Croa­tia’s World Cup suc­cess di­vides Balkan neigh­bours

New Straits Times - - SPORT -

CROA­TIA’S neigh­bours in the for­mer Yu­goslavia have largely praised the team’s sur­prise suc­cess in reach­ing the World Cup fi­nal in Rus­sia just don’t ex­pect the Ser­bian pres­i­dent to sup­port them, at least for now.

Every time a ma­jor tour­na­ment comes around, a fa­mil­iar re­frain is heard in the re­gion: “If only Yu­goslavia was one coun­try, imag­ine the amaz­ing team we could have.”

That nos­tal­gic lament hides the fact that Croa­tia are do­ing just fine with­out Bos­nian or Serb play­ers — and Yu­goslavia, af­ter all, never reached a World Cup fi­nal.

If one man em­bod­ies foot­ball and the dream of a multi-cul­tural Yu­goslavia, it is Ivica Osim, the coach of the last Yu­goslavia team be­fore the coun­try vi­o­lently broke apart.

He was in charge of a su­perb team at the 1990 World Cup in Italy who were knocked out at the quar­ter-fi­nal stage in a penalty shootout by Diego Maradona’s Ar­gentina.

When Serb forces be­gan bomb­ing the city, Osim, barely hold­ing back the tears, told Serb jour­nal­ists that he hoped they would re­mem­ber “that I come from Sara­jevo.”

Now 77, the Bos­nian has watched Croa­tia and mid­field mae­stro Luka Mo­dric’s run to to­mor­row’s fi­nal against France with huge ad­mi­ra­tion.

“They have man­aged to in­te­grate their in­di­vid­ual qual­i­ties into the col­lec­tive” and never give up even when they are ex­hausted, he told the Ju­tarnji List news­pa­per, adding that “this is not a com­mon trait with us.”

In a re­gion still scarred by the con­flicts of the 1990s in which 130,000 peo­ple died, many peo­ple find it hard to throw their sup­port be­hind Croa­tia de­spite a com­mon lan­guage and cul­ture.

That is es­pe­cially the case in Ser­bia, whose team failed to qual­ify for the knock-out stages of the World Cup.

No­vak Djokovic is Ser­bia’s best-known sports­man and an idol in his coun­try, but when the 12-time Grand Slam win­ner voiced sup­port for the Croa­tia World Cup team, he was con­demned by Vladimir Djukanovic, a lawmaker from the rul­ing Ser­bian Pro­gres­sive Party.

“Only idiots can sup­port Croa­tia. Aren’t you ashamed No­vak?” Djukanovic tweeted.

Ser­bian Pres­i­dent Alek­san­dar Vu­cic made no se­cret of which team he backed in Croa­tia’s World Cup quar­ter-fi­nal against host na­tion Rus­sia.

“I sup­ported Rus­sia, that is my right. Ser­bia is a demo­cratic so­ci­ety and ev­ery­one has the right to sup­port who­ever they want,” Vu­cic said.

That opin­ion is by no means shared by ev­ery­one. Many Serbs have ex­pressed ad­mi­ra­tion, and some­times even out­right joy, at Croa­tia’s suc­cess.

Milo­jko Pan­tic, a well-known sports com­men­ta­tor when Yu­goslavia was still a sin­gle coun­try, said that Serbs with a sense of broth­er­li­ness had sup­ported Croa­tia in the quar­ter-fi­nals while those who wanted to see Rus­sia beat Croa­tia were “big­ots and na­tion­al­ists.”

In Mace­do­nia, most res­i­dents are sup­port­ing Croa­tia, de­spite the na­tion­al­ist right’s unswerv­ing sup­port for Rus­sia.

“Con­grat­u­la­tions Croa­tia. Pol­i­tics, sport, the re­gion and the world have all come to­gether tonight,” Mace­do­nian Prime Min­is­ter Zo­ran Zaev tweeted along with a photo of him­self and Croa­t­ian Pres­i­dent Kolinda GrabarKi­tarovic at a NATO sum­mit.

“Pol­i­tics aside, hats off to you, neigh­bours! You are the pride of the for­mer Yu­goslavia,” said an un­named Mon­tene­gro on the web­site of the Vi­jesti news­pa­per. Bos­nian po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Zo­ran Kresic de­tected some­thing deeper, say­ing the sup­port “has uni­fied the re­gion and Bos­nia for the first time since the bloody wars.”

He saw it as part of a “grad­ual warm­ing of re­la­tions” be­tween Croats, Bos­ni­ans and Serbs.

Luka Mo­dric has been in­spi­ra­tional for Croa­tia.

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