A nation on fire: how politics and sports intersect in Croatia5 min read

Tamara Novel
In Croatian history, football and politics have always been strictly intertwined. The Russian World Cup has not lacked scandals or prominent figures profiting (or not) from their positions. However, there is only one group of people to thank for the inconceivable result that Croatia achieved: the Croatian national team, or the Vatreni (“On fire” as they have been dubbed by the people). They not only brought Croatia to the final game, but also helped give international recognition to their small homeland.

On the 15th of July at the Luzniki stadium in Moscow, Croatia set out to achieve the impossible and win the World Cup. While losing 4-2 against France caused many tears to be shed, the Croatian team, the Vatreni still got to bring the silver medal back home.

Vatreni mania

It is at first surprising that such a small country, unknown to most foreigners, managed to find 22 extraordinary players. However, it comes as no surprise that they made the whole nation laugh and cry with them. The Vatreni mania, which exploded during the World Cup, showed once again how patriotism and football are strictly intertwined in the Croatian national consciousness.  

With the topic on everyone’s lips being the championship, showing your Croatianess was a must during the World Cup. This feeling was intensified by the fact that radio and newspapers were covering every little twist and turn of the games. All major cities – Zagreb above all – were covered in flags. And no matter where you went, new songs cheering on Croatia were being sung on the street. Nek jače kuca to, srce vatreno (“let it pound harder, that fiery heart”) was part of the chorus of one of the most popular songs that went viral.

The creation of a nation

The relationship between Croatian national consciousness and football is something that has been present throughout the nation’s history. For some, this sport is even connected to the creation of the Croatian nation itself. In 1990 a game between Dinamo Zagreb and Crvena Zvezda from Belgrad turned violent. By some Croats this was later seen as the spark that caused the Yugoslav war to break out on the Balkan peninsula in 1991.

Supporters of Crvena Zvezda started provoking the Dinamo supporters by chanting, “Zagreb is Serbia”. Very soon the situation escalated and the stadium turned into a riot that spilled out onto the streets. While the police successfully managed to stop the violence within an hour, for some this event represents the prelude to the Croatian fight for independence.

After the war, the first President of the newly established Croatian nation, Franjo Tuđman, became known for connecting the sport with his nationalistic politics. During his whole mandate, he used football as a means to distinguish Croatia from the newly created states of the former Yugoslavia. In 1998, as the Croatian National Team managed to place itself third in the World Cup, Tuđman even became known as the “father of our national team”.

A new era

Today we live in a completely different era. Nonetheless, scandals exist. At the beginning of June this year, Zdravko Mamić, the former Chief Executive of Dinamo Zagreb and a very influential figure in Croatian football, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for transfer fraud connected to some major Croatian players and influential international teams.

However, Mamić managed to escape to Bosnia and Herzegovina, stating that he won’t return to Croatia. The now world famous captain of the national team, Luka Modrić, is one of the players being accused of false testimony during the Mamić trial, which means that he will have to face trial by perjury. This scandal put a sour note on the figure of Luka Modrić, the winner of the World Cup Golden Ball. Modrić continues to be a divisive figure in the country, as his traumatic childhood experiences during the Balkan War win some people’s hearts while the looming scandals sway other people’s consciousness.

Being in the spotlight hasn’t prevented the country from linking sports and politics. During the World Cup, two videos of the defender, Domagoj Vida, shouting “Glory to Ukraine” were posted on the Internet, a very divisive statement to make while playing in Russia. This costed the former player of Dinamo Kiev a warning from FIFA. He and Croatia also had to give a formal apology to the host country.

Politics strikes again

A political figure that undoubtedly profited from Croatia’s excellent position in the championship was the country’s president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. Friendly and cheerful, she presented herself as the ultimate Croatia supporter during the games. When Croatia lost, she proudly walked to the podium hand in hand with the French president Emmanuel Macron, where she cried and hugged the players. As a gift, she also handed over a Croatian team t-shirt with “Putin 9” on it to the Russian president and the host of the games. All of this comes amid claims by critics that Kitarović’s enthusiasm may simply be a political move to improve her popularity prior to the 2019 Croatian presidential elections.

Despite the scandals and the continuous links to politics, this year’s World Cup showed that a small and relatively unknown country like Croatia can beat the most renowned of world teams. This championship brought immense visibility to the country; during as well as after the cup ended, “Croatia” has been googled more than 60 billion times, while the main tourist web page increased its traffic by the 200%.

Football, politics and scandals will most likely continue to be deeply intertwined in Croatia for years to come. Two days after the final the Croatian players, now national heroes, were greeted on the main square of Zagreb by almost 600 000 people. While Croatia rallied around their team’s success, it is difficult to know if the recent scandals and politics will serve as a divider or if it will unite the country. Once the celebrations have died down, it will hang upon the Croatian people and state to decide the proper route to take in its corruption cases and international politics – and whether or not it drags football down with it.

Tamara Novel is a half Italian and half Croatian student. She is currently specializing in Central Europe and is studying Polish. She is also passionate about Balkans’ history and culture. Tamara’s interests include international relations, politics and cultural perspectives. She holds a BA in International Relations and Diplomacy from Italy.