Croatia has gone mad. World Cup fever has turned the country into a carnival.
Among the viral videos of fans celebrating, there is one that perfectly captures the hysteria. After the national team's victory over England in the semi-final, a man was filmed tossing his couch out of an apartment window and dancing like an orangutan. The following morning, more than half of Croatia's cabinet turned up to government buildings in the red-and-white-chequered replica jerseys of their team (over their tops). But at least they made it to work.
"I think half the population didn't show up for work on the morning after the win against England," says Juraj Vrdoljak, a journalist with Croatian website Telesport. "There is a general good feeling about the World Cup. You have stores closing earlier because of the games. Croatia is a country with a deep economic crisis. Every day, life is really hard. It's full of bad stories and tough times. There is a lot of poverty. A lot of people are emigrating. I can understand why people are even more ecstatic than you'd expect. It's a form of escapism."
The country has fallen in love with its footballing sons: Danijel Subasic, a penalty-saving hero who seems to be playing the latter stages of the tournament on one leg; Domagoj Vida, a rock in defence and a joker beloved by his teammates; the Swiss-born star Ivan Rakitic, who will play his 71st match this season—more than any other top-flight player in the world, per COPE (h/t Mundo Deportivo)—in the final; Mario Mandzukic, the guy who scored the extra-time winner against England and paid for his hometown to drink beer during the game against Russia; and, above all, the team's midfield general and captain, Luka Modric.
It is Modric, however, who embodies the mixed emotions some Croatia fans have felt as their national team has battled its way to the FIFA World Cup final. He is sublime on the pitch—arguably the greatest midfielder in the world—but off it, he is embroiled in one of Croatia's most high-profile court cases because of an association with his old mentor, Zdravko Mamic.
In June, Mamic—the most powerful man in Croatian football for over a decade—was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison for corruption and tax fraud. He fled before being jailed. He's holed up in Bosnia and Herzegovina, having avoided extradition. The world's media has homed in on his ties to Croatia's president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, as he funded her election campaign and once paid to host a birthday party for her.
Part of Mamic's case hinged on the illegal profits he made from the Dinamo Zagreb transfers of Modric to Tottenham Hotspur in 2008 and Dejan Lovren to Lyon in 2010. During Mamic's trial, Modric's testimony differed to evidence he gave to state prosecutors in earlier questioning, which has landed Modric with a charge of perjury—a crime that carries the threat of a five-year prison sentence. His trial is due to start after the World Cup.
Several more senior figures in Croatian football with links to Mamic are in the dock. Damir Vrbanovic, executive director of the Croatian Football Association, was also sentenced to three years in prison for his part in Mamic's corruption case. Vrbanovic is appealing the verdict.
"Vrbanovic was like Mamic's lieutenant at Dinamo Zagreb football club," says Gordan Duhacek, a journalist with Croatian news website Index. "There's a meme going around Twitter where you can see the Croatian president celebrating the victory against Russia in a VIP box. One metre away from her on this meme is Vrbanovic...a high-ranking official of the Croatian Football Association. It's typical for Croatia, which has a really big problem with corruption. Even something that is considered to be a sanctified institution like the national team also has a whiff of corruption in the background."
The scale of the fiddling has left some fans despondent. "As bizarre as it sounds, Croatia is on track to becoming an unloved champion in its own country," Vrdoljak says. "I have a friend who used to travel as a fan to away games with Croatia. He was really passionate about supporting them. He phoned me and he said, 'I'm not really angry anymore. I'm just terribly sad because I feel nothing. I cannot embrace this achievement.' To have a situation like that when somebody who used to be an avid supporter of the national team calls you and tells he's 'empty' and we are in the final. It's not normal."
Dario Brentin, an academic at the University of Graz who specialises in the study of Balkan sports and politics, is also a seasoned fan. He has travelled to see about 20 Croatia national team games over the past decade. He urges proportion, making the distinction between a minority of disillusioned football diehards in the country and the majority of freeloading Croatian patriots who are enjoying an unexpected footballing party.
"You have to differentiate between ordinary fans and organised football fans," Brentin says. "They're not the same group of people. How do you define fandom? Is a fan only a person who goes to a game every week and who decides to support the national team as well? Or is a fan someone who only supports the national team every two or four years? There is often a judgment made as to which fan is more valid.
"There was certainly scepticism before the World Cup started about Croatia's chances. There was quite widespread indifference. This feeling was always going to erode once success arrived. That's the difference in fandom. The people who are now gathering in the main square in Zagreb are not football fans in the critical sense. They're ordinary Croatian people who want to support the national team.
"There are also people who have been fighting for years and years for the Croatian Football Association to become more democratised, for Croatian football to be run in a different way. Of course they're going to be frustrated now. Their position is jeopardised—because the power-holders are getting huge amounts of capital—so they know their struggle is only going to get tougher. [The diehard fans have] been demonised for years. At times, they've used a repertoire of inexcusable tools, ranging from violence to the swastika on the pitch in Split in 2015, to interrupting the game against Italy at the San Siro a year earlier.
"They don't have an easy standing. This has slightly changed over the past two years, when there have been more cases of corruption brought to trial. Zdravko Mamic becoming even more toxic as a person. People being fed up by the politicisation of the Croatian FA. Now this is all in danger of being swept beneath the rug. Suddenly, everyone is happy. We all know the issues aren't going away because there is success. The issues are here to stay. I don't dare to think what will happen if Croatia wins the thing."
Croatia have been here before. In 1998, the country, which was only seven years old after the breakup of Yugoslavia, experienced an extraordinary adventure. Playing in their first FIFA World Cup finals, Croatia reached the semi-finals in France, losing 2-1 to the host nation and eventual winners—a team captained by France manager Didier Deschamps.
"In 1998, it was a post-war time in Croatia," Duhacek says. "Three years earlier, the war ended. There was a different mood in Croatia. The mood was: the war was over. It was terrible. Now we can start building this country to be a liveable place. The whole story in 1998 was part of this narrative of Croatia having a bright future.
"Before the World Cup started, the general mood in Croatia was terrible. Croatia had an economic crisis that lasted six years—one of the longest in Europe. Then after Croatia became a part of the European Union, hundreds of thousands of Croatians started moving out, mostly to Ireland and Germany. There was a feeling that Croatia as a state project had kind of failed its citizens.
"This World Cup euphoria comes from a different place. One month ago, most people in Croatia were saying that Croatia doesn't make sense. We've failed. We're leaving, if we can. These victories at the World Cup have really turned around this atmosphere in the country, but there is still scepticism about how the politicians are able to use this new energy for the benefit of the country and the citizens."
Davor Suker, who won the then-Golden Shoe as leading scorer at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, is the president of the Croatian Football Association. He too is a tainted figure in Croatia because of his connections to Mamic and divides opinion among fans. According to Duhacek, Croatians have more respect for Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban, Suker's old teammates from the 1998 national team.
Suker, Prosinecki, Boban and the country's golden generation from the 1990s missed out on playing in the finals of 1992's UEFA European Championship with a crack outfit because the former Yugoslavia was torn apart by war and was disqualified from entering a team. They ceded their place to Denmark, who went on to become unlikely tournament winners.
At times in this year's World Cup in Russia, Croatia have seemed ramshackle. They sent striker Nikola Kalinic home because he allegedly wouldn't go on as a substitute against Nigeria in a group game. "What must he be thinking now?" Duhacek asks rhetorically. Vida was dragged into controversy for his part in pro-Ukraine social media videos after the game against Russia.
The team's key players must be exhausted; each of Croatia's games in the knockout stages has gone into extra time. They face the might of Kylian Mbappe and France in the final as underdogs. Could the Croats—whose team is drawn from a population of a little more than 4 million people—possibly emulate Denmark's achievement in 1992?
Brentin makes a comparison with a former Croat tennis player: "It would be like Goran Ivanisevic winning Wimbledon in 2001. He won as a wild-card entry. He was ranked 125th. He lost three finals before. He had hardly played for two years, and then he wins Wimbledon. It was the craziest of stories. Maybe something like it will happen again."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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