Mixed emo­tions in Balkans over Croa­tia’s Cup suc­cess

The Norwalk Hour - - SPORTS -

BEL­GRADE, Ser­bia — In the Balkans, soc­cer is so po­lit­i­cal that it has cre­ated bit­ter di­vi­sions about Croa­tia’s sur­pris­ing suc­cess at the World Cup.

The team will face France in the tour­na­ment fi­nal in Moscow on Sun­day, pro­vok­ing mixed re­ac­tions and strong emo­tions in the re­gion scarred by war.

From Mon­tene­gro and Ser­bia in the east and Slove­nia in the west, Croa­tia’s neigh­bors have been split over whether to sup­port Croa­tia or France, re­flect­ing the per­sist­ing rifts stem­ming from the 1990s con­flict.

While many in those na­tions have ex­pressed pride and joy that a Balkan coun­try has made it to the fi­nal, Croa­tia’s stel­lar achieve­ment also has caused envy and na­tion­al­ist out­bursts evok­ing the war era.

“The World Cup gen­er­ally is a joy­ful event, but we in the Balkans some­how man­age to turn even ball-kick­ing into a clash,” said Draza Petro­vic, an ed­i­tor at the lib­eral Danas daily in Ser­bia.

Petro­vic said that sports ri­valry was also strong among the Balkan na­tions even while they were all part of the for­mer Yu­goslavia, when it was also rare to see Ser­bian or Croa­t­ian teams sup­port one an­other. But he added that the for­mer fed­er­a­tion’s bloody breakup turned sports com­pet­i­tive­ness into some­thing more.

“The wars were not so long ago, so peo­ple view things not just as sports,” he said of the con­flict that tore the for­mer Yu­goslavia into pieces and in which more than 100,000 peo­ple were killed.

Nearly three decades af­ter the war, a num­ber of un­re­solved is­sues still plague re­la­tions among the for­mer Yu­goslav re­publics, while na­tions stick to their own ver­sions of what hap­pened and who were the vic­tims.

Il­lus­trat­ing post­war ten­sions, Ser­bia Pres­i­dent Alek­san­dar Vu­cic said pub­licly that he would sup­port Slavic ally Rus­sia over Croa­tia in the quar­ter­fi­nals, and the for­eign min­is­ter openly backed Eng­land in the semi­fi­nal.

Even Ser­bia’s mosta­dored sports­man, ten­nis star No­vak Djokovic, has faced crit­i­cism from a na­tion­al­ist lawmaker af­ter openly sup­port­ing Croa­tia, while the is­sue trig­gered a heated for-and-against de­bate on so­cial net­works and in the me­dia.

Petro­vic noted that “those di­vi­sions are bad, par­tic­u­larly if fu­eled by the state me­dia and top of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the pres­i­dent.”

Some Serbs — whose team didn’t make it past the group stage — joked about Croa­tia be­ing a bet­ter team, with a pop­u­lar post on so­cial me­dia declar­ing that Ser­bia’s big­gest suc­cess re­cently in soc­cer was be­ing a neigh­bor to a World Cup fi­nal­ist.

Croa­tia coach Zlatko Dalic has thanked Balkan coun­tries af­ter his team’s win over Eng­land, say­ing that “the whole re­gion is sup­port­ing us and of course this is nor­mal.”

Croa­tia also has many sup­port­ers among Bos­nia’s three main eth­nic groups — Croats, Serbs and Mus­lim Bos­ni­aks — that fought against each other dur­ing the coun­try’s bloody 1992-95 war.

In Slove­nia, gen­er­ally a Croa­t­ian ally but with a loom­ing bor­der dis­pute, hun­dreds of sup­port­ers are ex­pected to travel to Croa­tia to join street view­ing of the match on Sun­day. This prompted the Croa­t­ian rail­way com­pany to in­tro­duce more trains and ticket dis­counts.

One sup­porter from Slove­nia con­grat­u­lated Croa­tia on its vic­tory against Eng­land, not­ing that: Eng­land wanted Brexit and they got it!

In Mon­tene­gro, the na­tional di­vide over the coun­try’s loy­alty to Ortho­dox Chris­tian and Slavic neigh­bor Ser­bia, was re­flected in the sup­port for Croa­tia:

“There is no way I could back Croa­tia be­cause they are our en­e­mies,” de­clared Mi­lan Bu­la­tovic, from Pod­gor­ica, the Mon­tene­grin cap­i­tal.

But re­tiree Igor Nikolic, also from Pod­gor­ica, told The As­so­ci­ated Press that when Croa­tia beat Eng­land to make it to the fi­nal “I felt as if my old dream of Yu­goslavia at the top has come true.”

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