Zagreb (AFP) – Croatia’s achievement in reaching the quarter-finals of the World Cup has revived national pride in the team which for more than a quarter of century has played a crucial role in the young nation’s identity.
Miroslav Ciro Blazevic, who was coach when Croatia played its first World Cup as an independent nation in 1998, told AFP Croats had “found themselves” in football.
Ahead of the quarter-final against Russia, we trace the role football has played in the making of Croatia:
– 1980s: Stadiums mirror national decay
The death of Yugoslavia’s leader Josip Broz Tito in 1980 marked the start of the communist federation’s decay and the rise of often politicised ‘ultra’ supporters.
The stadiums were “becoming places to express opposition to the regime,” said Loic Tregoures, the French author of a political thesis on the subject of football and national identity in the former Yugoslavia.
The phenomenon was especially prevalent in Croatia where people came to football matches to express a “Croat nationalism that was repressed” elsewhere, Tregoures told AFP.
The rivalry between the republic’s two main clubs — Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb — has remained but they “stand together ” against Serbian teams, he said.
– 1990: Impending collapse
The match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade, one of the main Yugoslav league derbies for decades, on May 13, 1990 was marred by violence which heralded Yugoslavia’s break-up.
Dinamo’s captain, the then 21-year Zvonimir Boban, watched as a home fan was brutally beaten by police.
Boban knocked the policeman down with a kung-fu kick, allowing the fan to escape.
For Croatians, the scene was highly symbolic, but there were other incidents in the year before Croatia’s 1991-1995 independence war with rebel Serbs backed by Belgrade.
Just one week after that game, Croatia’s pro-independence parties won the first multi-party elections in Yugoslavia, fuelling ethnic tensions between Zagreb and Belgrade, which was opposed to the country’s break-up.
The captain of the Yugoslavia team, Faruk Hadzibegic, strongly supported keeping Yugoslavia intact. But on June 3, during a pre-1990 World Cup friendly against the Netherlands, he realised that the whistling at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb was actually aimed at his team.
Croatia’s pro-independence nationalist leader Franjo Tudjman, a big football fan, had been elected president of what was still the Yugoslav republic only three days earlier.
On September 26, a match between Partizan Belgrade and Hajduk Split was interrupted as home fans waving Croatia’s checkerboard flag invaded the pitch and Partizan players fled.
Yugoslavia’s flag was set on fire — local media called it “The day when Yugoslavia died”.
The following month, Croatia secretly organised what is considered the first match of their national team.
“Croats lied to FIFA, saying that it was a team of Yugoslav players who would be playing,” said Tregoures. But their red-and-white jerseys did not fool anyone — Croatia beat the United States 2-1 in Zagreb and confirmed its players were breaking away from the Yugoslav side.
– Post-war national affirmation –
The war claimed 20,000 lives. When it ended Croatia’s national team played a key role in forging the national identity, first at Euro 96 and then at the 1998 World Cup in France, when they shocked the football world by reaching the semi-finals.
The then coach, Miroslav Ciro Blazevic, who was close to Tudjman, said “no nation identifies itself with the football team as much as Croatia.”
“There are not many things in which we can compare ourselves to countries that are wealthier and have bigger populations,” Blazevic, a still vital 83-year-old, told AFP. “So we’ve ‘found ourselves’ in football.”
– Waning pride
But the passion faded due to poor results and general dissatisfaction with the influence of Zdravko Mamic, Dinamo Zagreb’s former chief and the man considered the real power broker of Croatian football.
Fans claim Mamic, now on the run in Bosnia after being sentenced to jail for multi-million-euro corruption, was abusing football for his personal gain.
Croatia’s economy, hit hard by the war and fraudulent privatisations in the 1990s, was struggling.
The country of 4.2 million joined the European Union in 2013.
“Croats are now sure about their borders, sure about their strength — we are no longer in the Tudjman era,” Tregoures said.
The fans gained a reputation for violence — there were incidents during Euro 2016 in France.
They also took to making ultra-nationalist chants. In June 2015, fans painted a swastika on the pitch in Split ahead of the Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy.
– World Cup lifts spirits
The World Cup in Russia has revived the passion for the team.
Robert Prosinecki, a member of the 1998 squad, said Croatians need a “bit of happiness to come together again, to cheer, to let ourselves feel euphoria and be united.”
“Football has enabled this, because after a 20-year absence we are back among the top nations,” the ex-Real Madrid midfielder told AFP.
In Zagreb, fans cheer like at any other match in the world. But on Sunday, when Croatia beat Denmark on penalties, they chanted the name of retired general Ante Gotovina, seen by many Croatians as a hero of the independence war.
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