Today, Sunday, July 15th, is going to be the longest and most emotional day of my entire life. It’s also safe to say that same feeling will be felt by the entire 4.1 million co-citizens of the country I call home, Croatia. The same can be said for people all around the world who are going to be watching what we Croats can only refer to as a historic day. A day of hope, a day of inspiration, a day to be proud, a day to celebrate, a day to shed tears of joy, sorrow, happiness and exhilaration - no matter who is crowned the victor of football’s ultimate prize. Because for Croatia, for all my countrymen and countrywomen, for the millions of us in the diaspora and for the millions more supporting us who have not sleep a wink tonight – Croatia is already the winner.
From the moment this frenzied World Cup began over one month ago, Croatian fans the world over cheered on the ‘Vatreni’ (‘Blazers’ in English) with all the passion and love we could muster. We alone knew what it took for our team to even get to Russia. We alone knew the path to the World Cup was always going to have more obstacles in it for our team than perhaps any other. And we knew this precisely because we are Croatian. Being Croatian means being part of a nation which has always faced incredible obstacles, huge roadblocks, towering fences, and powerful barricades and barriers. It’s in our history. It’s in our karma. It’s in our destiny and it’s always been our fate. We knew we were never ‘wanted’ at the big boys’ club, the big boys’ table and in this instance – the big boys’ game. How did we know this? Because we are Croatian. Because that’s been the story of our own existence for most of our lives, that of our parents, that of our grandparents and that of our ancestors. It’s been the narrative that was weaved probably since the time we were in our Mother’s womb. We know this inherently well because this tale has been repeated to us time and time again. We’ve always been the underdog and we’ve always had to fight harder than the others to get this far, to get anything really. To understand us, you must know our story. You must meet us. You must appreciate that we, according to every rule and regulation, shouldn’t even be here. Yet despite the odds, and one might say precisely BECAUSE the odds are always so stacked up against us, here is precisely where we’ve arrived. If you are a believer in fate, karma, universal signs and the payback power of the universe, you may already know why we are going to be tomorrow’s winners. If you’re not, read on and buckle your seatbelts.
Our government will tell you we are a country with a population of roughly 4.1 million people. They lie. The last official census was taken in 2012 and since then, like many European countries new to the EU we’ve seen a flight - a brain-drain, of our best and brilliant, usually young people, who have fled abroad to the western EU states, North America and Australia. Not just in search of better jobs either. Look at our national football team for example. They’re a great blueprint for the growing trend in Croatia in the last twenty years. All but two play for top European and global clubs. Typical of the times, right? Not so. This departure of our best, brightest and future DNA holders wouldn’t be so bad if you took into consideration we lost another 2 million after the war of the 1990s either as internally displaced refugees, through ethnic cleansing, forced migration, and of course war casualties and deaths. Add to this the 1 million we gained rom Croatians who fled the break-up of Yugoslavia and its subsequent wars to the newly proclaimed Republic of Croatia, and for whom we are largely grateful, as many of those refugees supplied some of the very football players you will see on display tomorrow (e.g.: Modrić’s parents fled their home in southern Croatia to live in a seaside hotel while his grandfather was killed by Serb forces; Rakitić’s parents are Bosnian-Croats who fled to Switzerland ahead of the war; Lovren’s parents, also Bosnian-Croats, fled to Germany during the war; and Mario Mandžukić’s family fled from one Croatian region to another during that same conflict). Positive prospects beyond football? Our birth rate is constantly declining. We are having fewer and fewer kids, which is also typical of new EU states (although something tells me that 9 months from the end of this World Cup we are going to see a baby footprint spike across Croatia). The point of all this is that we are an INCREDIBLY small country and we aren’t getting any larger even with an abundant diaspora population (Croats are always fond of saying that the 5 million people we had before the 1990s war was matched by an equally large and perhaps larger 5-10 million living in the diaspora). Our economy could be doing much better, political apathy and mistrust is at an all-time high, and nobody knows how to fix the ever-present problem of corruption despite the fact we’ve had twenty-seven years of independence to try.
Despite our small population, despite the tiny geographic size of our boomerang-shaped country (roughly equivalent to the US state of Kentucky), and even though we are not a world superpower or an economic powerhouse, there is one quality we over-index on: success on the international sporting stage. I’m not just referring to football (soccer) either. Football may be the most popular sport in Croatia in terms of sheer numbers and the output of players, but it’s closely followed by handball, basketball, tennis, water polo, volleyball, skiing, sailing and general athletics – and we’re Olympic and World medalists in each one mentioned above, sometimes on triple occasions. This is a fact none of us can understand or even try to explain to a non-Croat. I’ve spent the better half of the last ten years fielding questions from many outsiders that usually start with: ‘Why and how are Croatians so exceptionally talented at sports? How does your country manage to produce so many talented athletes in just about every single sport? Explain it?” I can’t because there is no explanation. There are a few tell tale signs and one is genetics. People from Croatia are among the tallest in the world and certainly in the top three of tallest in Europe. This is not surprising, but we don’t have a scientific explanation as to why this is. If you travel to Croatia (or Serbia or Montenegro) one of the first things you are going to notice is that this is a region that ‘somehow’ breeds exceptionally tall people. Height is an advantage in sports. But not every sport. Still, it’s a genetic explanation that cannot be explained, much less understood. Our cuisine is a hybrid mix of Austrian, Hungarian, Italian and Turkish influences, so this too cannot be the reason. We eat just as many proteins and carbs as the next person and our diet could be better managed. We indulge in 3-5 coffees a day and the art of sipping coffees at outdoor cafes all day long without a care in the world, could garner us a World Cup medal if we fail at soccer today. Our water is clean and safe to drink. Still, although starters, none of these factors can explain our consistent sporting successes. We aren’t a rich nation and our GDP per capita, while definitely better than most Eastern European states, and better performing than some current EU states, still cannot explain how a nation of 4.1 (or 3.7 million) people did this. Nor can our past. But our past may shed a better light as to HOW and WHY we got here.
In the news themes that every major media organization has pumped out about Croatia this past week, there has been one that lay below the surface and that few picked up on or even dived into, so I’m going to shed the spotlight on it now. While many of you may know that we fought a war for our independence in the early to mid-1990s, you might not know, that the first ‘shot’ was fired on the soccer pitch. Not a typo and you read that correctly. I’m referring to a May 1990 riot at Zagreb's Maksimir Stadium that stopped a game between the local team, FK Dinamo and the visiting club, Red Star from Belgrade. This was, to many Croatians, the beginning of the war that established our country as a separate state. The Serbian fans were led into the riot by Željko Ražnjatović, aka ‘Arkan,’ a future war criminal, and the police (considered by many at the time instruments of the Serb-led Yugoslav state) who intervened too late and focused on the hardcore Dinamo fans – the Bad Blue Boys, as they call themselves. A young Dinamo player at the time, Zvonimir Boban, got into the fight to help a bleeding and wounded fan and kicked a Yugoslav police officer wielding a baton, thereby igniting the Croatian public’s passions. To Croats, his act became a symbol of resistance. To everyone of my generation, that very image of Boban splashed across every single newspaper in the country the next morning cemented the fact that this wasn’t just about football. It was about much more, and it always has been ever since.
At another soccer game, between Hajduk Split and Partizan Belgrade, in September 1990, Hajduk's hardcore fans, the Torcida, burned the Yugoslav flag and chanted, "Croatia – independent state." Franjo Tudjman, the nationalist leader at the head of our independence drive, used the soccer fan organisations' radicalism to drive his message and soccer itself to acquire legitimacy for an increasingly independent Croatia. In October 1990, a game between a selection of Croat players and the US national team was seen as the secessionists' major diplomatic success. Our athletes – including and most especially our soccer players, continued serving as Tudjman's informal ambassadors throughout the ensuing war and in the nation-building years that followed. For Tudjman and many in the Croatian Soccer Federation, soccer was a weapon and a tool for building a national identity for domestic consumption and for a world that wasn't particularly interested in distinguishing between "former Yugoslav" states. What that golden generation of 1998 have done and what the current 2018 squad have repeated twenty years to-almost-the-day, is something that many of us thought would never happen. They have fulfilled a long-held dream, they have rekindled a long-held hope, and they have re-opened that long held-pandora’s-box that none of us thought we would ever live to see again in our lifetimes. And I do mean ever.
If you know a Croatian, you will likely know that ALL of us know precisely where we were, what we wore, and whom we were with when EIGHT monumental things in our national narrative as a country and nation occurred. It goes like this:
1. We all know exactly where we were the day Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1990.
2. We all know exactly where we were the day the war broke out.
3. We all know exactly where we were the day Croatia was first recognized as an independent state (Takk Island!).
4. We all know exactly where we were the day the war ended.
5. We all know exactly where we were the day Croatia won third place in the world at our first ever World Cup appearance in 1998.
6. We all know where we were when our co-citizen, Goran Ivanišević, became the first Croatian to win a Wimbledon final.
7. We all know where we’ve been the past few weeks watching the unimaginable unfold in Russia, and finally:
8. We all know where we are going to be today for this historic day, truly the absolute biggest and most defining day in our country’s history.
That’s the order and I defy anyone who will find a Croat that doesn’t have an immediate answer for the seven - and soon to be eight - milestone events described above. Because to answer the question of how we survived this incredible run you also have to know that we are huge believers in fate, karma, divine intervention, the universe, and second only to the Serbs when it comes to conspiracy-theory-beliefs and bizarre superstitions (we aren’t neighbours for nothing!). As one of the most superstitious Croats in existence, here’s my theoretic-low-down-attempt at further explaining our sporting success story as defined by historic proof, spoofs, and my own inner beliefs (and I won’t be taken aback if I am proven wrong today, but I, like many Croatians, believe in the power of universal signs and we have eight sure-fire ones below to rely on):
1. History is on our side. The French are technically the strongest and most agile and consistent team in this tournament. There is no doubt about that. But sometimes tact, agility and technical advantages can be broken down given the unknown formula factor of: fate+karma=Croatia squared. As a person who is armed with a history degree, I know the French have NEVER been victorious in Russia. If they win today, they will have laid to rest not just a World Cup win, but also a 300-year old curse when it comes to Russian soil. The last great French squad to enter Russia was led by a fellow named Napoleon. His army was frozen to the bone in a town called Borodino where hundreds of thousands of them died while attempting what every army before and after them (even the mighty Germans) tried to do and failed. Invade and win in Russia and live to tell about it. That may have been nearly 200 years ago, and it may have been during a war and not a sporting tournament, but the omen and the lesson remain. Croatia on the other hand?
2. Russia is our historic soil. We may not be Russians but at this point we’re literally ‘kinda’ the next best thing. We’re Slavs. We know this land. We know this territory. We’ve never invaded it. We respect it. We understand it. We eat similar food and have similar customs. We speak a language so eerily similar that if a Russian were to slow down while talking, we’d understand 80 percent of every word. Not fiction. Google it if you don’t believe me. Unlike Poland, Ukraine and some other immediate Slavic next-door neighbours, we’re too far away geographically for Russia to give a damn, and they, generally speaking, like us. We’ve never had historic or political issues with Russia, so we are seen as a zero-threat region with beautiful beaches and uber-tall people to play some great tennis with and then enjoy some grilled Croatian barbeque amongst (which is also eerily similar to Russian shashlik). Our historic homeland ‘Belo Horvatska’ or White Croatia, now rests in western Russia, where all the Slavic tribes originally come from (as the legendary sagas state) one brother went east, another west and the last ‘jug’ (meaning ‘south’) went south. Among us Slavs, we sometimes squabble. But if I were to bet my bottom dollar I would say with certainty that half of Mother Russia will be downing vodka at 4:00pm today afternoon in an outward sign of victory that the ‘baby brothers’ beat the French. If omens, superstitions and the soil of our ancestors provide any karmic relief, along with the cheers of our fans and our Russian brothers and sisters, we should take this. ‘Should.’
3. Our Flag – the beloved Checkerboard. I think, in fact I rather believe, that we are the only country in the world, whose flag includes an emblem that pays homage to sports. When people ask why we have a checkerboard in the middle of the flag I must answer like this. Legend has it that one of our Kings, in an effort to win his freedom from his captors, played a long chess match against his opponent and was released free as a bird. Chess is the thinking mans ‘brain sport.’ A sport nonetheless. In Croatia, chess is a national obsession. A passion. A game of such respect that there are open-air chess clubs all throughout the country, stone chess tables at most beach resorts, and even human chess games where each person plays a set-piece on specially crafted sidewalk-squared tiles. Chess is taught very early in primary schools throughout the country, most of whom have their own chess clubs and some of the best chess players of the old Yugoslavia were Croats. Gary Kasparov was one of the first international elites to make Croatia his second homeland when he purchased a summer house in 1994 on the Dalmatian coast. Today’s final game will also have our players switch from the dark home away jersey to play in our traditional red-and-white checkered jersey. When we see our flag, we usually cry. Recent bigoted statements by a Canadian media personality calling it the ‘picnic-table flag’ or the ‘Indy 500’ emblem don’t rile us. We love our flag so much that we often never want to take it down. Our flag is a good luck token. It’s an omen and it’s a sign. Checkers will dominate today’s match more so than Les Bleus.
4. Our National Soccer Team Manager is ‘Golden.’ Literally. Zlatko Dalić was not a household name before this tournament began. In fact, most Croatians had never even heard of him. He wasn’t beloved like Slaven Bilić, or adored and respected like Miroslav Blažević (who coached the ’98 team) and he wasn’t Otto-the-Great Barić of the 2000s. He was a fellow we all had to Google just like the rest of you. We learned he had coached many Middle Eastern clubs to great results. Impressive. But not in Croatia where proving your soccer worthiness has always meant you played for either Dinamo Zagreb or Hajduk Split, went on to the English Premier League and ONLY then could you come back and hold the honor of coaching the national team. Boy, were we wrong. Just like the current national team, Zlatko Dalić’s humble and modest rise towards success is every bit as inspirational as the teams itself. He stayed out of the spotlight, kept his head to the ground and inspired a silent dignity and respect with each impressive win. But there’s one more thing he has going for him that may be the deciding factor tomorrow. His name. Zlatko is a very old Croatian male name and it’s the diminutive form for the word in Croatian which literally means ‘GOLD’ (“ZLATO”). Was he given the name ‘Golden’ one for no reason at all? I think not.
5. The Date. Tomorrow may just be Sunday, July 15th to much of the world, but to Croatians it’s the 30_day countdown to one of the most important religious holidays in the country and to a spiritual leader many Croatians (including myself) have been praying to while watching these games. August 15th is the Feast Day of the Assumption of the Blessed Lady – the Virgin Mary. The ‘Bogorodica’ as we call her in Croatian. For a country which is largely Christian, she is one of the most revered and liked symbols. I literally do not know a Croatian house who don’t have an icon to the Bogorodica in their home and who haven’t evoked her name during a difficult moment or in their great hour of need. We had a death in my family this week and during every single second half of every single match, I’ve turned off the TV and gone to a quiet room to meditate in silence and pray while picturing her icon in front of me along with the images of every Croat loved one I have lost over the years. It may seem strange to some, even peculiar to others, but its akin to what the Thai soccer boys were doing in that cave during their great hour of need – praying to the Buddha. In that same fashion, we pray to the Bogorodica, perhaps not so much for ourselves, but for courage and strength for our team and in my case, for deceased loved ones who will never get to see this moment. The Bogorodica is a great lady and she works in mysterious ways. She’s got our back.
6. The Stadium and the Date…Again. I am a big believer in the number 8 (read the last bullet to understand why). Luzhniki was built as a homage to the Russians’ great love for its nature and its rivers (another trait shared by its Slavic cousins, the Croats). The name ‘Luzhniki’ is a reference to the flood meadows in the bend of the Moskva River where the stadium was built, translating roughly as "The Meadows". The Croatian anthem also pays tribute to our three big rivers: The Sava, the Drava, and the Danube. Then there is the reliance of the repeat performance of things happening in the sequence of ‘Eights.’ In 2008, another major underdog story occurred on the pitch at Luzhniki Stadium. Manchester United beat Chelsea after a 1–1 draw to win their third European Cup. Just like Croatia, it involved penalties, a fight to the end mentality, AND a tremendous belief in themselves. 2008. Today: 2018. Coincidence?
7. The Players. Modrić, Rakitić, Mandžukić, Perišić, Lovren, Vida, Strinić, Rebić, Vrsaljko, Subašić, Kovačić, Kramarić, Pivarić, and the rest may not seem like superstars on the level of Messi and Ronaldo. But Messi and Ronaldo are gone. So are the mighty Germans. So are the Argentines. So are the Brazilians. So are the English. So are the Portuguese. Our players – ALL of them actually with the exception of two, play in the best English Premier League clubs, The Bundesliga, La Liga, and the Top French, Italian, Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian clubs amongst them. This is normal for Europe’s big four: England, Germany, Spain and France who between themselves have a combined population of 249.2 million. It’s unexplainable and unbelievable given the population of Croatia – 4.1 million (if you decide to believe our government) or 3.7 million people if you believe in reality and income tax returns.
8. The Writer. Not to toot my own horn here, but according to my Chinese friends, I was born on the luckiest day of the year and with the luckiest combination of digits imaginable. Although, this only holds true in China, nevertheless as a person born on August 8, at 08:08am (the eighth day of the eighth month on the eighth second of the eighth hour), I am going to take my monumental day of arrival and energetically transfer all the supposed luck of my weekly lottery ticket number to the Croatian National Football squad today.
If all of this hasn’t convinced you that Croatians have spirit and if you know nothing about the Croatian national character (and being from a tiny nation we tend to have similar traits) maybe the following description shall persuade you. Croatians are among the happiest and most interesting people you will ever meet. Two qualities are very much appreciated in Croatia, actually three, and our parents raise us to display them whenever we can: Humor, Generosity and Humility. Now, they usually do not go hand in hand, but I would defy you to meet a Croat who doesn’t have one of those three if NOT all three qualities embedded in their character. If you ever meet us, our goal in life is to feed you. All day, every hour, every day. One drink is not enough. One slice of cake will usually be followed by another. When you are invited to our home, we take special care in how you as a guest will be treated. I guess that’s why amongst ourselves, we always discuss and notice unkind behaviour and people who are stingy or perceived as non-generous. That’s never a quality you will see among Croats, who usually fight amongst each other over who picks up the bar tab. I had a friend in Iceland who used to say he loved when I came to visit, because it always felt like Christmas. Our humour is legendary and the way in which jokes are told and re-told can hold a crowd for hours. In being humble, we are taught by very strict parents to keep our nose to the ground, work hard, stay focused and never display signs of narcissism – definitely not the Croat way. You may wonder why this is but there is even an explanation for that.
It’s because we are outsiders and always have been. We weren’t supposed to be at this World Cup, just as we weren’t supposed to exist as a nation. Tenacity, hard work, determination, flooding the western states through our diaspora as talented workers, students and forced entrepreneurs – all of this taught us the very qualities the football team is displaying in front of the world today. That we are worthy. That we matter just as much as the next person. That we may be the smallest team left but that those metrics no longer matter anymore, not when you have Luka Modrić’s right or left foot, Rakitić’s precision, and Mario Mandžukić’s lion heart. Not when most of the globe is watching you, typing your country’s name into a Google browser, and booking an airline ticket to that ‘other’ European Mediterranean seashore at the expense of the big four: Spain, Italy, France and Greece (no offense to any of these countries!). We’re the comeback kid, the underdog baton wielders (post-Iceland), the Checkerboard nation the world has gone mad for. From Syria, to Thailand, to North Korea, to Iceland, the number of people rallying behind this dark horse of a country of mine has surpassed every living expectation. As Croatians, its filled our hearts with such a pride and joy that can never be adequately described. In every tweet, every post, every kind word I receive, I am filled with so much emotion that even as writer it is difficult to convey this. Watching the games in Iceland has truly impressed me with the sheer wonder of what my countrymen have pulled off. Here, where every other friend of an even smaller nation than Croatia cheers us on with genuine emotion, I am constantly reminded of the class and sportsmanship that still exist in this world and that really define the only other true underdog that took part in this tournament. I’m often left alone with my thoughts shielding my tears from their humble kindness and gentle nature, qualities I recognize. Because I too come from a small nation. It’s electric. It’s toxic. It’s unbelievable. It’s what the beautiful game inspires and it’s raw.
When asked how Croatia got this far, I humbly answer and respond in the best way I can by bringing up all the reasons I have in this article. And when I run out of those, I delve into the unexplainable reasons, of which there are plenty. The way we were raised, the values and ethics our parents taught us. I spent half my life in the West, some of it trying to explain to people where Croatia even was on a map (the constant introductions as that kid from ‘Czechoslovakia’ or the ‘Soviet Union’ always being the highlight of my day), the other half proving to many bigoted Canadians that just because I was the kid of immigrant parents, did not mean I wasn’t ‘worthy.’ To be an immigrant Croatian may be even harder than being a Croatian-Croatian. Bear with me. The responsibility and burden are a hundred times greater. You have to excel at sports, you have to excel in academics, you have to be careful of how you chose your friends (and most of the time your parents will choose them for you anyway) and you have to think through every major life decision with extra care and examination. Why? Because like the Jews, the Armenians and to some extent anyone fighting for nationhood today (ironically, Palestinians come to mind), you are statistically not supposed to exist, much less succeed. But like any down-trodden member of a perceived ‘less-worthy’ nation, our parents, grandparents and their parents before them, constantly rammed down our throats that famous adage: ‘We are here to give you a better life, the privileges that were taken from us are being passed on to you. Remember that, don’t less us down, don’t let the nation down, and whatever you do - be proud you are Croatian, hold your head up high when they laugh, get the better marks, serve the better aces, get into the better schools, get the better jobs.”
In essence, beat them at their own game and while you’re at it show them that even members of the smallest nation can achieve monumentally larger than life results. We’ve always been fed this narrative and while you may think it would produce a generation of kids who would rebel and roll their eyes, it’s actually had quite the opposite effect. We are that much prouder, that much MORE PERSISTENT and that much more willing to never give up. I know I can only speak for myself, I wager that any Croatian person will giggle at the following reminder. When I was a teenager and a young adult living on my own abroad, and even now an almost middle-age woman - my Mother still repeats the same refrain every time before hanging up the phone on me to say goodbye (and I believe most Croatian parents state the same): ‘Pamet u glavu’ (literally translated as: ‘May wisdom be in your head’ wherever you go). This is meant as a reminder that my behaviour and etiquette outside the home, is not only a reflection of my own character and those of the people who raised me, ultimately, it’s a reflection of the community and nation whose blood I carry through my veins.
In closing, when I read, as I often have this past week the phrase ‘it’s just a game,’ I have to remind people that in Croatia it is not. In Croatia the game is life. In Croatia the game is national pride, national status, a national echo that will ring throughout the country today louder than our anthem, Lijepa Naša, ever could. In Croatia the game is a reminder to all of us of the monumental pedestal 10 men have reached on behalf of all 4.1 million of us. As Ivan Rakitić stated earlier this week, today’s strength will not be determined by the 10 players on the pitch, rather by the 4.1+ million hearts of every Croatian the world over transmitting itself onto them. Why? Because we have paid our dues. We’ve finally arrived on the biggest stage in the world and we aren’t going away any time soon. When you’ve literally had to fight for your independence and been lucky enough to have it granted (thank you Iceland and Germany!), when you’ve been through numerous wars (thank you Ottoman Turks and Serbia for teaching us survival skills!), when you’ve been through economic turmoil since your country has been around in various geographic forms (thank you great depression, 1990s recession, pre-war sanctions, and global economic downturn - for teaching us to be as resilient as we always were and always knew we could be!), when people don’t even know where your country is on a map and sneer at you for coming from that backwards part of South-Eastern Europe that was responsible for WWI (thank you Balkan peninsula for your tough geography, grit and diversity which we have nurtured and eked out an existence in!) – WHEN YOU HAVE BEEN THROUGH ALL OF THIS AND MUCH, MUCH MORE – the French are a piece of pie (err…brioche, and they will certainly get a run for their money in just a few hours time). We know what we have to do, and the pressure is indeed great. The pressure is almost unimaginable. But we’ve been there before. Ironically enough in 1998 facing the same opponent. What’s the difference? We’re tougher, grittier, more determined, hungrier, ferocious and ready. We know we have nothing to lose and even less to concede.
For all of you watching today, one thing is certain. It’s Croatia’s moment. It’s Croatia’s time. It’s Croatia’s hour. Cinderella may have crashed the ball, but she’s not going home at midnight. Football has indeed come home, but not to the country you expected, rather to the one which fought for it the most - through blood, sweat and tears, and some extra penalties to boot. We don’t need a medal or a fancy golden cup, or millions of dollars in prize money to tell the world what we already know in our hearts. That we’re already champions. All 4.1 million of us and Luka Modrić’s two feet.