For the 4 million citizens of Croatia, soccer is an essential part of their culture and history. After gaining independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the tiny Slavic nation qualified to play their first FIFA World Cup in 1998. The Croats managed to surpass all expectations to earn the bronze medal in the tournament, losing 2-1 in the semi-finals to the eventual winners, France. Midfielder Davor Suker managed to win the Golden Boot, the award for scoring the highest number of goals in the tournament. The team was hailed as Croatia’s golden generation and managed to form a source of inspiration not only to the country recovering from the horrors of Balkan War but also to the young soccer players at the time. Now, 20 years later, many of those young players have a chance to earn soccer’s biggest prize, as Croatia plays France in the final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Moscow, Russia.
Croatia’s passion towards soccer is depicted in the love-hate relationship it has with the beautiful game. During the collapse of Yugoslavia, the popularity of soccer soared as people found a safe way to express their nationalist feelings during the course of matches. In 1990, when Red Star Belgrade of Serbia traveled to Zagreb to face Dinamo Zagreb, the best team in Croatia’s biggest city, the encounter had to be canceled as a result of riots that saw Dinamo players join in to aid their fans. The ‘match that was never played’ changed the face of Croatian soccer, as it found a foothold in the hearts of its citizens to express national pride and purpose.
Croatia is also, arguably, one the most corrupted countries in Eastern Europe. The corruption has precipitated into soccer as well, with recent scandals rocking the status of various clubs that are near and dear to their fans. Zdravko Mamic, once the most influential figure in Croatian soccer, was recently convicted of tax fraud and embezzlement during his time as the president of Dinamo Zagreb. He was charged with siphoning millions of dollars during the high profile transfer of Luka Modric and Dejan Lovren, two players who constitute Croatia’s current squad and are pivotal to their success. As millions of Croats prepare to cheer their team during the final, they also hope that world cup success can wipe away the negative limelight that such scandals have garnered for Croatian soccer.
On paper, France undoubtedly has the stronger team. Croatia’s mental exhaustion is also palpable, having played an extra 90 minutes’ at the tournament. Nonetheless, their resilience and determination echo in the fact that they came back from behind to win four of their matches, and also managed to win two penalties in a row. A lot rests on the captain of the Croatian team, Luka Modric. He was recently charged with changing his testimony to favor Mamic during the investigation. If found guilty of perjury, he could face 5 years in prison. Under such immense pressure, he has still managed to carry the nation on his shoulder to the finals. Winning the world cup would give him an opportunity to salvage his relationship with the Croatian public.
Although Croatia became a part of the European Union (EU) in 2013, the country still suffers from youth unemployment, emigration, and an aging population. Under such circumstances, a world cup win would give their citizens the biggest gift since independence. Its journey to the finals has portrayed the complicated tale of a nation’s willingness to succeed despite reigns of chaos, corruption, and war. Despite the talent, motivation and hard work of their players, it’s Croatia’s undying passion for the game that holds the key to winning the World Cup.