Supporters arrived in huge numbers to witness Croatia's return to the futsal elite following 11 years away, and they were not to be disappointed.
A UEFA European Futsal Championship record attendance was set at Split's Spaladium Arena on Tuesday night as the hosts opened the 2012 final tournament, their first appearance since the 2001 edition, with a 2-1 victory against Romania thanks to Jakov Grcić's strike five minutes from time.
That caused the hall to reverberate as the passionate home supporters sensed a famous victory, which perhaps went a long way to erasing any lingering disappointment they felt following Croatia's elimination last week by arch-rivals Serbia in the semi-final of the European Men's Handball Championship in Belgrade.
The crowd eclipsed the previous best turn-out for a match in this competition, set when 7,500 watched Russia defeat Spain on penalties in the 1999 final in Granada.
"I'm very excited about the tournament − futsal is very popular in this part of Croatia," said local fan Zlatko. "A crowd of 8,000 for a futsal match is amazing. With this victory I'm sure that on Saturday against the Czech Republic there will be even more fans here. I'm coming back, for sure."
Following a tentative start in which Romania dictated the tempo, Croatia grew in stature. They were not cowed by Csoma Alpar's ferocious equaliser − which cancelled out Dario Marinović's 23rd-minute opener − responding forcibly to take all three points and send their fans, many of whom were sporting the national football team's iconic chequered jersey, away in raptures.
"I came with my whole family to support Croatia in their first match and we'll be here again on Saturday," beamed Ivana, from nearby Imotski. "The atmosphere was great. We are very excited to be able to support our team and to have a good time in this beautiful arena. I can't wait for Croatia's next match."
The same no doubt applies to the players, who managed to survive a late onslaught with the vociferous help of their backers in the stands. Goalkeeper Ivo Jukić, pressed into service several times in the first half, said: "I told the media before the match that nobody can come to Split in front of our crowd and be favourites against us. That was proven tonight. The crowd gave us a boost just when we needed it, in the last few minutes when we were defending our advantage five against four [with Romania deploying a flying goalkeeper]."
Those wanting to reminisce need only visit one of Split's many news kiosks this morning. National sports paper sn − sportske novosti − leads its centre-page spread with the headline 'Marinović and Grcić defeat Romania', while local publication Slobodna Dalmacija hails the spectacular opening ceremony, a colourful display by flag-waving cheerleaders.
If last night was an occasion to remember for supporters and players alike, there may be better to come against the Czech Republic on Saturday, when victory will ensure the hosts remain in Split for the quarter-finals as Group A winners.
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