When Luka Modric was named FIFA Footballer of the Year 2018 after winning the Ballon d’Or at this summer’s World Cup, he dedicated the award to Zvonimir Boban. “This trophy is not just mine,” Modric said.
“I would like to mention my footballing idol, the captain of Croatia from the 1998 generation. He was my big inspiration and this team gave us the belief that we could achieve something big in Russia.”
Modric will once again captain Croatia at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but even though the great midfielder was no longer on the pitch, that red and white checkered thread that runs through the country’s footballing history would continue.
From the beginning, the game was at the center of everything. “If we can talk about creating a national identity through sport,” Boban himself said, “Croatia should be number one in the world.”
Boban underscores that point in a riveting new FIFA film that explores Croatia’s relationship with itself and places the World Cup successes of 1998 and 2018 against the backdrop of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
It is clear that 30 years after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, this context continues to explain not only Croatia’s past, but also its future. These events still resonate with players today.
Ask by sky sports Reflecting on the film, Croatian striker Andrej Kramaric said: “I would recommend everyone to watch it. Then people would understand what Croatia is, why we have these emotions, why we are so proud of being Croatian and why we give each other 200% of the land.
“I think this movie describes it all. There’s so much emotion, so much passion, and that’s of course one of the reasons the ’98 generation pushed us to do better. That’s the one of the best movies for me.”
During an exclusive screening of the film – Croatia: defining a nation – In London this summer, former war correspondent Martin Bell described the war in the Balkans as the worst conflict he had witnessed. And he’s seen 18 war zones up close.
“It was the most brutal of all wars,” he explains. “Civil wars always are.” These are not just raw numbers – 98,000 dead, two million driven from their homes. It is his personal nature. “You have had cases where men were killed by the witness during their marriage.”
This is the context of Croatia’s rebirth, the reason why the war remains, according to Bell, “in the psyche of the nation”. And if it seems crude to think that a game can play a meaningful role in these matters, consider Bell’s own assessment of the role of football.
“I think it can be defining in the same way that religion can be defining.”
There is an irony in FIFA’s attempts to distance football and politics in Qatar at a time when they are also promoting this extraordinary film. Football does not only go hand in hand with politics. It’s politics.
Almost two years before Croatia’s admission to FIFA, they played their first unofficial international match – against the United States in Zagreb.
“It was like an icon that we could use to promote Croatia in the best possible light,” said Aljosa Asanovic, the scorer of their first goal that night in October 1990. “I feel I opened a path for me and the boys who followed.”
In the years that followed, the importance of sport was emphasized, with athletes acting as ambassadors. Tennis stars such as Iva Majoli and Goran Ivanisevic got the message across, while footballers reminded the world of Croatia’s place.
“That part always hurt me,” Boban said of his move to Milan. He felt helpless, perhaps even guilty for enjoying life while his compatriots suffered at home. Others have tried to assume their role. “We were fighting to put Croatia on the map,” said Davor Sukur.
In the case of Petar Krpan, it was a literal truth. “I went to the front, grabbed a Kalashnikov and defended our country.” He was just 17 at the time and would make the 1998 World Cup squad alongside Sukur and Boban.
It’s hard to imagine what he went through, but easier to understand why representing Croatia means more. We were playing for people who died,” said Slaven Bilic. “We were playing for a whole movement.” Igor Stimac cries just thinking about wearing the shirt.
“I wouldn’t say Yugoslavia wasn’t mine because it was,” Boban said. “But playing for Croatia was a dream.”
Does this still apply to the next generation? To what extent can patriotism really explain the continued success of this relatively small country? How does Croatia continue to maintain such an oversized presence in the global game?
“Beautiful women,” Kramaric casually suggests when asked to find a reason why so many young men are inspired. “It’s football, basketball, handball, it doesn’t matter what sport, we’re just gifted and born with talent.
“It’s really crazy that a nation of four million people has so much talent. And to be really honest, every year you can find fantastic new players. There are so many more behind the scenes, but sometimes the bad character of the lifestyle does not work not to show their talent.”
He offers a more emotional explanation when he shares memories of Croatia’s run to the World Cup final in Moscow four years ago.
“Of course, the last World Cup in Russia was amazing. Playing the final is always unreal. It was something incredible, something special, hard to describe.
“We had an amazing atmosphere. We had 52 days with the team. It’s not that easy but we had a family atmosphere. After the group stage, the game against Argentina which we won 3-0 , we believed that after this moment we could achieve something big. It happened in Russia.
“We didn’t realize what was happening in Croatia. When we came back, it was something impossible, unreal. The atmosphere, the people, this celebration, I think, will never happen again in my life and maybe in the history of Croatia.
“It would be nice to feel it again, but it was something crazy. It will be forever in our memories. It was perhaps the most special moment of my life.”
He was not alone in this case. Others felt the parallels to all that came before perhaps even more keenly. Zlatko Dalic, Croatia’s head coach in Russia and Qatar, not only lived through the war, but had past and present teammates in that 1998 World Cup squad.
Modric’s grandfather, after whom he is named, was killed by Serbian militiamen at the start of hostilities. Dejan Lovren lost a close relative in the fighting and had to flee the area as a child. He still remembers hiding in the basement when the sirens went off.
They are the senior players of this team. Their stories ensure the continuity of oral history. Football’s role in Croatia’s creation myth continues to inspire.
Will the 2022 World Cup see them take the final step?
“It’s going to be interesting,” says Kramaric.
“We have played very good football in recent months. I have to be honest, we have a great team with great young players, great experienced players. If we play like we have done in recent months, we can achieve beautiful things. football, like in life, you need luck.
“It’s going to be difficult. But it’s also a good thing that maybe we don’t have so much pressure because we did amazing things in Russia. But we always wish and we always want to do more.
“If you just see one example of Luka Modric. He won everything in the Champions League and how he’s playing right now at 37, he’s just the perfect example for us young players who you want more, you want to be better and you want to win games. Croatia are going to be like that at the World Cup.
“We’re going to be fully motivated. I’m not going to say we’re a better team than four years ago. If I say we’re a better team, we should win the World Cup. That was four years ago. 20 years. [before] that we were third. Maybe in 20 years we will win the World Cup.”
Whatever happens next month, whatever happens between now and 2042, football will continue to play its part in defining Croatia as a nation.