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Croatia’s World Cup success is no fluke

In Croatia, football is more than a game. It’s fed a war, the nation-building that followed — and the post-victory comedown, which, perversely, may have led to its squad’s stunning achievement.

analysis Updated: Jul 13, 2018 20:19 IST
Croatia,Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic
Croatian Football team group before their semi-final match against England.(REUTERS)

Three of the four teams that reached the World Cup semi-finals represent Western European societies struggling with immigration and integration. But the fourth and most surprising consists entirely of local boys from a tiny country. In Croatia, football is more than a game. It’s fed a war, the nation-building that followed — and the post-victory comedown, which, perversely, may have led to its squad’s stunning achievement.

For a country with a population of 4.2 million, Croatia is spectacularly successful at sports. In part, this probably has to do with genetics: Croats (and their neighbours from Serbia and Bosnia) are among the tallest people in the world, and many are naturally athletic.

Football, however, is a special case. A May 1990 riot at Zagreb’s Maksimir stadium that stopped a game between local Dinamo and Red Star from Belgrade was, to many Croatians, the beginning of the war that established their country as a separate state. The Serbian fans were led into the riot by Zeljko Raznatovic a.k.a. Arkan, the future war criminal; police, considered an instrument of the Serb-led Yugoslav state, intervened too late and focused on the hardcore Dinamo fans — the Bad Blue Boys, as they call themselves. A Dinamo player, Zvonimir Boban, got into the fight to help a fan. His act became a symbol of resistance to Croats.

At another football game, between Hajduk Split and Partizan Belgrade, in September 1990, Hajduk’s hardcore fans, the Torcida, burned the Yugoslav flag and chanted, “Croatia — independent state.”

Franjo Tudjman, the nationalist leader at the head of the independence drive, used the football fan organisations’ radicalism to drive his message and football itself to acquire legitimacy for an increasingly independent Croatia. In October 1990, a game between a selection of Croat players and the US national team was seen as the secessionists’ major diplomatic success. Athletes, including football players, continued serving as Tudjman’s informal ambassadors throughout the ensuing war. And once it was won (nationalist football fans, of course, had been among the first to volunteer), Tudjman — who proclaimed that “after war, sport is the first thing by which you can distinguish nations” — continued attaching major importance to football.

In 1998, when Croatia unexpectedly won third place in the World Cup, Boban, the team captain, praised Tudjman as “father of all things we Croats love, also the father of our national team.” For Tudjman, football was a weapon for building a national identity and for a world that wasn’t particularly interested in distinguishing between “former Yugoslav” states.

Tudjman died in 1999, but his state-building project was successful enough eventually to get Croatia into the European Union (it acceded in 2013). Still, the country was and remains no stranger to post-Communist corruption, and in recent years, much of the Croatian football story has been about graft. In early June, Zdravko Mamic, former chief executive of Dinamo Zagreb and the unofficial boss of Croatian football, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for diverting some $18 million from players’ transfer fees. Dinamo sold its top players, including Luka Modric, the star of the current national team, through an agency run by Mamic and his brother.

Mamic fled to Bosnia, which doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Croatia. Modric is accused of perjuring himself during the Mamic trial, at which his testimony could have helped the football boss. The fans, who have waged a war in recent years to end corruption in Croatian football and get more of a say in how the clubs are run, again are at the forefront of a political battle — this time against Croatia’s crony capitalism; to them Kramaric is a hero and Modric is a traitor.

Indirectly, the corruption in Croatian football may have contributed to the current national team’s strength. It’s been in Croatian club bosses’ interest to sell them off at the best price rather than to retain them, and the players ended up getting varied experience in Europe’s top football leagues. Today, they are confident pros without any inferiority complexes linked to their country’s size.

It’s unclear whether Croatia can be as strong when this generation of stars retires. With youth unemployment at 33% and the heavily indebted government too deeply involved in key industries, the country can hardly sustain the training system it inherited from socialist times. With all their nationalist warts and anti-capitalist pathos, the fervour of the 1990s no longer determines the political landscape.

Yet that fervour appears to be back to some extent as the country celebrates the football team’s victories. This may be the last war for a while that the national squad is winning, but the memories of the time when football was more than a game still live. That’s why Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic is the only national leader at the World Cup to wear the national colours and make a convincing show of supporting the team rather than carrying out a diplomatic function. The Tudjman-era legacy isn’t quite gone.

Croatia’s success lies at the crossroads between professionalism forged in English, German, French, Italian and Spanish leagues and the fierce spirit of the 1990s. This is a combination that left England by the wayside and can be fearsome even to the seemingly unbeatable French squad in Sunday’s final.

Bloomberg Opinion

First Published: Jul 13, 2018 20:19 IST