24 March 2019
Fans cheer the Croatian team during a World Cup match. Croatian footballers have won a lot of respect and admiration for their dogged perseverance and 'won't quit' spirit. Photo: Bloomberg
Fans cheer the Croatian team during a World Cup match. Croatian footballers have won a lot of respect and admiration for their dogged perseverance and 'won't quit' spirit. Photo: Bloomberg

Croatia: How a small country can achieve big things

After 20 years, France once again took the World Cup on Sunday.

However, the Croatian team, the losing side, also won lots of respect and admiration from soccer fans around the world with its dogged perseverance and “won’t quit” spirit on the pitch.

In fact throughout the tournament, Croatia wowed soccer fans worldwide match after match: it won all three games in the group stage, and then knocked out Argentina, Russia, England and eventually made it to the final.

Undoubtedly, the “checkers squad” has pulled off the biggest miracle in the 2018 World Cup.

As a small country with a population of just over 4 million, Croatia has a story that is just as fascinating, dramatic and even controversial as that of its national soccer team.

Earlier on, Novak Djokovic, world-renowned tennis player and the Wimbledon 2018 men’s singles champion, came under enormous fire from his fellow Serbs for rooting for the Croatian team in public, and was referred to by some of his country’s lawmakers as “idiot”, and as “traitor” by some patriotic Serbs.

The saga has served as a reminder of the grudges between the Croats and the Serbs that date back to the early 1990s.

Both Croatia and Serbia used to be member republics of the former Yugoslavia.

However, in 1991, Croatia unilaterally declared independence, thereby triggering an all-out war against the Yugoslav federal army spearheaded mainly by the Serbs.

After four years of intense fighting, the Croats managed to drive the Serbs out of their territory and secured statehood in 1995.

As a young nation emerging from the ashes of war, Croatia was devastated during the Serb invasion, with hundreds of thousands of average Croats undergoing a lot of suffering.

Among them was Luka Modric, the 32-year-old captain and midfielder of the Croatia national soccer team and the World Cup Golden Ball winner, who has proven instrumental in steering his team to the World Cup Final against almost impossible odds.

Born in September 1985, Modric spent the main part of his childhood in war, during which his grandfather was shot dead by the Serbs on the open street.

Their parents later fled the country along with the kids in order to make a living. At one point, Modric and his sister had to seek refuge in an abandoned hotel as refugees.

Nevertheless, it was also during those difficult times that Modric began to find solace in playing soccer.

At the age of 16, he was signed on by Dinamo Zagreb, one of Croatia’s top-tier teams, and then gradually rose to global prominence in the soccer world in the years that followed.

While there is no doubt that Modric’s story is full of positive and inspiring elements, there is in fact a lot more high drama to it.

Ironically, while his stunning performances on the field during the World Cup have wowed soccer fans worldwide, he is met with a mixed reception among his countrymen. Worse still, he could be facing jail time for perjury.

This is what happened: Zdravko Mamic, a former top executive of Dinamo Zagreb, the soccer club where Modric kicked off his career, was found guilty last year by Croat courts of embezzling the ten million pounds his club had made by selling Modric to the English premier league team Tottenham Hotspur in 2008.

However, shortly after he had been sentenced to six and a half years in prison, Mamic fled to Bosnia.

During the initial stage of investigations, Modric told the authorities he knew that Mamic was stealing money from his club.

Nonetheless, during the subsequent court trial, Modric suddenly changed his testimony and claimed that he “can’t remember anything”.

Modric’s sudden “memory loss” during the trial has not only put himself at risk of facing perjury charges, but has also taken a heavy toll on his public image.

Apparently, in the eyes of Croat soccer fans, it takes both skills as well as integrity to become a true national soccer hero, and Modric has just failed to live up to that standards.

But still, Croatia has made history in this year’s World Cup, and Modric’s undisputed contribution to his team’s miraculous achievement and his Golden Ball Award could perhaps help him redeem himself back home.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 17

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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