Croatia’s World Cup Success Is No Fluke

Franjo Tudjman, the nationalist leader at the head of the independence drive, used the soccer fan organizations' radicalism to drive his message and soccer itself to acquire legitimacy for an increasingly independent Croatia. In October 1990, a game between a selection of Croat players and the US national team was seen as the secessionists' major diplomatic success. Athletes, including soccer players, continued serving as Tudjman's informal ambassadors throughout the ensuing war. And once it was won (nationalist soccer fans, of course, had been among the first to volunteer), Tudjman - who proclaimed that "after war, sport is the first thing by which you can distinguish nations" - continued attaching major importance to soccer.

In 1998, when Croatia, unexpectedly for all but its diehard fans, won third place in the World Cup, Boban, the team captain and national hero, praised Tudjman as "father of all things we Croats love, also the father of our national team." Tudjman centralised soccer governance and sometimes would even interfere in coaching decisions; to him, soccer was a weapon and a tool for building a national identity for domestic consumption and for a world that wasn't particularly interested in distinguishing between "former Yugoslav" states.

Tudjman died in 1999, but his state-building project was successful enough eventually to get Croatia into the European Union (it acceded in 2013). Still, the country was and remains no stranger to post-Communist corruption, and in recent years, much of the Croatian soccer story has been about graft. In early June, Zdravko Mamic, former chief executive of Dinamo Zagreb and the unofficial boss of Croatian soccer, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison for diverting some $18 million from players' transfer fees. Dinamo sold its top players, including Luka Modric, the star of the current national team, through an agency run by Mamic and his brother.

Mamic fled to Bosnia, which doesn't have an extradition treaty with Croatia. Modric is accused of perjuring himself during the Mamic trial, at which his testimony could have helped the soccer boss. Another Croatia star, Andrej Kramaric, refused to sign a contract like Modric's, according to which Mamic's agency would have been entitled to part of his transfer fees. The fans, who have waged a war in recent years to end corruption in Croatian soccer and get more of a say in how the clubs are run, again are at the forefront of a political battle - this time against Croatia's crony capitalism; to them Kramaric is a hero and Modric is a traitor.

Indirectly, the corruption in Croatian soccer may have contributed to the current national team's strength. Almost all of its members play for elite European clubs; it's been in Croatian club bosses' interest to sell them off at the best price rather than to retain them, and the players ended up getting varied experience in Europe's top soccer leagues. Today, they are confident pros without any inferiority complexes linked to their country's size.

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Croatia’s World Cup Success Is No Fluke

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Croatia’s World Cup Success Is No Fluke