Only truly formed as a nation in the midst of early-1990s Yugoslav dissolution and departmentisation, Croatia has defied its turbulent history, geographical dwarfism and cultural reformation in equal measure throughout its formative existence; on both political and sporting fronts. Certainly, an unexpected 1998 World Cup third-place result contributed to this status, as on face value has the global diaspora of its gilded footballing ilk – Luka Modrić, Mario Mandžukić, Ivan Perišić, Ivan Rakitić, Šime Vrsaljiko, Mateo Kovačić and Nicola Kalinić currently included – yet it remains fact that the nation’s international impact is by no means limited to mere fortune or sheer determination. In the week of their draw, alongside previously vanquished English and Spanish contemporaries, in League A’s three-team Group 4 of the revolutionary UEFA Nations League arrangement, after all, there was little complacency demonstrated towards their challenge by media and fans alike in two former World Cup-winning, and socio-economically superior, Western European nations. In exploring their claim for what will be an extremely culturally poignant tournament this summer, hosted in the region that exerted such callous decree over its past governance, we must then delve deeper within the framework of Hrvatski nogometni savez (HNS, or Croatian Football Federation) and Republika Hrvatska itself; immersing ourselves in the very circumstances in which a nationalistically devout population forged its own destiny.
Etched eternally within Croatia’s folklore is the cultural prevalence of nogomet (football), and wider sport; 10% of native Croats recorded as partaking regularly in at least one such form of the national trades, predominantly football, with around 118,000 registered practitioners, but also increasingly tennis, athletics, rowing, swimming, water polo, basketball, handball and any conceivable range of winter sports. For a nation consisting only of the relative land mass of impoverished Togo or desolate Svalbard, featuring a population both in decline and above only the micro nations of Luxembourg, San Marino, Monaco, Andorra and Liechtenstein in terms of Central and Western European nations, and armoured with a nominal GDP inferior to Guatemala, Myanmar and the Dominican Republic, they are certainly unlikely global challengers. Yet while emerging as a truly international economy in the past decade, with particular prowess in its tourist and shipbuilding industries, their sporting representatives have again profited in sustaining competition with their socio-economically superior near neighbours. Since its inception as an Olympic nation, for example, teams under the Croatian flag have achieved 33 summer medals, and, on the verge of the PyeongChang Games, 11 winter medals; five more in the first respect than the renowned sporting fervour of India, one more than the populated ranks of Indonesia and four more than Egypt, and in the latter more than most other temporarily-iced nations other than Australia, the UK and arguably the Netherlands. Little further basic evidence can be employed to assert the conclusion that their sporting programmes are equally well-funded, efficient and sustainable in their common practices.
This was not always the case, however. Formed, unofficially, all the way back in 1907 with the establishment of local clubs and formation of agreed rules, the HNS, as it would become known from 1990, was the product of ethnic oppression and wartime relief. English workers had introduced the sport as early as 1873 – prior even to the formation of all but seven current ’92 club’ teams in England – to large-scale industrial project employees, in much the same vein in which effective unions would have been drawing up designs for their own sporting clubs in the Industrial Revolution’s key metropoles. Subsequently, as the Croat ethnic region was first within Austro-Hungarian Empire borders before World War One, and after the brief respite of partial democracy in the pan-Slavic State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs of late 1918 – in which the national team had the reprise to compete in a selection of internal matches – the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, initially titled the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, until 1941, the nation’s residual footballing verve was tempered by these amalgamated, and culturally unsympathetic, monarchical regimes. If the Karađorđević dynasty’s reign had been oppressive, however, the Yugoslav brand of ethnopolitics would only be further hijacked by dictator Josip Broz Tito after the atrocities – of both human and infrastructural cost – of World War Two’s Nazi occupation, and the civil divisions between Allied-backed Partisans and Nazi-sympathising Chetniks. Committed on both sides to ethnic purges, Tito’s Partisans eventually emerged as the reformist successors to a deposed monarchy by 1945, having already proclaimed power in late 1943 with the democratic intention of asserting each constituent region’s equality, as opposed to preceding Serb dominance. As such, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia assumed totalitarian control of the nation, in comparison with the altogether ineffective power they hosted in pre-war constitutional monarchy circumstances.
Fundamentally, however, Croatia had acted at the forefront of all Yugoslav football prior to this diversion in their political history. The conurbations of Zagreb and Split had acted as ethnically aligned adversaries on a hex-national stage; alone achieving a respective eight and two Yugoslav First League titles from the division’s inception in 1923 to 1940 in the forms of HŠK Građanski Zagreb, Concordia Zagreb, HAŠK Zagreb and Hajduk Split, and hosting the conception of the Football Association of Yugoslavia in 1919 before Zagreb and Split’s regional subassociations soon became the first in the state months later. Yet for all of their domestic expertise, these formative Croats did not achieve international recognition; the members of the Yugoslav 1930 World Cup squad entirely omitting the talents of Hadjuk’s Leo Lemešić, Vladimir Kragić and Ljubo Benčić or indeed Zagreb’s Danijel Premerl, Dragutin Babić and Gustav Lechner after the Croats boycotted the association, which had moved itself to Belgrade a year earlier in a defiant demonstration of Serbian allegiances.
Similarly perturbed by Tito’s regime as Concordia, Građanski and HAŠK were each dissolved and consumed, most prominently in Građanski’s case, by the newly-formed Dinamo Zagreb in 1945, Croatian football had lost both its foremost institutions and genuine autonomous national team; one that had played both four matches as the Banovina of Croatia in 1941, and 15 matches as the Independent State of Croatia between 1942 and ’45. Eventually, the proud nation’s population would not tolerate such cultural oppression, but not decisively until the dictator’s 1980 death. In the preceding period, meanwhile, a first decade of the democratically unified First League featured five Serbs and five Croats in its list of historic champions, while the amalgamation of Zagreb’s various outfits largely benefited their overall competition, considering their triple title accomplishment between 1950 and 1955, while striker Franjo Wölfl starred in Dinamo’s state-fostered exploits. But this compliance is exactly as the socialist regime prised in football; such a fundamental Croatian cultural outlet. Whether they were so perceptive to realise the true gravity of their intervention is debatable, but they certainly valued the reform of the sport upon their true assumption of unargued influence. Manipulation, as also evident in the era on foreign policy as both Soviet and American establishments were pitted against one another by the irrepressible Tito for Yugoslav favour, was a critical aspect of the Eastern European behemoth’s regime, and despite oppressing Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Montenegrins, Bosnians and Macedonians alike, enabled their communal cause to seize with pride a prominent position on the global political table.
After Dinamo reasserted their dominance within the vicinity with a 1957-58 title, and represented the state in only the third ever European Cup competition – although losing in the Preliminary Round to Czechoslovakian opponents Dukla Prague, the state’s dominant Army-backed side – however, Croatian pre-eminence would soon subside dramatically. Previously comprising of three sides, typically, amongst a 12-club First League structure, the internal republic’s struggle would consist on an almost perennial status of the dogged Lokomotiva Zagreb – a formerly minor side in the city before the three key clubs had been amalgamated in 1945 – or later NK Rijeka staving off relegation by a few points during the 1950s. With the advent of the ‘60s, however, entered NSK Split and NK Trešnjevka as divisional Second League champions, and although they both soon returned from whence they came, their fellow Croats were at the time blunted. Throughout the decade’s entire span, not once did they rival the Serb occupation of league silverware – with four Yugoslav Cup scalps comparatively negligible, given the scarcity of national success in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup – as the infamous Red Star-Partizan Belgrade rivalry rose to consume the entire Yugoslav state. 1965-66 and ’66-67 aside, in which the semi-autonomous Serb region of Vojvodina and Bosnia’s FK Sarajevo temporarily swooped, nobody defied the often-violent exchange of authority in the Socialist Federal Republic’s capital. Considering Dinamo’s status more as a challenger often in close proximity, but without true conviction, throughout this era, it was perhaps a surprise than Hajduk would be the first side to break this spell in 1970-71 with 29-year-old talisman Petar Nadoveza’s goals, alongside a productive younger generation in support, firing them to glory; a title that would be followed by a further three, and five consecutive Yugoslav Cups, in the 1970s, controversially in the midst of the 1971 Croatian Spring and ongoing political disputes centred on nationalistic demand, threatening the entire socialist ideology’s continuation. After Tito’s 1980 death, and the increasing national disenfranchisement from Communism, Hajduk’s ambitions were reduced to continental qualification and Dinamo returned to take the 1981-82 title, yet as the inevitable violent dissolution unfolded, Croatian capability yet again took a backseat to the politically frothing Belgrade conflict; often literal, both on and off the pitch.
Upon the eventual ’91 dissolution and nationalistic fragmentation of the state, and the emergence of a generation comprising chiefly of Davor Šuker, Slaven Bilić, Robert Prosinečki, Robert Jarni and Zvonimir Boban, finally Croatia’s talents would be granted a liberated flag and repute under which pride would not have to be fabricated. Emerging from adversity, particularly amidst the 1991-94 Croatian War of Independence, as Serbian forces relentlessly engaged in futile and bitter conflict, the formative nation first took to the international stage in 1996 after, as is now forged in football’s greatest romanticisms, the Yugoslav team that had been ousted at the quarter-final stage of Italia ’90 was removed by UEFA for Euro 1992 and replaced by the eventually victorious Danish, and all post-Yugoslav nations were prohibited from 1994 qualification. Šuker was, of course, one of the main protagonists of the tournament in England that summer, and led his nation’s formative cause to the quarter-final with a characteristic aplomb that would come to typify all future exploits.
The formation of such a heralded nucleus of individuals, of course, was no mere coincidence. Their 1998 World Cup performance, with qualification only earlier assured by one point over Adriatic adversaries Greece in a group coincidentally containing both Bosnia & Herzegovina and Slovenia and in a 3-1 play-off elimination of Ukraine, need not have been astounding had it not been for the social melodrama acting as its catalyst. In a group, again by sheer coincidence, with the tournament’s only other World Cup debutants in Japan and Jamaica, they emerged with six points, only a 1-0 defeat to 1986 victors Argentina and great credit before removing the fearsome Romanians – complete with Steaua București alumni Gheorghe Hagi, Dan Petrescu, Adrian Ilie, Gheorghe Popescu and Ilie Dumitrescu – and menacing, yet ageing, unified Germans from the equation at RO16 and QF stages, with goals on the stroke of half-time pivotal on each occasion. Though no match, even against ten men after Laurent Blanc’s debatable sending-off, for the French in front of 76,000 in Saint-Denis, their resolute 2-1 victory over a Dutch threat cruelly quelled by the Brazilians on semi-final penalties and boasting Messrs Kluivert, Bergkamp, de Boer, Stam, Overmars, Seedorf, Bogarde, van der Sar and David, was nothing short of spectacular.
Former Rijeka, Dinamo and Switzerland boss Miroslav Blažević – intrinsically politically conscious, bespectacled, often with a thinly-rolled cigarette in close supply and typically pictured in one of any two expressions within his capability, sly gregariousness or sage supervision – had performed pragmatic tactical manoeuvres at both tournaments. Upsetting the rhetoric of all 1998 challengers with a form of 3-4-3, or 3-4-2-1 as Šuker formed a trinity ahead of both Prosinečki and Boban, his managerial poise of flexibility and defiance in equal measure in approach to both tactics and squad cohesion forged the national affection he is afforded still to this day. In an age where public unity was nothing without sagacious leadership, and nobody could foresee the future, his ilk was critical to the survival of patriotic order. I sincerely doubt that his squad would have turned on another manager without some of such adeptly held skills – their positions, after all, were as volatile as any in a post-Yugoslav perspective – yet little of the late ‘90s’ acclaim would have been otherwise possible in Blažević’s absence.
Through the turbulence – thankfully only sporting, not political – since, we have observed as external onlookers the limitations and advantages of the HNS programme. Often a given in the analysis of Croatian exploits are the remnants of a characteristic unbounded playing ability; Šuker and Prosinečki, particularly, laying the gauntlet for Ivica Olić, Darijo Srna, Niko Kranjčar and now especially Modrić, who have flourished perhaps not to the same astounding extents, but certainly in the context of their tutelage. As Bilić handed the managerial reigns over to former centre-back partner Igor Štimac, and Šuker assumed the role of HNS president after Vlatko Marković’s death ended a 14-year tenure, after all, a generation of Croatians were entering the fray who were born not as Yugoslavs, but liberated; Vrsaljko, the Austrian-born Kovačić, Ante Rebić and Marcelo Brozović notably amongst their number. Niko Kovač, captain in the mid-to-late 2000s, had perhaps not been afforded the true extent of time it may have required to forge a coherent side during and after the 2014 World Cup after arriving with such expectation, but with the 2015 appointment of well-travelled and acutely experienced Ante Čačić, fortunes were reversed for an emphatic Euro 2016 performance memorably featuring a 2-1 victory against Vicente del Bosque’s seemingly resurgent Spain. And so, with Čačić ejected and Zlatko Dalić recruited to salvage 2018 qualifying from defeats to the Icelandic and Turkish, the eternal conundrum in Croatian culture unfolds; volatility in management equating paradoxically to continued international prowess.
It appears only as natural as the glistening aqua and picturesque orange-hued rooftops of the resorts’ coastline that the Adriatic jewel should possess such a volatile and hypercritical managerial environment. Not least for a throne as gilded in heretics as the HNS hot seat, a definitive aura must exude of overt suitability prior to recruitment, and for this to also prove a discontinuing factor to a prospective tenure only 18 months down the line can only strike the British observer as hypocritical, and forsaken only to regress. Yet this culture can also act in many beneficial manners, certainly if we cast aside such aforementioned cynicisms. Balkan cultural perspective is entirely askew in comparison with its British contemporary, and insofar as ten qualifications from twelve preliminary campaigns – resulting in a status since 1994 as Europe’s seventh best, and highest non-World Cup or European Championship winning, qualifiers, following Italy and the Netherlands’ recent mishaps – can communicate, their interpretation has enabled various generations to progress and attain tangible ambitions on a stable and prestigious foothold.
That attainment, however, has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. Only escaping the Group Stage of two tournaments since ’98 in a nervy quarter-final penalty defeat to Turkey in 2008 and similarly late RO16 exit in extra time against eventual tournament victors Portugal in 2016, national ability, many argue, cannot now sustain a reputation on glories twenty years entrenched in history. Sooner or later, the sentiment continues, a rousing consistency must be achieved in the unenviable and entirely incomparable environment of tournament football. Preferably, this would materialise in Russia, and in response the HNS has, on face value, changed tact decisively. In the midst of a largely creditable eleven-year spell that consisted entirely of former Vatreni representatives in Zlatko Kranjčar, Bilić, Štimac and Kovač’s respective regimes, Šuker, as president, evidently took an intervening stance that can differ in its popular interpretations. In selecting Čačić – a 30-year veteran of Croatian football, solely from a coaching perspective – and more recently Dalić – a Hajduk product who only ever made nine senior league matches before plying the majority of his trade with mid-table Varteks – he has not only demonstrated that he prefers polysyllabic, accented surnames, but that the previously fundamental experience offered by such eminent former playing figures is no longer relevant in a brave move to shirk his clique of ex-teammates. Alternatively, it could be interpreted as a form of retreat in the gradual ageing of what some observe as a second ‘golden generation’, approaching coaches more akin to Blažević; an uninspiring player never amounting to Yugoslav representation at the turn of the 1960s, and under whom he personally had so much fulfilment. Either way, this is perhaps the last chance of Šuker’s hand available prior to the irretrievable expiration of 32-year-old Modrić, 28-year-olds Perišić and Domagoj Vida, 29-year-old Rakitić, 31-year-old Mandžukić, 30-year old Kalinić and 33-year-old Danijel Subašić’s viable international careers; a proposition only exacerbated by 2016’s departure of the 134-time capped Srna.
These are by no means weaning talents at present, but in impending years their powers could rapidly diminish. Resistance, as the adage goes, is futile and the regrets insurmountable if the HNS governance proves itself incapable of accomplishing something special with such superfluous ingenuity, guile and composure. If not then able to arrest this regression, the only logical solution is to entrust a potentially final regime and reform with their aspirations. Yet if employing the other relevant modern circumstances of the Vatreni, the expectations cannot be for Dalić to prolong his tenure beyond 18 months and establish a significant rapport with the aforementioned senior players, especially considering the limited exposure international managers are granted with their squad. Thus, former Rijeka, Al-Hilal and Al-Ain boss Dalić must attempt to convert the momentum already established from a 2-0 qualifying win over Ukraine and subsequent 4-1 play-off demolition of Greece into serious intent, and harness the confidence seething from his La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga-based patrons. Posing them in Kaliningrad, Nizhny Novgorod and Rostov-on-Don this summer, after all, are Nigeria, Argentina, and by a curious twist of fate Iceland, respectively; the former duo arguably the continental subsidiaries to regional kingpins Egypt and Brazil, while the latter has little fear in imposing its influence on an unprecedented environment.
In many respects, Šuker’s decision has been admirable. Certainly, the nation’s focus cannot any longer be on recapturing the spirit of ’98, but instead forging their own destiny without such a burdensome shadow cast over their efforts. The appointment of Olić, the nation’s first tri-league victor after titles with Dinamo, CSKA Moscow and Bayern Munich, as well as a veteran of the side that condemned Steve McLaren to the sack in 2007, as assistant counterbalances this pursuit of a less institutionalised, and perhaps less emotionally attached, managerial future. Whether such a balance can produce the desired results is entirely shrouded in secrecy at this stage. But the building blocks are in place.
Amongst a diaspora of coaching ability that has comprised England, Italy, Germany, Poland, Turkey, Greece and Belgium this season – to title-bound extents in both Poland and Belgium, it must be noted, in the form of a tussle between Romeo Jozak’s Legia Warsaw and Nenad Bjelica’s Lech Poznan, and Ivan Leko’s Club Brugge – is an array of former national team players and career coaches that many nations would greatly prise. Bilić and Kovač aside, none of the remaining seven in these domestic top-flight competitions alone have been Vatreni boss before, and when supported by the products of their native First Football League, where presently eight of ten managers are indeed Croats and the Dinamo-Hajduk rivalry is fully alive under the stewardship of 42-year-old Mario Cvitanović and 40-year-old Željko Kopić, poetically a former international and bit-part player respectively, the HNS’s coaching programme has good reason to believe its values are currently effective. Removing the burden of inevitable national team management for former players with the progression of a vast array of such coaches, and finally carving out a systematic Croatian footballing identity over the past two decades, fundamental aspects have been positioned to keep pace with larger and more materially privileged nations.
Finally also transferring this coherency to youth squads, the HNS programme has in its sights a first European Under-21 Championships qualification since 2004 with their current diverse and prodigious 2019-bound squad under the tutelage of highly experienced boss Nenad Gračan – forward Josip Brekalo a particular beneficiary of this system. Although by no means a pre-requisite to future exploits, the sheer presence of these factors should at least assure a viable, and perhaps brighter, future with a much greater diversity of talent within the hallowed senior ranks. Not that this will be of particular short-term solace to the Croatian public if a Modrić-led vanguard do not dispose of doggedly persistent Icelandic opposition or a hopeful, but altogether inexperienced, Nigerian generation in Group D this summer, before potentially presenting nigh-on certain Group C victors France with a considerable RO16 challenge. This is the very least expected of a regiment of such blatant ability, and captures every intrinsic demand of the minor Balkan state. They may be grateful, to an extent, for the opportunity and exposure, but by no means see it as anything but a cultural entitlement. And who can resent them for it? A nation with its ardent population universally dispersed, and equally with grand designs to exploit this; what better formula for footballing theatre? On the inherently profound scale of the World Cup, none that I know of…
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!