Despite losing this year's World Cup final to France, Croatia's success story resonated with fans around the world — after all, who doesn't love to see an underdog defeating some of the mightiest national teams, including two-time champion Argentina?
But praise coming from the former Yugoslavia region felt particularly special. As its only representative to have made it to the knockout stage, Croatia inspired numerous positive reactions from across the Balkans, defying the historical ethnic tension between the neighboring nations.
Such a reaction came, for example, by one of the region's most famous celebrities: Serbian tennis player Novak Đoković, who sealed his fourth Wimbledon title also on July 15. Earlier this month, he told a reporter that he would be supporting Croatia in the then-upcoming World Cup final:
Navijam za Hrvatsku i nadam se da će osvojiti tutulu. A ko je pravi favorit – ne znam. Svetsko prvenstvo je nepredvidivo takmičenje, ispale su Nemačka i Argentina, reprezentacije koje su na prošlom SP-u igrale u finalu.
I [now] support Croatia and I hope they will win the title. I don't know who's the real favorite [for the championship title]. The World Cup is an unpredictable contest, as we can see from the fact that Germany and Argentina, previous finalists, were knocked out.
Writing for Croatian daily newspaper Jutarnji, local journalist Ante Tomić pointed out that Croatia's goalkeeper Danijel Subašić, hailed a hero after defending three penalties against Denmark, is a member of Croatia's minority ethnic Serbian community.
…Diljem naše zemlje… svi su vrištali od sreće u jednoj kretenskoj zgodi da je, kraj više od pet stotina tisuća registriranih hrvatskih branitelja, domovinu obranio jedan Srbin.
Što god se dogodilo do kraja Prvenstva u Rusiji, meni je, nakon ovoga, iskreno, nebitno. Jer, Subašićeva je obrana tri jedanaesterca sama po sebi jedna velika povijesna pobjeda koja ispunjava oči suzama, to je trijumf čovječnosti nad mržnjom i glupošću. A nije zaista mogao biti bolji trenutak za to jer je Svjetsko nogometno prvenstvo, sa svim onim zastavama, himnama, dlanovima na srcu i licima našaranim ratničkim bojama, jedan prvorazredni nacionalistički događaj. Nacionalizam masu uspaljuje vjerojatno i više od igračke vještine. Više od Modrićevih driblinga i Rebićevih voleja crveni i bijeli kvadratići zaslužni su za rekordnu prodaju piva i čipsa. U takvom nepodnošljivom ludilu krvi i tla trebao nam je Danijel Subašić da se panterski baci ustranu i izbije balun u korner i neporecivo dokaže kako je nacionalizam totalno sranje.
…Across our country… everybody screamed with ecstasy to a paradoxical event when, besides over five hundred thousands registered war veterans, our homeland was defended by a Serb.
Whatever happens until the end of the World Cup in Russia, is irrelevant to me after this. Subašić's defense of three penalty kicks in itself is a great historic victory which brings tears to one's eyes, as a triumph of humanity against hatred and stupidity. There was no better moment for it because the football World Cup, with all its flags, national anthems, hands over harts and faces painted in war paints is a first-class nationalist event. Possibly nationalism inflames the masses even more than displayed sports skills. Even more than Modrić's dribbling and Rabić's volleys, the displayed red and white squares contribute to the record sales of beer and potato chips. In that insuferrable madness of blood and soil, we needed Danijel Subašić to jump as a panther and kick the ball into a corner and irrevocably prove that nationalism is total shit.
Nevertheless, some Serbian nationalists reacted negatively to Serbian support for Croatia. According to one Twitter user, “no Croat would ever root for Serbia”.
In response, many on social media pointed out the fact that in August 2017, the Croatian basketball players publicly supported the Serbian female team after the latter had made it to the finals of FIBA Under-18 Women's European Championship.
At the time, a photo of the Croatian players, wearing the national team's uniform and with the word “Serbia” painted on their faces, inflamed the internet.
Kada vas uce da mrzite druge narode pogledajte ovu mladost Srbije i Hrvatske kako se zajedno raduje ulasku Srbije u finale juniorskog EP 2017. za kosarkasice,i ako imate bar malo ljudskosti u sebi vise necete mrzeti.. https://t.co/3I4GaHQKFQ
— Srdjan (@spartaolimp35) July 11, 2018
New tweet: When they teach you to hate other peoples take a look at these youths from Serbia and Croatia as they together celebrate Serbia's entry into the Junior European Championship in 2017.
Quoted tweet with video: This youth is the future of Serbia and Croatia. Without hatred and evil the female basketball players celebrate Serbia's entry in the EC final.
A shared heritage
There is some controversy on how FIFA handles each team's historical record when countries change names and borders.
For example, Russia is considered the only successor of the USSR's victory, in detriment of all other former Soviet countries. Similarly, Serbia is the official successor of Yugoslavia, despite the fact that the Yugoslav national team had players from all the constituent republics, including Croatia.
This contrasts with a rising sentiment of shared heritage across the current nations. In an article by Montenegrin newspaper Vijesti, for example, Croatia's World Cup performance is seen as a continuum of the former glory of Yugoslav football. The article was also widely shared, including by Croatian football coach Mario Kos.
Imala je nekadašnja Jugoslavija mnogo velikih majstora, neprevaziđenih vedeta, fudbalskih ikona kojima se klanjala Evropa.
Od Montevidea 1930, preko Čilea 1962, Šekularca, Skoblara, Jerkovića i ostalih, zatim Džajićeve generacije početkom 70-ih, pa moćnog tima sa Pižonom, Šurjakom i Sušićem koji je razočarao 1982, sve do Stojkovića, Savićevića, Prosinečkog i drugova koji su penalima rasplakani u četvrtfinalu Mundijala u Italiji 1990.
Kakvih je tu bilo i trenera – od Aleksandra Tirnanića, Miljana Miljanića, Tomislava Ivića, Branka Zebeca, Todora-Toze Veselinovića, Anta Mladinića, Vujadina Boškova, sve do Ivice Osima i Ćira Blaževića.
I niko od njih, apsolutno niko, nije uradio ono što su istorijskog 11. jula 2018. godine, u Rusiji, uradili Zlatko Dalić i njegovi fudbaleri.
San generacija i generacija nekadašnje države, koja je voljela i koja se ponosila fudbalom, dosanjali su Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić, Mario Mandžukić, Dejan Lovren, Ante Rebić, Danijel Subašić i ostali momci koji će zlatnim slovima ostati upisani u istoriji hrvatskog fudbala.
Prestigli su čak i “vatrenu” generaciju Hrvata iz 1998. godine – Boban, Šuker, Prosinečki, Asanović, Jarni, Bilić, osvojili su bronzu na Mundijalu u Francuskoj, što je bio uspjeh za koji je malo ko vjerovao da će biti prevaziđen.
Former Yugoslavia had many great masters, big stars, football icons respected by whole Europe.
From Montevideo [Uruguay] 1930, to Chile 1962, to Šekularac, Skoblar, Jerković and the others, the Đajić generation of the early 1970s, and the powerful team of Pižon, Šurjak and Sušić which disapointed in Spain 1982, to Stojković, Savićević, Prosinečki and their comrades who lost by penalties in the quarter finals of the World Cup in Italy 1990.
They had exceptional coaches too: Miljan Miljanić, Tomislav Ivić, Branko Zebec, Todor-Toza Veselinović, Ante Mladinić, Vujadin Boškov, to Ivica Osim and Ćiro Blažević.
And none of them, absolutely no one, hadn't achieved what on the historical 11 July 2018 achieved Zlatko Dalić and his players in Russia.
Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić, Mario Mandžukić, Dejan Lovren, Ante Rebić, Danijel Subašić and the other boys whose names will remain written with golden letters in the history of Croatian football managed to put a closure to the dream of generations of citizens of the former state.
They managed to surpass the “fiery” generation of Croats from 1998 – Boban, Šuker, Prosinečki, Asanović, Jarni, Bilić, won the bronze at the World Cup in France, a success which very few believed can be exceeded.
A day of victories
With Croatia playing in Moscow and Đoković in Wimbledon, subscribers of this new, inclusive spirit truly (and literally, for some) had a field day on July 15.
Saluting the Croatian team, Serbian blogger and writer Igor Čobanović posted a collage with Croatian and Serbian flags with a spoof of the well-known Balkan proverb “may the neighbor's cow croak!” — it means that one should always enjoy the other's misfortune, even when not advancing their own benefit.
Da budemo ljudi malo za promenu pic.twitter.com/9EebZGSeJ6
— Igor Čobanović (@DaZivimSan) July 14, 2018
Image text: May the neighbor's cow be alive and well!
Tweet: Let's act as human beings for a change.
Serbian actress and producer Bojana Maljević also expressed optimism:
Najgore što može da se desi političkim elitama na Balkanu je
da narodi počnu iskreno da navijaju jedni za druge u sportu, da saradnja u kulturi i umetnosti bude u kontinuitetu, te da mediji počnu da proizvode zajedničke programe.
— Bojana Maljević (@BojanaMaljevic) July 14, 2018
The worst thing for the Balkan political elites is if the peoples start to sincerely root for each others’ sports teams, to establish a continuous cooperation in culture and arts, and the media to start producing joint programs.
In turn, Bosnian blogger Srđan Puhalo remained pessimistic:
Braco Balkanci, sutra nema fudbala i tenisa, ostajemo sami sa svojom mrznjom, siromastvom i bijesom!!!
— Srđan Puhalo (@SrkiPuhalo) July 15, 2018
Balkan brothers, tomorrow we won't have neither football nor tennis, we remain alone with our hatred, our poverty and our anger!!!
The mood wasn't shaken by France's victory over Croatia, even less after captain Luka Modrić won the Golden Ball award for the tournament's best player.
— Vishal Verma (@VishalVerma_9) July 15, 2018
Ironically, upon its return to the homeland, Croatia's team paraded in the streets of Zagreb with neo-nazi Marko Perković Thompson, whose concerts had been banned in several Western European countries on account of promoting the fascist World War II Ustaša regime.
But, so far, this doesn't seem to have deflated all the excitement around Croatia's team around the region.
Томпсон је њихова срамота, а то не умањује њихов успех.
— алекса011 (@volimtenikad) July 16, 2018
Thompson is their shame. That doesn't diminish their success.
Croatia's feat will likely long resonate with all underdogs, from former Yugoslavia and beyond.