June 2015: A ‘swastika’ appears on the turf during Croatia’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy at the Poljud Stadium in Split, a match already being played behind closed doors due to previous crowd trouble.
June 2016: At the Euro, Croatia supporters punch each other in the stands and throw more than a dozen flares on the Saint-Etienne ground, with their team leading 2-1 against the Czech Republic.
June 2017: Hajduk Split fans chant “Luka Modric, you little sh*t” as banners appear in Croatia, including one in front of the hotel where the Modric family lived as war refugees in the 1990s, warning “Luka, you will remember this one day”.
Dismissed as hooliganism or glorified as a crusade against corruption, the numerous acts of passion in recent years from Croatian fans speak of their resentment of the federation, and alienation from the national team. The situation came to a head when they were seemingly betrayed by their best player.
Modric had led Croatia to a 90th-minute defeat to Iceland in a World Cup qualifier, but the coup de grace came two days later in court when he changed his testimony in the corruption trial of his mentor and public enemy No. 1 — Zdravko Mamic. The former chief executive of Dinamo Zagreb and vice-president of the Croatian Football Federation faces a six-and-a-half year prison sentence for corruption and fraud, including alleged ill-gotten gains from transfers of Modric from Dinamo to Tottenham in 2008 and Dejan Lovren to Lyon in 2010. Modric, a key witness, instead testified in favour of Mamic, and now faces perjury charges himself.
The changed testimony enraged fans, who defaced various murals and branded Modric ‘Mamic’s wh*re’. Add to that the stuttering qualification campaign which saw a drab win over Kosovo, a loss to Turkey and a draw against Finland and prominent fan groups were calling on Croatia to forfeit the all-important last tie against Ukraine and “allow themselves to hit rock bottom as a way to protest the situation.”
Croatia qualified, though negative emotions for its captain remained. Telesport columnist Juraj Vrdoljak told BBC: “A friend called me straight after the Denmark match. He said: ‘When Modric missed that penalty, for a second I thought: there is a God’.”
And then, in a case of divine comedy, Modric carried his team to the World Cup final and finished as the best player of the tournament; the pantomime villain turned a tragic anti-hero. It is through this dichotomy that Croatia’s runners-up finish contrasts with the third-placed class of 1998.
Olivera Peroli Zodan, executive of the Croatian professional footballers association HUNS, praises the team for its “magnificent success” and for “fighting like lions in every game”, but said she “would not compare this year’s tournament with the one in 1998.”
“1998 was post-war year in Croatia. We were a small and young country. Many did not even know on which continent Croatia is,” Zodan told The Indian Express. “And then that same Croatia wins bronze medal on the Mundial. That was our first and biggest success, that team united Croatians around the world. They were and still are our heroes, our golden generation and at that time they got a new nickname: Vatreni (‘the fiery ones’ in Croatian).”
The nationalistic fire was embodied by the 10 Croatian first division players that made up that unheralded squad in France. In Russia, there were two, and only one — Rijeka’s Filip Bradaric — got to play a game. If the 1998 team was X-Men, upstarts unified by a common belief and desire to earn recognition, 2018’s finalists are the Avengers, a group of mercenaries brought together to achieve a specific goal. A team brimming with first-division players from major European leagues — including Modric and Lovren who lined up against each other in May’s Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool — speaks of Croatia’s obvious, exportable talent, but also hints at the languishing domestic game back home.
Ivan Zezelj, a journalist with the Sportarena website, doesn’t mince his words.
“State of the local football in Croatia is completely opposite to the national team’s,” Zezelj says. “There are only three or four clubs which have excellent facilities. There is no money in Croatian First Division, and every year we lose approximately one club because of financial crunch.”
By the time Christmas rolled around last year, many Istra 1961 players who’d had their fill of empty promises and no salary had jumped ship. Those who remained at the Pula-based club stared at barren trees and empty stockings. In true holiday spirit, rival footballers from Dinamo Zagreb came together and raised 2000-3000 kuna (Rs 20,000-30,000) for each of their colleagues, some of whom hadn’t been paid for seven months.
“I think it is not normal that someone who is doing their job honestly has to be hungry and has no basic living conditions,” Dinamo captain Arijan Ademi reasoned at the time. “The least we can do at this point is to give to our colleagues and friends from Istra 1961 and give their families a chance to spend the holidays with dignity.”
Christmas saved, but the season was another story. The club didn’t have the money to book accommodation for outstation players in the tourist-ravaged city. As a result, while the nine other teams of the Croatian Premier League remained buried in winter training, relegation-battling Istra could only begin in early February. Asking the club to “give the players somewhere they could eat twice a day,” captain Adrian Ademi said: “Sponsors cannot give money to a private club account, and people who could help couldn’t send money to a blocked account.”
According to a 2013 report published by HUNS, 58 players from the country’s first league have blocked bank accounts, with less than half of the clubs paying their players according to schedule. The average delay in payment is six months. The numbers, by all accounts, have only grown since.
Professional footballers in Croatia are ‘self-employed entrepreneurs’, and obliged to pay their own taxes, healthcare and pension contributions, regardless of whether their clubs pay them or not.
HUNS Secretary General Mario Juric told reporters: “People in Croatia are convinced that footballers live a life of luxury. It is based on an exceptionally low number of successful individuals. It is not because we’ve chosen this profession that we were predestined to get a BMW or a Mercedes. That comes as a consequence of very hard work. Yes, if you look at our contracts we do live better than an average Croatian. However those contracts are often just a dead letter.”
FC Karlovac, Varazdin and Sesvete are the three half-century old clubs to go bankrupt in recent seasons. Karlovac and Varazdin couldn’t pay their players for 11 months, while Sesvete defaulted for 14, prompting midfielder Mario Cizmek to find respite in match-fixing. Cizmek, a veteran of 16 years, became one of 24 players sanctioned for manipulating games in 2010, after he took up a 2500-kuna offer from an acquaintance to repay mounting debt.
“It is hard to describe how I felt when I intentionally missed the ball for the first time, as if I was spitting on my entire career,” Cizmek, who was sentenced for 10 months in prison and banned for life, said. “But when you are drowning, you try to clutch at straws in the end. You think it will only be that one game. Then one turns into six.”
According to Zezelj, “most Croatian clubs survive by selling their top players at the end of the season.” Istra, meanwhile, had to borrow players to stay eligible for competition. American businessman Michael Glover, who bought the club in 2015 only to lose interest in it, put it up for sale. “He would not dare to come here,” on-loan midfielder Aljosa Vojnovic warned. “If fans get information that he is in Pula, they would be looking for him in the city, and he would never appear again.”
After being rescued by wealthy Croatian entrepreneur Danko Koncar, Istra 1961 survived relegation, and possible dissolution, by winning a two-game playoff. But without focus and grassroots investment from the federation, they are bound to run the gamut again.
The domestic game remains divided between 1998 teammates and Croatian greats Davor Suker and Dario Simic — the former, president of the national federation, is perceived as a puppet due to his proximity to Mamic; the latter, president of the players association, has lost faith “in his friend and idol” and mounted a failed challenge to replace Suker last November.
The powers-that-be have already made their intentions clear, with a proposal to use the $28mn prize money to build a swanky, 40,000-capacity stadium. Veteran journalist Aleksandar Holiga bursts that bubble in his column for the Guardian best.
“Much more than a flashy five-star stadium where its leaders, football and otherwise, will come to flaunt their fandom and shake hands with their colleagues from other countries, it needs investment in infrastructure, education and grassroots. It needs pitches and coaches across the country and a plan on how to harness its evidently extraordinary deep pool of talent. It needs to ensure that the Modrics and Lovrens of tomorrow can come through without first having to sell their soul to the likes of Zdravko Mamic.”
July 2018: A crowd estimated at more than 100,000 thronged the capital’s main square to see the players, led by captain and Golden Ball winner Modric, parade through the streets on an open-top bus. “This is how Croatia is loved,” read one banner. Another said: “We are few, but we believed and that is enough”. Some 267km away, Koncar has sent out an invitation for possible partners for Istra 1961.