England's visit could not be more crucial for Steve McClaren's fledgling regime but it will be played out under the spectre of racism after the Croatia football federation's head of security admitted yesterday that he could not guarantee the behaviour of the home supporters. European football's governing body, Uefa, has also told Croatia that they are "on a warning" and could face serious measures if they reoffend.
England's black players last faced overt racism during the friendly against Spain in November 2004 although it is Croatia supporters' most recent behaviour that gives greatest cause for alarm. Speaking yesterday, Zoran Cvrk, the Croatian football federation (HNS) head of security, said that the swastika formed by Croat supporters in a recent friendly against Italy was intended as a "joke" that has caused serious embarrassment.
That incident in Livorno in August, which overshadowed a famous victory over the recently crowned world champions, means that the spotlight will be on Croatia tomorow night from the football authorities. The Uefa spokesman, William Gaillard, said "there is no doubt we are paying close attention to what is going on and our match delegate is well aware that this must be watched".
The incident in Italy took place when local fans of the Serie A team Livorno, which is known for its left-wing support, provoked Croatia's travelling fans by calling them "communists". In response, around 150 fans organised themselves on the terraces to form a human swastika which earned the HNS a charge from Fifa, the game's world governing body, for bringing the game into disrepute.
Cvrk described the incident as a "crazy situation" in which Croatian supporters were unaware of the offence caused by their actions. "That joke wasn't a pleasant experience for the Croatian football federation and with the full support of the Croatian government we are against those kind of jokes," he said. "We were very unhappy and didn't see anything funny about it."
He said that there would be public announcements made before the match urging supporters to behave. He also said that the players would come out for the start of the game with an anti-racism message - England's black players also faced serious abuse in October 2002 in Bratislava in a Euro 2004 qualifier against Slovakia.
Meanwhile, Uefa have an array of possible punishments at their disposal. Gaillard said that they had already been sanctioned for "extremist banners and slogans at Euro 2004" and under article 55 of Fifa's regulations, also adopted by Uefa, could face stringent penalties. "They involve suspension of the stadium all the way to taking away points and banning the team from competitions," Gaillard said. "It depends on the type of offence we are dealing with because they have a history."
Rio Ferdinand should be fit to face Croatia after training yesterday with the England team following his absence against Macedonia on Saturday with a back spasm. The Manchester United defender will be crucial if McClaren's side are to switch to a 3-5-2 formation to combat the pace of Croatia down the flanks.
The Croatia assistant coach, Aljosa Asanovic, said that England "wouldn't dare" to play the system against his side. He said: "McClaren won't be trying 3-5-2, not against us, he wouldn't dare. We respect England but we are not afraid of them."
If Paul Robinson keeps a clean sheet tomorrow he will equal Gordon Banks record of seven consecutive matches without conceding a goal that ended with the 1966 World Cup semi-finals penalty from Eusebio.
McClaren's assistant, Terry Venables, said that England had suffered a "setback" with the draw against Macedonia but had to rise to the challenge tomorrow.
Venables said: "Now we go to Croatia and we've got to make sure that we are going there and looking forward to taking up the challenge. It is a very big game and a big challenge. We know they've not lost a home qualifier and that record speaks for itself. It will be interesting for us to see where we stand after Wednesday's game. That will be our fourth game in the group and our last qualifier of the year. After that, we'll really be able to assess where we are and how we are doing.
"I think we have already picked up some of the areas where we can improve and we must learn all the time. But we must learn quickly. We have had a setback and now there is only one way to look and that is forward."