For a Moment, Underdog Croatia Basks in World Cup Joy

The Old Town in Dubrovnik, Croatia, where throngs of fans watched the World Cup semifinal match between Croatia and England on Wednesday.

DUBROVNIK, Croatia — When Croatia’s national soccer team scored the goal that took it past England and into its first World Cup final, delirious fans lit flares and burned tires outside the towering limestone walls of the old city in Dubrovnik.

The euphoria of the moment lifted the spirits of a nation disillusioned on a number of fronts, like the slow transition into the European Union, a stagnant economy, political deadlock and even the source of its current joy — soccer.

“At this moment, no one is thinking about problems,” said Maroje Burum, a fan. “Man, it’s almost spiritual.”

When the World Cup began a month ago, some Croats initially hesitated to cheer the national team because it has been marred by a corruption scandal and exploited as a symbol of nationalism by the country’s right-wing politicians.

“Football became some kind of cancer in Croatia and before the World Cup, we were divided,” said Drazen Lalic, a leading sociologist and political scientist based in Zagreb.

As the 2018 World Cup approached, all of the country’s ills seemed to be encapsulated by Croatian soccer.

A court case had exposed endemic corruption involving Croatian soccer’s most influential figure — Zdravko Mamic, the former president of one of the country’s most prominent teams, Dinamo Zagreb. He was convicted on tax offenses for skimming huge profits off the transfer fees for Croatia’s top players who joined some of the top soccer clubs in Europe, before he fled to neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he is in hiding.

When Luka Modric, arguably Croatia’s greatest player ever, took the stand during the trial, he claimed to know nothing about it. He was widely mocked and murals of him were defaced across the country.

In May, he was charged with perjury and could face five years in prison. The case turned some Croatians against Mr. Modric and tainted the national team.

But as the team advanced in the World Cup, the court case faded into the background. Mr. Modric, who was allowed to play because he has not yet been convicted, has been one of the top performers at this year’s tournament, and his damaged reputation in the country has been largely rehabilitated.

“Modric is the best player Croatia ever had,” said Mr. Burum. “The trial will do its job, but most of the people love him. He is a true captain right now.”

Soccer in Croatia is so deeply intertwined in the culture, the politics and the war that ravaged the country in the 1990s that the game can be used as a marker for some of the most important moments in recent Croatian history.

In 1990, Yugoslavia was unraveling and the ethnic tensions between the country’s Croats and Serbs, which the state had kept tamped down, were on full display during a match of rival clubs Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb. Before the first whistle, rioting broke out at the stadium in Zagreb.

While the match has often been erroneously cited as the first battle of the Croatian war of independence, Mr. Lalic said it did play an important psychological role.

“Yugoslavia stopped existing when the Dinamo-Red Star riot took place,” he said. “If we can’t play football anymore and be in the same terraces anymore, it was impossible to live together anymore.”

By the time the war ended, 20,000 Croats were dead.

In the postwar era, politicians in Croatia, like many around the world, have sought to exploit the success of sports teams and athletes by taking pictures with them, including on their campaigns, quoting them in their speeches and trying to convert their sport successes into political victories.

The national soccer team has been used by politicians as a way to rally voters by posing as nationalist, Croatia-first proponents, even as they cut deals with the same minority parties they rail against.

Croatia’s first president after the country declared independence in 1991, Franjo Tudjman, was a die-hard soccer fan who understood well the importance of the game to both the nation and his political ambitions.

“Football victories shape a nation’s identity as much as wars do,” he once famously proclaimed.

His theory was put to the test at the 1998 World Cup in France, the first time Croatia, wearing the now iconic red-and-white checkered shirt, had qualified for the tournament. Now, that jersey is everywhere, with tourists snapping it up alongside Croats. It adorns cars, balconies and even donkeys.

That year, Croatia made it to the semifinals, where the team lost to France. Memories last a long time in the Balkans and Sunday’s match has been framed here as a chance for revenge.

After the 1998 tournament, the glow eventually faded and soon Croatia was faced with confronting the growing pains that any new state faces. For the next decade, it had one goal in mind: membership in the European Union.

Since it joined the bloc in 2013, like many of the new member states in East and Central Europe, membership has not brought the economic growth many expected, especially outside the cities and tourist destinations.

Anton Masle, one of the nation’s leading journalists and now the editor-in-chief of a local paper in Dubrovnik, said the nation was buffeted by many of the same problems plaguing other European Union countries.

But as a small nation, it was different.

“You know what Italians say when you ask them about their financial situation and the chance of bankruptcy: We are too big to fail,” he said over a glass of wine on the cobblestone street outside Libertina, a famous redoubt for Dubrovnik’s artists and writers. “You know what Croatians say? We are too small to fail.”

When you are small, you have to punch above your weight to be felt. And in this country of less than 4 million people, sports have long played an outsized role in the nation’s psyche, none more than soccer.

But success in sports has not masked other problems, as reflected in the exodus of educated, young people. In 1998, the population here was about 4.6 million. Now it is now less the 4 million.

The ruling party holds a fragile majority that needs the support of minority parties, making it exceedingly difficult to govern.

“Many younger Croatians faced with unemployment and low salaries are questioning the current political and administrative practices and seeking a better fortune in other European countries,” said Aida Vidan, a Croatian-born scholar of South Slavic languages, literature and film at Harvard University.

And the sluggish economy was shaken 17 months ago when Agrokor, a Croatia food and retail concern that had employed 70,000 people and relied on supplies of goods from 240,000 more from across the Balkans, nearly collapsed under huge debts.

As the government committee in charge of the Agrokor bailout negotiated with creditors, the health care system was failing and pension funding was running out.

The victories for Croatia have not come easily, but that has only made its soccer run that much more powerful. And the cheers across the country have been for more than the soccer itself.

“It’s a convenient escape from reality, of course, and a good dose of optimism for all,” said Boris Vlasic, a newspaper columnist at Jutarnji List in Zagreb.

Whatever the final result, Mr. Vlasic said, hard realities can wait.

There is a match to be played.

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