Croatian Football: Talent, Success and a Lacking Overarching Strategy
23 juillet 2021
Croatia is a country defined by football. The successes of the national football team have allowed Croatia to be displayed, positively, on the international stage. Croatian football has not only served as a geopolitical tool, but also as a cohesive social factor. As a young democracy, Croatia has experienced the emergence of political pluralism, with an homogenous Croatian society being divided within the left and right ideological spectrum. These divisions usually show during national elections, as a result of historical contexts notably stemming from the World War II and the conflict between the fascist Independent State of Croatia (NDH) and the communists. Even after nearly 80 years, this historical moment still affects Croatian political life. The topics of the election campaigns are often tied with the subject of Ustaše, who were the Croatian Revolutionary Organization that formed NDH, and the Partisans who formed Yugoslavia after the war. After WWII, Croatia became an integral part of Yugoslavia ruled by dictator Josip Broz Tito. The wounds of this war experienced by both sides of the ideological spectrum in the 1990s are still relevant today in many fields of studies, and in society at large.
Performances of the Croatian national football team are rare moments during which all of these political tensions are tempered down. Football players become symbols of unification, with for example crowded squares and parks in which Croats of all ages generously supported Vatreni in the 2018 men’s World Cup. However ironically, today under a backdrop of a successful World Cup and several decades of a flourishing national team, football in Croatia has no clear development strategy, no infrastructure and no direction in terms of sports and business development.  On the other hand, Croatian governments have not shown much interest in using sports as diplomatic tool in the past. Apart from occasional exceptions, such as the former President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic wearing the national football jersey in the final of the 2018 World Cup, it is not clear that politics is thinking strategically in terms of sport diplomacy.
Whilst governments and states around the world are using mechanisms of sport diplomacy to build relationships globally, it does not seem that this is a central concern for Croatian society and politics. Sport, and football in particular, are perceived as a partial tool for good publicity when the results awaken a flare of emotions among the population. This is even more striking if we take the fact that Croatia is a country in which tourism accounts for around 20% of the GDP. An example of how football can be important for branding Croatia is Google trends. It shows that the term “Croatia” has been most searched in the last five years from July 8 to 14, 2018, which coincides with the World Cup success. Such appearances in search engines of people around the world allow for tourism and sport to be connected. The record tourist season in Croatia’s history was 2019, hence confirming a correlation between sport and tourism. Of course, there are other reasons which attract tourists, but sport certainly contributed to people’s interest in Croatia. Within this particular context, this paper will explore the reasons behind why sport remains on the periphery of the Croatian political life, identifying key aspects of the apparent lacking geopolitical strategy for sport in Croatia.
The history of Croatia is as old as Europe, but what is commonly known about Croatia today concerns relatively recent events. Indeed, Croatia only gained its independence in the aftermath of the Balkan wars of the 1990s. During the war, a large part of today’s territory of the Republic of Croatia was occupied by rebel Croatian Serbs, who formed the so-called SAO Krajina, and by Yugoslav people’s Army (JNA), led by Slobodan Milošević. Croatian cities were shelled for months and many Croats had to leave their homes and live as refugees. More than 12,500 Croats died during the Croatian War of Independence and around one thousand are considered missing persons.
As sports was one of those few positive things left during that period, the first monumental symbol of sports and moral victories was the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, when the Croatian basketball team led by Mozzart, Drazen Petrovic, won the silver medal by losing to the United States’ “Dream Team” in the final. It was a great moment for a country that was preoccupied with political conflict and fighting for its independence.
However, only one sport has always meant something more to the Croatian people: football. Many suggest that the war in former Yugoslavia was partially sparked by the football game opposing Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star at Maksimir Stadium on May 13, 1990. It was a match of two national symbols: Croatian (Dinamo) and Serbian (Red Star). Tensions in Yugoslavia were felt much earlier, and football matches were particular events during which political turmoil materialized. Fans of big Croatian clubs, Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb, had already clearly expressed their desire for an independent Croatia. Before the Dinamo-Red Star game, the riots started back in Zagreb, where fans of the two clubs clashed in several locations. The riots continued as they arrived at the stadium where Delije, Red Star fans, clashed with Dinamo ordinary fans at the southern stands. Dinamo’s fiercest fans, the Bad Blue Boys, broke through the fence at the northern stands as they wanted to confront the Delije who ran to the south stands to fight with regular Dinamo fans. At the time, the police intervened in an effort to prevent the Bad Blue Boys from reaching the other end of the pitch, creating a major conflict between fans and police. At that moment, Dinamo’s captain Zvonimir Boban – who stayed on the pitch with teammates – intervened against a police officer who unjustifiably hit a fan of Dinamo. The officer then went after Boban with a bat, and Boban responded with a kick. This is how this game became a legend, along with Zvonimir Boban as the ultimate legend of Croatian football. Although, of course, reasons for war go far beyond football, this match reflects the importance of football in society.
The Croatian national football team played its first match on October 17, 1990 in a friendly match with the United States. Croatia waited until 1992 to be given the opportunity to participate in major competitions, as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) gave Croatia full membership. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) did so a year later, on June 17, 1993. A great moment in the history of Croatian football occurred during the men’s European Championship in England in 1996, where the Croatian team reached the quarterfinals, losing a game against the later winner of the competition, Germany. This championship showed that a great generation led by Boban, Suker, Prosinečki and others could compete on the international stage. The result that few dreamt about happened two years later, at the men’s World Cup in France in 1998. Croatia, as a debut in the competition, won a fantastic third place. This was the trigger for an unprecedented celebration in cities across Croatia. This success also branded Croatia in the world in a way that was unimaginable by other means. Globally, many were hearing about Croatia for the first time. In addition, Croatian football clubs had strong teams mostly filled with the great names of Croatian football. This was possible, among other things, thanks to the state leadership of Franjo Tudjman, who invested money in sports as a form of development rather than based on market principles. However, in Tudjman’s vision football was more than just a game as it possessed, according to him, political qualities. He was aware of the political significance of sport, and what it could contribute to the forging international ties and the building of a nation brand, essential in such a young country.
In the new millennium, football was increasingly becoming an attractive arena for many politicians. The cult of the national football team took place in Croatia long after the 1998 and Vatreni team. Except for internal political purposes, nobody saw football as a strategically important diplomatic tool. This suggests that Croatia has never developed a comprehensive strategy for the development of sports for political gain, especially football. This is perhaps best reflected when you look at football infrastructure in Croatia. Today, Croatian stadiums are something most Croatians are ashamed of. The Croatian team does not have a credible national stadium, where it could host the best European and world opponents and their political entourages. The largest Croatian stadium, Maksimir, was last renovated in the 1990s, the second largest Poljud in Split at an even earlier date. To that end, the infrastructure for elite-level football is severely lacking.
Croatia’s economy and industry generally lag behind Western European standards. However, in the sport industry, Croats are relatively successful. Yet, Croatia is doing very little for the development of sport, and thus for football. The best indicator of this is that sports collectives and individuals in Croatia have growing problems in functioning. There is no concrete framework for financing sports clubs from grassroots to professional level. This did not prevent Croatian players from continuing with excellent results, both as a national team and as individuals across some of Europe’s elite clubs. Proof of this is the final of the men’s World Cup in Russia in 2018. The reception of the runners-up in Zagreb once again showed that football is a religion in Croatia. Hundreds of thousands of Croatians poured into the streets of the capital Zagreb to celebrate Croatia’s accomplishment in the World Cup. It was the largest mass gathering in Croatian history. What the World Cup has once more shown is that the football players placed Croatia on the front page of the world’s most relevant media outlets. Branding the country at this level under normal market conditions would cost hundreds of millions of euros. That branding however was done on the football pitch. This all passed off without much reflection or support from the state, albeit with former President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović being on the pitch after the final in Moscow. Although such success was a trigger for the authorities in Croatia to start thinking about the important problems that football is facing, we have not seen any progress in this regard until today.
The infrastructure problem is only a consequence of a lack of strategy and investment. However, whilst elite-level infrastructure is poor, the situation within the grassroots-level of the game is also highly problematic. Indeed, infrastructure at that level is even worse than in professional football. These are the courts where the new Modric, Mandukic and Boban are dreaming of their success in Croatia’s jersey, but the facilities are severely falling behind those found in other European nations. Ultimately, the grassroots of the game need investment since, as a small country, it will not be able to continually rely on progression of players to the elite level, and a strategy involving higher investment needs to be cultivated. At the moment, most of the players’ success comes down to individual passion and commitment to succeed despite all problems. The lack of sport development strategy also falls into the schooling system, a level at which healthy sports habits are developed by children. Such a framework could ensure a greater influx of talent into sports.
The country of four million people cannot rely on the volume of athletes that will reach a professional level. Since Croatia has considerably fewer inhabitants than large sports nations, each individual and talent is extremely important. The challenge is thus greater if we take into account the growing inactivity of children due to the great time spent on computer games and social media. A survey on the physical activity of children in the first grade of primary school shows that 19.3% of boys and 19.3% of girls watch television for more than two hours a day while between 12 and 18% of students at the same time spend more than two hours a day playing games on a computer. These are all issues that the Croatian state needs to address strategically.
On the other hand, professional football also faces a lot of problems. Croatian clubs are destined to sell their players early and for a value below market prices. The exception is Dinamo Zagreb, which is now a respectable club at the European level and whose players can command a fair market price. The reason for such a situation lies in the fact that the state does not create a positive climate for investing in sports. Croatian businessmen do not have a great motivation to invest sponsor money in football clubs because the market is too small to return on investment. In such a case it is the state’s job to help clubs finance through accounting mechanism or tax policies that would favour investing in sport. Without this, Croatian clubs cannot survive on the standard main sources of income that dominate in European clubs (TV rights, matchday and sponsorship).
The Croatian nation hopes for a new great success for the national football team at the 2022 World Cup, after losing to Spain in the round of 16 in the 2020 men’s European championship. This would be a new reason for the national pride and the projection of Croatia to the world, although the problems plaguing Croatian football will remain regardless. The question remains whether the Croatian state will recognise sport as a strategic opportunity, to promote Croatia and its key source of income tourism (estimated to account for 20% of GDP). The indicator that the Croatian government has begun to think in this direction is the fact that the Ministry of Tourism and Sports has been formed in 2020, showing a new direction and policies regarding sports. It will be important that the announced new policies create any high quality and strategic solutions.
However, more concrete progress requires a broader socio-political consensus. For example, football in Croatia is often attempted to be politicised and various political options have different views when they talk about whether to start working on the aforementioned problems. Politics in Croatia primarily strives to satisfy the social needs of a wider circle of voters, often imposing topics such as construction of schools, kindergartens or hospitals, and often keeping unsustainable business models of public companies left over from the time of Yugoslavia prior to the sports investments. Within these circumstances, the vision of sport in the development of society and the role in geopolitical terms remains ignored or more often unimportant. Such an approach will not make any progress. Sport is something that must go beyond daily political interests. The current situation is such that there is almost no investment in sports in Croatia.
The government has to invest in sports without dragging partial political interests into the story. An example of this is the theme of the construction of a new stadium in Zagreb. Namely, many political parties condition such a thing with changes in the leadership of Dinamo Zagreb, thus avoiding any concrete steps that will help football grow. Dinamo has been asking for a simple building permit from the City of Zagreb for years. The new elected city authorities make such a permit conditional on changes in Dinamo, i.e. the introduction of a “socios“ (one member, one vote) model in the club, because they believe that the club should be run more transparently and that the members should choose the club’s leadership in the open elections instead of through the assembly as is the case today. On the other hand, Dinamo’s management believe the current model, where ten percent of the assembly is represented by members of the club, has led the club to historic success and do not see the need for change in this regard. It is important to point out that Dinamo wants to build the stadium with its own funds. Due to the strong politicisation and different partial political interests and influence of various interest groups, the city still refuses to grant a building permit.
That is another proof that when we talk about sports, many political forces have no strategy and have no answer on how to give football that place that belongs to it. The Croatian Football Federation led by the legend of Croatian Football, Davor Suker, is not helping at all. After its success in Russia, the Croatian Football Federation did not work too hard to make Croatian football a fortified brand in the world. There are too few meaningful moves that would continuously place Croatian football on the markets that are most interesting to Europe, namely the United States and Asia. The appearance in these markets raises people’s interest in Croatian football. A major problem however is the Croatian football league’s money made from TV rights. Very few people in the world are interested in watching Croatian league matches. The Croatian Football Federation, as the governing body in Croatian football, should have a clearer strategy for promoting Croatian football in the world. It is a way of attracting investment and helping different levels of football to develop and produce new great football players. Other football associations are obviously working to take their place in these markets and thus, apart from sports, brand their state in other aspects such as tourism.
This is the reason why the paradox is greater, as tourism is the most important industry in Croatia. In this context, China is one of the most important countries as it represents the largest influx of new tourists to Croatia. This is no surprise because the Chinese are the most active tourists in the world. It is more important when we see how Chinese think about Croatia. When asked “What’s next for Chinese tourism?” at London’s World Travel Market (WTM) in November 2019, Editor in Chief of China Daily Europe, Yu Yilei replied: “Croatia.”
Football can be one of the things that the Chinese people could connect with in Croatia. It is necessary to arouse additional interest to meet the country from where Luka Modric comes. We can often see how these tourists carry popular Croatian cubes. However, the impression remains that few in Croatia are considering approaching it more seriously and thus cementing Croatia as a football country.
As football will still be the main mirror of Croatia in the world, it remains to be seen whether the state Croatia will see its chance for much greater things than sports. I think it’s a matter of time. Still, time is money, and Croatia has already lost a lot of time.
About the author
Ivan Tomic studied Economics at the University of Graz and the Zagreb School of Economics and Management. He is engaged in research on management, marketing and communication both in sports organizations and athletes as individuals. Ivan Tomic is the author of two books in the field of sports, the Strategic Management of Sports Communication and Management and Communications in sports. He is also the author of the blog: Ivan Tomic – Management and Communications in sports (Menadžment i komunikacija u sportu), where he presents the most relevant views of business and management in sports.
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