grounds.
The population of Cibaca is just under 2,000. The club’s Facebook page has just over 1,000 likes, while Tottenham’s has nearly 23 million. The ground seats about 100 and an annual membership to NK Zupa Dubrovacka costs 100 kuna, about £11.50.
A local media report described the sight of players worth around £100 million as ‘a picture for history’.
Health authorities stormed the field in Brazil-Argentina to detain four top players
Again, as much as Tottenham wanted to keep their venue quiet, club officials had other ideas.
“People from London came and looked at the conditions we have and they were happy. We are at their disposal all those days,” said Ivica Karabogdan, the club’s sporting director.
“They are very satisfied with the hospitality and conditions, although they are used to much better conditions and top equipment. They are overjoyed because we try to make them feel at home.’
Lo Celso posted a photo of him watching Argentina’s game against Bolivia on his Instagram feed, while Sanchez shared a photo of him cuddling his baby at a table outside his hotel.
Martinez (left) and Lo Celso (center) walk away after the match was interrupted
But why such a cloak of secrecy? For Tottenham, the situation is a little more complicated. Martinez and Buendia were cleared, while Lo Celso and Romero defied club orders to travel to international service. They are expected to be fined upon their return.
What a ridiculous situation began when The Mail on Sunday revealed that FIFA had scrapped their temporary law allowing clubs to refuse to release their players if they had to quarantine on their return.
With most South American countries on the UK’s red list and excluding top athletes by the government, this meant Premier League clubs would be forced to release their players knowing they would be quarantined for 10 days on their return. would be banned from multiple matches.
Premier League clubs refused. Then Villa let Martinez and Buendia go, as long as they came back for their last game. Lo Celso and Romero just went up and went.
This newspaper revealed that they were accused of not stating that they were in the UK when they arrived in Brazil, where they had been quarantined for 14 days.
The Brazilian health authority tried to get them out of the country, the players traveled to the game, the health officials got stuck in traffic, arrived late and duly stormed onto the field.
It is absurd that anyone – the clubs, the federations or the players – expected that no one would realize where they were when they played in the most watched league in the world.
And while they were enjoying the Croatian sun, it was chaos at home. Brazil and other South American countries insisted that FIFA implement the five-day rule banning clubs that refused to release players from drafting those stars.
Brazil vs Argentina World Cup qualifier was interrupted in incredible scenes
The Premier League began lobbying FIFA and the federations. Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp did not know whether their players would be available the night before the current round of play. Clubs planned to raise two fingers and play with it, regardless of the consequences.
In the end, the feeling won. Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Paraguay withdrew their requests to FIFA. They could play. And when the Argentine players and Sanchez return next Friday, they should be in a better position to play.
If all this wasn’t enough fun, there are only 22 days left until the next international break. Shall we do it all again? Everyone involved is already working hard to make sure we don’t.