Sneaking in blacked out Mercs, rebel stars in their Croatian hideaway

Sneaking out in blacked out Mercedes, the rebel Aston Villa and Tottenham players are holed up in Croatia hideaways as they quarantine before returning to the UK… with a cloak of secrecy in place while they train

  • Argentina’s clash with Brazil was abandoned after medical officials took to pitch
  • They claimed some Premier League players had broken coronavirus protocols
  • Several top-flight footballers from Aston Villa and Tottenham had been involved 
  • Ahead of returning to the UK, they have been seen training in secrecy in Croatia 

Outside the Stadion Poljud, a group of boys kick a ball against the green wire fence that surrounds the players’ entrance. An old church stands silent on the other side of a small, dusty car park. Mountains stretch to the clouds on the horizon across the water that surrounds much of this Croatian city.

The familiar shouts and sounds of training echo from the giant shell-like stadium. It’s home to Hajduk Split, the second-largest club in Croatia. It’s a bit tired and worn these days, similar to the team, who have not won the Croatian league in 16 years.

‘It’s a bit like Only Fools and Horses,’ a Hajduk-supporting taxi driver laughs. ‘This time next year, we’ll be champions.’ Dinamo Zagreb, who have won 15 of the 16 titles since then, may beg to differ.

Tottenham’s three rebels, Giovani Lo Celso, Cristian Romero and Davinson Sanchez, are keeping up their fitness at a hideaway in Croatia 

For the locals, it feels like any other afternoon. Yet two of the cries inside the stadium come from Premier League stars. 

Aston Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez and the club’s £40million record signing Emiliano Buendia are training in Croatia as they quarantine before their return to the UK at the end of the most bizarre and controversial international breaks in memory.

The pair were two of the four Argentinian players from the top flight who were detained in those remarkable scenes in Sao Paulo a week ago when Brazilian authorities stormed on to the pitch five minutes into the World Cup qualifier between the two nations and demanded they left the country having been accused of breaching Covid protocols, as revealed by The Mail on Sunday.

The Spurs players have been training at NK Zupa Dubrovacka, an amateur club near Dubrovnik

To avoid being forced to quarantine in a hotel in the UK, with little chance to keep fit or train, Villa sent them to Hajduk. Lovre Kalinic, the Croatian goalkeeper who is currently on loan there from Villa, helped arrange it.

A hundred miles down the coast, three Tottenham players were doing the same. Giovani Lo Celso and Cristian Romero, the other two Argentinians, plus Colombia defender Davinson Sanchez trained at NK Zupa Dubrovacka, an amateur club from the county leagues in a village near Dubrovnik.

Both Spurs and Villa were keen to keep their locations secret. Hajduk were ordered not to take pictures of training. They were told to bar journalists from watching. 

On Thursday morning, Hajduk’s press officer confirmed we could attend the following day’s press conference with manager Jens Gustafsson. By the afternoon, that was no longer the case.

Whispers came that the stars would be smuggled out, and a blacked-out people carrier left

We waited outside the gates. A group of the club’s junior girls asked if we could get the foreigners’ autographs if they stopped by. They did not. Instead, whispers came through that they were about to be smuggled out of a side entrance. A blacked-out people carrier soon departed like a scene from Line of Duty.

Nevertheless, Gustafsson was happy to reflect on how great it was to have such talented Premier League stars with them.

‘They have trained with us for two days as part of the cooperation with Aston Villa,’ 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 they might spend the weekend in Hvar, an idyllic island off the mainland, but they are expected to continue training at Hajduk until Friday.

Romero (top left), Lo Celso (top right), Emiliano Martinez (bottom left) and Emiliano Buendia (bottom right) are accused of breaking Brazil’s Covid-19 quarantine rules

If they didn’t want to be found, it would have been a good option. Michael Jordan travelled there a few months ago and none of the Croatian media got a sniff.

Over at NK Zupa Dubrovacka, in the village of Cibaca, the Spurs players told a local journalist they had been told 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, though after yesterday’s 3-0 defeat at Crystal Palace, with Eric Dier limping off and Japhet Tanganga seeing red, Nuno is in desperate need of centre backs.

The four English-based players all left the UK despite the Premier League stopping teams from playing in red list countries 

Their current bolthole is beautiful, with mountains to one side, hills to the other. It was into Dubrovnik that Tottenham’s owner Joe Lewis sailed his super yacht this month.

Of course, the facilities are a world away from the cryotherapy chambers of 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 annual membership of NK Zupa Dubrovacka costs 100 kuna, about £11.50.

A local media report described the sight of players worth about £100m as ‘a picture for history’.

Health authorities had stormed the pitch in Brazil-Argentina to detain four top-flight players

Again, as much as Tottenham wanted to keep their location quiet, the club’s officials had other ideas.

‘People from London came, looked at the conditions we have and they were satisfied. We are at their disposal all these 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 picture of him watching Argentina’s match against Bolivia on his Instagram feed, while Sanchez shared an image of him hugging his baby at a table outside his hotel.

Martinez (left) and Lo Celso (centre) are seen walking away after the game was interrupted

But why such a cloak of secrecy? For Tottenham, the situation is slightly more complicated. Martinez and Buendia were given permission, while Lo Celso and Romero defied club orders to travel to international duty. They are expected to be fined on their return.

What is a ridiculous situation began when The Mail on Sunday revealed that FIFA had scrapped their temporary law that had allowed clubs to refuse to release their players if they faced quarantine on their return.

With most South American countries on the UK’s red list, and with no elite sportsmen given Government exemptions, it meant that Premier League clubs would be forced to release their players knowing they faced 10 days of quarantine on their return, ruling them out of multiple matches.

Premier League clubs refused. Then Villa allowed Martinez and Buendia to go, as long as they returned before their final game. Lo Celso and Romero simply upped and went.

This paper revealed they were accused of not declaring they had been in the UK when they arrived in Brazil, where they should have faced 14 days’ quarantine. 

Brazil’s health authority tried to get them deported, the players travelled to the game, the health officials got stuck in traffic, arrived late and duly stormed on to the pitch.

It is absurd that anyone – the clubs, the federations or the players – expected no one to realise where they had been when they play in the most watched league in the world.

And while they soaked up the Croatian sun, at home all was chaos. Brazil and other South American nations insisted that FIFA implement the five-day rule banning clubs who refused to release players from fielding those stars.

The World Cup qualifier between Brazil and Argentina was suspended in incredible scenes

The Premier League began to lobby FIFA and the federations. Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp did not know if their players would be available the night before the current round of league games. Clubs planned to stick two fingers up and play them, regardless of the consequences.

In the end, sense prevailed. Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Paraguay waived their requests to FIFA. They could play. And when the Argentinian players and Sanchez return next Friday, they should be better placed to feature.

If all this were not enough fun, there are only 22 days until the next international break. Shall we do it all again? Everyone involved is already working hard to make sure that we don’t.

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