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More than just a game: Croatia’s run to final has revived national pride

Croatia celebrates after scoring against England in the semi-final. (Photo: Reuters)Croatia’s achievement in reaching the finals of the World Cup has revived national pride in the team which for more than a quarter of a century has played a crucial role in the young nation’s identity.A late goal from striker Mario Mandzukic helped Croatia overcome England with a 2-1 victory here on Wednesday to enter the final of the FIFA World Cup for the first time.Mandzukic scored in the 109th minute to give Croatia the winning goal after Ivan Perisic (68th minute) cancelled out Kieran Trippier’s goal for England in the fifth minute from a free-kick.
ALSO READ: England are coming home! Croatia to play France in the 2018 World Cup finalMiroslav Ciro Blazevic, who was the coach when Croatia played its first World Cup as an independent nation in 1998, told AFP Croats had “found themselves” in football.The stadiums were “becoming places to express opposition to the regime,” said Loic Tregoures, the French author of a political thesis on the subject of football and national identity in the former Yugoslavia.The phenomenon was especially prevalent in Croatia where people came to football matches to express a “Croat nationalism that was repressed” elsewhere, Tregoures told AFP.The rivalry between the republic’s two main clubs — Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb — has remained but they “stand together ” against Serbian teams, he said.1990: Impending collapseDinamo’s captain, the then 21-year Zvonimir Boban, watched as a home fan was brutally beaten by police.Boban knocked the policeman down with a kung-fu kick, allowing the fan to escape. For Croatians, the scene was highly symbolic, but there were other incidents in the year before Croatia’s 1991-1995 independence war with rebel Serbs backed by Belgrade.Just one week after that game, Croatia’s pro-independence parties won the first multi-party elections in Yugoslavia, fuelling ethnic tensions between Zagreb and Belgrade, which was opposed to the country’s break-up.The captain of the Yugoslavia team, Faruk Hadzibegic, strongly supported keeping Yugoslavia intact. But on June 3, during a pre-1990 World Cup friendly against the Netherlands, he realised that the whistling at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb was actually aimed at his team.Croatia’s pro-independence nationalist leader Franjo Tudjman, a big football fan, had been elected president of what was still the Yugoslav republic only three days earlier. On September 26, a match between Partizan Belgrade and Hajduk Split was interrupted as home fans waving Croatia’s checkerboard flag invaded the pitch and Partizan players fled.Yugoslavia’s flag was set on fire — local media called it “The day when Yugoslavia died”.The following month, Croatia secretly organised what is considered the first match of their national team.“Croats lied to FIFA, saying that it was a team of Yugoslav players who would be playing,” said Tregoures. But their red-and-white jerseys did not fool anyone — Croatia beat the United States 2-1 in Zagreb and confirmed its players were breaking away from the Yugoslav side.Post-war national affirmation The then coach, Miroslav Ciro Blazevic, who was close to Tudjman, said “no nation identifies itself with the football team as much as Croatia.” “There are not many things in which we can compare ourselves to countries that are wealthier and have bigger populations,” Blazevic, a still vital 83-year-old, told AFP. “So we’ve ‘found ourselves’ in football.” – Waning prideFans claim Mamic, now on the run in Bosnia after being sentenced to jail for multi-million-euro corruption, was abusing football for his personal gain. Croatia’s economy, hit hard by the war and fraudulent privatisations in the 1990s, was struggling.The country of 4.2 million joined the European Union in 2013.“Croats are now sure about their borders, sure about their strength — we are no longer in the Tudjman era,” Tregoures said.The fans gained a reputation for violence — there were incidents during Euro 2016 in France.They also took to making ultra-nationalist chants. In June 2015, fans painted a swastika on the pitch in Split ahead of the Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy.World Cup lifts spiritsCroatia beats England in Semi-finalsCroatia beats England in Semi-finalsRobert Prosinecki, a member of the 1998 squad, said Croatians need a “bit of happiness to come together again, to cheer, to let ourselves feel euphoria and be united.”In Zagreb, fans cheer like at any other match in the world. But on Sunday, when Croatia beat Denmark on penalties, they chanted the name of retired general Ante Gotovina, seen by many Croatians as a hero of the independence war.
Source: Business Standard