Tonight Croatia play their first UEFA European Futsal Championship semi-final against Russia and few among the likely plus-10,000 crowd – a tournament first – will be cheering on the hosts more than Robert Jarni.
The 1998 FIFA World Cup semi-finalist is the UEFA Futsal EURO 2012 tournament ambassador, an appropriate choice as Jarni went on to play the small-sided sport for Croatia after retiring from football. On Monday he was the co-commentator on national television station HRT 2 for Croatia's quarter-final with Ukraine in Split, and as the game went on Jarni's audible excitement grew, culminating with him rushing from his position to celebrate with the team after their penalty shoot-out victory.
"It was so thrilling," Jarni told UEFA.com. "I couldn't control my emotions.
There were moments when I completely forgot I was the commentator on TV, I was reacting and screaming, I was gripped by the the emotions. I was feeling in the commentary position like I was on the pitch, playing with our guys. But, you know, it's even more difficult to be up there and watching than to be down there and playing."
Croatia had not contested a major championship since 2001 before this event and had never made it past the group stage. "We can consider this as a miracle," the former HNK Hajduk Split, Real Betis Balompié and Real Madrid CF left-back said. "For me, just getting to the quarter-finals was a fantastic result and we have gone a step further. We are among the best teams in Europe and that's brilliant. In recent times we have not had great results in futsal, but now great success is coming and it's a question how much we can learn from this."
However, the side coached by Mato Stanković – under whom Jarni played for perennial national futsal champions MNK Split – now face former continental champions and a true world force in Russia. "The Croatia players will try to create another miracle, they will give their best to try to reach the final," the 43-year-old said. "But it will be so difficult, as Russia are probably the second strongest team in Europe and they have extremely high-quality players. But, we have achieved our goal, we actually did much more than was expected from us, so we go into the match without pressure."
Jarni, who says of the tournament that "everything is perfect", believes futsal is here to stay as a major sport in Croatia. "People were sceptical about futsal at first," he said. "But after the first games they were amazed, they were delighted about what they saw. They couldn't believe that futsal can be so attractive and great to watch. I heard that thousands of people also watched the matches in Zagreb, although Croatia were playing in Split. That was the best promotion that futsal can have right now."