Croa­tia’s suc­cess is no fluke

Santa Fe New Mexican - - SPORTS - By Leonid Bershidsky

Three of the four teams that reached the World Cup semi­fi­nals rep­re­sent Western Euro­pean so­ci­eties strug­gling with im­mi­gra­tion and in­te­gra­tion. But the fourth and most sur­pris­ing con­sists en­tirely of lo­cal boys from a tiny coun­try. Croa­tia’s suc­cess has dif­fer­ent ori­gins than that of its ri­vals: In that coun­try, soc­cer 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. Be­sides soc­cer, it’s got top flight teams in hand­ball, wa­ter polo and bas­ket­ball, and Croa­t­ian ten­nis play­ers are part of the global elite. In part, this prob­a­bly has to do with ge­net­ics: Croats (and their neigh­bors from Ser­bia and Bosnia) are among the tallest peo­ple in the world, and many are nat­u­rally ath­letic. There are thou­sands of sports clubs, most of them left over from for­mer Yu­goslavia’s achieve­ment-ori­ented sports pro­ject (al­though some lo­cals worry that this in­fra­struc­ture is dy­ing off ).

Soc­cer, 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 aka 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 soc­cer 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.”

“If the Mak­simir ri­ots are in­ter­preted as the ‘day the war started,’ then this game had to be termed as the ‘day Yu­goslavia stopped ex­ist­ing’ (at least on sport­ing grounds) with the sym­bolic burn­ing of the most mean­ing­ful na­tional sym­bol which sig­naled a to­tal lack of state le­git­i­macy,” wrote Dario Brentin of Graz Uni­ver­sity in Aus­tria, who has stud­ied the links be­tween soc­cer and pol­i­tics in the Balkans.

Franjo Tud­j­man, the na­tion­al­ist

leader at the head of the in­de­pen­dence drive, used the soc­cer fan or­ga­ni­za­tions’ rad­i­cal­ism to drive his mes­sage and soc­cer it­self to ac­quire le­git­i­macy for an in­creas­ingly in­de­pen­dent Croa­tia. In Oc­to­ber 1990, a game be­tween a se­lec­tion of Croat play­ers and the U.S. na­tional team was seen as the se­ces­sion­ists’ ma­jor diplo­matic suc­cess. Ath­letes, in­clud­ing soc­cer play­ers, con­tin­ued serv­ing as Tud­j­man’s in­for­mal am­bas­sadors through­out the en­su­ing war. And once it was won (na­tion­al­ist soc­cer 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 soc­cer.

In 1998, when Croa­tia, un­ex­pect­edly for all but its diehard fans, won third place in the World Cup, Boban, the team cap­tain and na­tional hero, praised Tud­j­man as “fa­ther of all things we Croats love, also the fa­ther of our na­tional team.” Tud­j­man cen­tral­ized soc­cer gov­er­nance and some­times would even in­ter­fere in coach­ing decisions; to him, soc­cer was a weapon and a tool for build­ing a na­tional iden­tity for do­mes­tic con­sump­tion and for a world that wasn’t par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween “for­mer Yu­goslav” states.

Tud­j­man died in 1999, but his state­build­ing 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 soc­cer story has been about graft. In early June, Zdravko Mamic, for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of Di­namo Za­greb and the un­of­fi­cial boss of Croa­t­ian soc­cer, 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 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 soc­cer boss.

An­other Croa­tia star, An­drej Kra­maric, re­fused to sign a con­tract like Mo­dric’s, ac­cord­ing to which Mamic’s agency would have been en­ti­tled to part

of his trans­fer fees.

The fans, who have waged a war in re­cent years to end cor­rup­tion in Croa­t­ian soc­cer 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 soc­cer may have con­trib­uted to the cur­rent na­tional team’s strength. Al­most all of its mem­bers play for elite Euro­pean

clubs; 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 soc­cer 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.

The coun­try’s econ­omy is suf­fer­ing from years of mis­man­age­ment. With youth un­em­ploy­ment at 33 per­cent and the heav­ily in­debted govern­ment too deeply in­volved in key in­dus­tries, the coun­try can hardly sus­tain the train­ing sys­tem it in­her­ited from so­cial­ist times. While soc­cer fans re­main a po­lit­i­cal force, with all their na­tion­al­ist warts and anti-cap­i­tal­ist pathos, the fer­vor of the 1990s no longer de­ter­mines the po­lit­i­cal land­scape.

Yet that fer­vor ap­pears to be back to some ex­tent as the coun­try cel­e­brates the soc­cer 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 soc­cer 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 col­ors and make a con­vinc­ing show of sup­port­ing the team rather than car­ry­ing out a diplo­matic func­tion. The Tud­j­man-era legacy, the re­al­iza­tion that some­times a sports team’s per­for­mance may be ex­is­ten­tially im­por­tant for a na­tion, 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.


Croa­tia fans in Za­greb, Croa­tia, cel­e­brate beat­ing Eng­land on Wednes­day in the World Cup. For a coun­try with a pop­u­la­tion of 4.2 mil­lion, Croa­tia is spec­tac­u­larly suc­cess­ful at sports.


Croa­tia’s Josip Pi­varic cel­e­brates a win over Eng­land at the World Cup in Moscow.


Eng­land goal­keeper Jor­dan Pick­ford missed a block Wednes­day against Croa­tia at the World Cup in Moscow.

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