Croatian sports geneThere are not that many countries in the world where sport is an integral and indelible part of the national identity and image. Croatia is one such country.
Power of sport in the context of promoting Croatia
Croatian sports gene
There are not that many countries in the world where sport is an integral and indelible part of the national identity and image. Croatia is one such country. Most people, in all corners of the world, have heard about some, or all successful Croatian athletes and therefore the image of the country is shaped, in large measure, by the successes of Croatian individual athletes, clubs and national teams. The Croatian national identity, by the same token, is forged in the collective emotional charge born out of successful, or sometimes less so, performances of Croatian athletes. Whenever a Croatian team or athlete competes in any given international competition, the whole nation is on the edge of their seats or on their feet, passionately invoking all the gods that ever existed to lead the team or athlete to victory. In this particular sense it is important to mention that Croatia, despite the fact that there is no concerted and systematic effort by the state to promote and encourage sporting talent and financially support sporting associations, sports clubs and national teams, is an inexhaustible well of talented and successful athletes. Obviously, there is something in the national gene pool that makes Croats good at sports. There is not a sport in which we do not have talented and successful athletes. Croatia is a small country and the government is not interested in developing the sports industry and supporting young talented aspiring athletes. In that sense all those numerous successes of Croatian athletes and teams constitute a true sporting miracle.
The list of Croatian sports stars is seemingly inexhaustible. Let’s see, for example, how successful Croatia has been in sports during the last 20 years – since 1998, when the Croatian national football team won third place in the World Cup in France. The celebrated Croatian tennis player Goran Ivanišević, leaning towards the end of his career, won the Wimbledon’s singles title in 2001. Janica Kostelić reigned supreme in alpine skiing for years – five time world champion, overall world cup winner three times, winner of three gold medals and one silver medal at the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City in 2002 and winner of one gold medal and one silver medal at the Olympic Games in 2006 in Torino. Thanks to these successes, Zagreb hosts the Snow Queen race – men’s and women’s slalom – as part of the World Cup skiing circuit. The event is one of the most popular races of the circuit because the track is located only 20 minutes’ drive away from the city center. The high jumper Blanka Vlašić won the world championship in 2007 again in 2009. She also won the gold medal at the World Indoor Championship in 2008 and again in 2010 and 2011. The Croatian handball national team won the World Cup in 2003 and the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004. The Croatian water polo national team won the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics, the World Cup in 2007 and the European Championships in 2010. The alpine skier Ivica Kostelić won the combined World Cup title in 2011 and 2012. The disc thrower Sandra Perković won the gold medal at the Olympic games in London in 2012 and again at the Olympic games in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. She is a two-time world champion – 2013 in Moscow and 2017 in London and four-time European champion. She also won the IAAF Diamond League 6 years in a row – from 2012 to 2017. Giovanni Cernogoraz won the Olympic gold medal in men's trap at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. 2014 was marked by Marin Čilić’s victory at US Open. Croatian athletes and teams won 10 medals at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, five of them gold. The successes of the Croatian athletes and teams at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 placed the country in 17th place of the most successful sporting nations per capita…
Luka Modrić has won 4 Champion League titles with Real Madrid – in the 2013/14, 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18 seasons. In 2015, he made the FIFA FIFPro World 11. For four consecutive years he was in the UEFA Champions League Squad of the Season and in 2017 he received the Golden Ball Award as the best player at the 2017 Club World Cup. And then, in 2018 at the World Cup in Russia, he won the 2018 FIFA World Cup Golden Ball Award for the best player of the tournament. Also, he was named the UEFA Men's Player of the Year for 2017-18, edging out Cristiano Ronaldo and Mohamed Salah, the leading candidates for the award. And finally, in the fall of 2018 FIFA named him the best player of the year. Modrić is arguably one of the greatest Croatian athletes of all time and definitely the best Croatian football player in the history of the sport. Nations larger in territory and more developed than Croatia can only dream of having such sporting successes.
Many world media outlets, like the BBC for example, wonder what the secret of the Croatian successes in sport is and what the world can learn from the Croats. The Independent has also tried to discover the secret. It is clear that the world is fascinated, in the context of sport, by our small nation and its ability to dream big and make the dreams happen. The Independent wrote that Croatia should serve as a role model to many nations in the world because talent, hard work, unity and a healthy dose of luck could launch a country on a path to success.
After the group phase at the World Cup in Russia, in which the Croatian national team had defeated all three rivals, including the mighty Argentina by three goals to nil, the German Bild magazine wrote that the “Croatia is the greatest sports country in the world”. The article in the German magazine goes on to assert that Croatia has earned the status of the greatest sports nation in the world by its successes in various sports – water polo, tennis, handball and many others. The author of the article then points out the fact that Croatia is a small country with a population of 4,2 million, just slightly over than the population of Berlin (3,2 million). Only two days after the publication of the article, Marin Čilić defeated Novak Đoković in the final at Queens Club while Borna Čorić won the tournament in Halle, defeating the “undefeatable” Roger Federer. As a result of the defeat Roger Federer lost his world number one ranking.
It is not surprising that the most common association with Croatia, after natural beauty, tourism and the odd cultural monument, is sport. In 1998, when Croatia won third place at the World Cup in France and Davor Šuker, the side’s principal striker, won the Golden Boot Award, everyone around the world, including the remotest of places, knew about Croatia, Davor Šuker and the checkered jerseys. The World Cup in France in 1998 was the first World Cup tournament Croatia as an independent state participated in. When the tournament started, many people considered the Croatian side, managed by the redoubtable Miroslav Ćiro Blažević, an underdog. When the Croatian national team reached the semifinal stage, having displayed marvelous football skills in the previous five games, everyone knew different. And everyone, at that time, respected not only the Croatian national football team but the nation as a whole. The World Cup in France in 1998 received more media coverage than any previous World Cup tournament. Croatian checkered jerseys were selling like crazy all over the world. The players comprising the Croatian national team became household names and media darlings all over the globe. At home, they were national heroes. When the team returned to Croatia, the players were greeted by about 80 000 fans. The summer of ‘98 was the summer of Croatia. Football fans around the world were enchanted by the Miroslav Blažević’s charisma, the team’s eye-pleasing but still highly effective style of football and likeable Croatian supporters who travelled to France. Sports editors and sports correspondents from the largest world TV stations and newspapers were on a mission to score an interview with a Croatian player. In the absence of that, any story about Croatia was printable and any TV segment featuring Croatia desirable. All of a sudden, media space was awash with stories about the political situation in Croatia, tourism, Croatian history, culture… The world was thirsty for all things Croatian, courtesy of the Croatian national football team. People abroad stopped perceiving Croatia in terms of the disturbing imagery of the recently ended war. Suddenly, Croatia was not “that war-torn country” anymore, but “that great footballing nation”. The success of the Croatian national football team, it is not unreasonable to claim, created Croatia’s tourism industry as we know it today. Football, in today’s world, is a continuation of politics by other means.
Fast-forward five World Cup tournaments and the Croatian national team is again pushing Croatia into the global limelight. There’s are two slight, but at the same time rather significant differences between the World Cup in Russia 2018 and that in France in 1998 in the context of the Croatian national team. The first difference is that in Russia the Croatian national team made it to the final. The second difference is that back in 1998 the world wasn’t nearly as globalised as it is today. The new media did not exist, broadband technologies were in their infancy and things like Facebook and Twitter were unimaginable. Therefore, Croatia benefited from the success of the Croatian national team in 2018 exponentially more than from the success of the national team in 1998.
As soon as the Croatian national team beat the host country Russia and qualified for the semifinals, all major TV stations around the globe started airing reports about the Croatian national football team and Croatia. More important still, a huge number of content regarding Croatia and the success of its national football team was uploaded to YouTube. Billions of people were exposed 24/7 first to stories and opinions, all of them positive, about the manager Zlatko Dalić and his prodigious charges, and shortly thereafter to stories, also all of them positive, about Croatia and the Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović who travelled to Russia to support, wearing a Croatian jersey, the national team. The whole thing immediately reached global proportions. Far more people around the world rooted for Croatia in the final game than for its nemesis, France (Croatia also lost the semifinal game against France in 1998). And billions of people around the world learned more about Croatia in the last week of the World Cup in Russia than they had in their whole lives previously. They learned about our values, way of life, history, tourism. Croatia was, for the first time in its history, presented to the world in all its glory. The Croatian footballers, with their skill, determination, professionalism, bravery and humility did more in a month in terms of promoting the true nature of Croatia than the Croatian diplomacy, tourist industry and academic community combined since the country gained independence in 1991. For a month being a Croat was arguably the most beautiful thing in the world. Social networks were awash with comments glorifying Croats and Croatia. The German Bild magazine wrote: “A raging fire burns in the eyes of the Croatian football players, fueling their desire and determination to win.” The story continued to state that the Croatian footballers’ thirst for victory was otherworldly, their demeanor authentic and that they were humble in victory and gracious in defeat.
Millions of football fans, from Alaska to New Zealand, from Tierra del Fuego to the north-easternmost reaches of Russia, typed the word “Croatia” into Google, trying to find out as much as they could about the country that had reached the final of the World Cup. Everyone working in the promotion industry knows how hard it is to catch and hold people’s attention. There’s a sea of information out there and people are bombarded with advertisements every second. The Croatian national team managed to pull off that task with flying colors. The Croatian football players actually motivated millions of people across the globe to educate themselves about Croatia.
According to some estimates, more stories about Croatia were published in 12 hours following the quarter final victory over Russia than in three years previously. By the end of the tournament more content had been aired and posted about Croatia than during the 28 years of the country’s existence. Again, the Croatian national team generated more interest about Croatia than all other Croatian athletes, politicians, business men, tourist workers and all others combined.
The Croatian national team in Russia created one of the most beautiful stories of Croatian sport and of Croatian history, one that will never die or be forgotten, as long as there are people in the world. The success of the Croatian national team transcends the confines of sport. It is a watershed moment of seismic proportions. Nothing will ever be the same in Croatia and never again will the image of Croatia abroad be held hostage by venal and malicious people, both foreign and homegrown.
The Croatian footballers showed, by their own example, the true meaning of perseverance, hard work, discipline, genuine patriotism, humility and responsibility… This Croatian sporting fairytale enchanted the whole world. It’s a modern story of David and Goliath. Most punters wrote off Croatia before the Argentina game, and then again before the Russia game. Almost everybody did that before the England game – the experts on ESPN and ITV with scorn bordering on disdain. The Croatian national team shut them all up and made them eat their own words, inspiring millions of people around the world in the process. Everyone talked about the fighting spirit, courage and tenacity of the Croatian football players. And many projected those traits onto Croatian society as a whole and identified with our small and inspiring country, especially before the matches against Argentina, Russia, England and finally France (the game Croatia lost due to a few, masterfully exploited by the French team, to be sure, oversights by the referee). Practically overnight Croatia gained valuable and affluent friends from the world of show business, politics, economy… Millions of people around the world were inspired by the dream the Croatian national team was living. Small wonder, because all of those inspired by the story of the Croatian national team in Russia actually took the time to learn about the life-stories of the Croatian players. And most of those stories read like scripts for Hollywood films – coming of age during the Croatian War of Independence, training during air-raid alerts, living in constant fear of being blown to bits by a missile or a shell but still chasing the dream of becoming a professional football player. Truly, this is the stuff of legend. The Croatian football players serve as role models to all those who dare to dream of and aspire to greatness, regardless of their current circumstances. They show us all that dedication, commitment, faith, unity, patriotism and adherence to moral values is a sure recipe for successes, in all walks of life.
The media coverage and exposure Croatia got as a result of the Croatian national team’s successes would cost billions of euros to duplicate. However, the point is really moot because there exists nothing of the same magnitude that would provoke enough interest on which such coverage and exposure could be based. Therefore, what the Croatian football players did in terms of promoting the country is truly priceless. It has to be pointed out that underscoring the phenomenon of the Croatian national team and everything its success entails is the game of football itself. Only football can stop the world from turning. Only football can bring unbridled joy to the masses. Football, as an industry, is, to borrow a line from a famous film, bigger than U.S. Steel. Football is culture, economy, politics. It’s a force that shapes national identities. As I have already stated, football is a continuation of politics by other means.
Croatian flags are still waving proudly in the country, two months after the end of the World Cup. It is easy, and tempting, to identify with those who are powerful and successful. And the Croatian football players who won the silver medal at the World Cup are powerful and successful. They are the panacea for all the country’s ills. They are our light at the end of the tunnel. They are our pride and joy not only because they reached the final but also because football fans all over the world agree that Croatia was the better team in the match.
Not everybody jumped on the Croatian bandwagon though. Undoubtedly there were many football fans in Argentina and England, and many Russian football fans, whose enthusiasm for the game was dashed by the Croatian national team’s victories. “Who are these damn Croats and how dare they embarrass us in front of the world like that?’’ posted an English fan on his Facebook profile after the semifinal game. His post, brimming with bitterness and shock, encapsulates the English perception of the footballing reality and of the new balance of footballing power in Europe. England is the birthplace of football and English fans believe that the nation is long overdue for a World Cup success. They may be right, they may be wrong, but it is clear that it is palatable to them to have their hopes dashed by Germany, Argentina or Italy, and completely unacceptable and traumatizing to lose to Croatia. This condescending attitude actually perfectly mirrors the political attitude of the powerful European states towards the newly formed countries in the Balkans. Croatia has often been a victim of that attitude and the deals made behind closed doors that perpetuated it. In that sense, many people in Croatia considered the victory of the Croatian national team over England in the semifinals as exacting a just revenge on the perfidious Albion, echoing the Argentinian sentiments from 1986 when God punished the British for defeating the Argentines in the Falklands War by giving a lend of His hand to Maradona.
Reaching the final of the biggest single-event sport competition in the world (200 countries participated in the qualifying stages and 32 at the final tournament) is a huge success and as such has an overwhelming therapeutic effect on Croatian society. The Croatian national team improved the nation’s collective self-esteem and injected much needed positive energy into the fabric of society. Without positive energy and high self-esteem there is no economic growth and no social changes for the better. Other countries have spent years investing a lot of money and effort into campaigns to bolster national pride, create a healthier society, change negative aspects of their national mentality and boost economic growth. Croatia, on the other hand, has the best campaign imaginable to achieve everything mentioned above, courtesy of the Croatian national football team.
The climax of the Croatian football fairytale happened on July 16, 2018 – the date unofficially now considered the new holiday of Croatian unity – when 550 000 people greeted the Croatian national team players upon their return home from Russia. Many Croats traveled to Croatia from all corners of the globe for the occasion. Endless rows of people lining the route the open top bus carrying the players to the city centre took from the airport; thousands more congesting the city centre; the players climbing the stage prepared for them in the city center and signing with the crowd; partying on the streets of the capital long into the night – these images were shown all over the world, leaving everyone who saw them emotionally charged and elated. Only the proud Croats can organize a spectacle like that, wrote many foreign newpapers. It was the largest gathering of Croats after John Paul II’s visit to Croatia in 1994 and the most magnificent welcome ever. Zlatko Dalić, Luka Modrić, Danijel Subašić, Mario Mandžukić, Ivan Rakitić, Ante Rebić, Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida, Ivan Strinić, Ivan Perišić, Andrej Kramarić, Šime Vrsaljko, Marcelo Brozović, Marko Pjaca, Milan Badelj, Josip Pivarić, Mateo Kovačić, Vedran Ćorluka and others became new national heroes.
Nine million Croats scattered all across the globe stood as one during and after the World Cup. And the spirit of unity, national pride and hope returned to Croatia, exorcising pessimism and toxic tribalism. This new sense of optimism imbuing the nation could create an avalanche of positive changes. It definitely forces all of us to strive for excellence, demand results from our leaders, walk with our heads held high and never again think of ourselves as small and inconsequential in the scheme of things. God helps those who dare dream big – and then nothing is impossible.
The 21st century does not belong to territorially big countries with large populations – concluded the American professor and diplomat Joseph Nye – but to those who posses soft power, that is, the ability to attract and seduce. Croatia, finally, is beginning to use its soft power, even if it may not be fully aware of it.