“Does your father have a shrine to Boban?”
It’s not a question you hear every day. But as my distant cousin explained at a gathering of my Croatian-American family in Pittsburgh in 1998, the first year that Croatia unexpectedly stormed the soccer world, her garage had been repurposed by her father as a devotional museum to Croatian soccer player Zvonimir Boban. It was filled with photographs, jerseys and even candles. Naturally, she wanted to know if my father had done the same.
Boban, who is now the deputy secretary-general of FIFA, won the Champions League title in 1994 with AC Milan and, as team captain, helped lead Croatia to a third-place finish at the 1998 World Cup. It was an extraordinary achievement for a tiny nation still in its infancy and one that has received renewed attention as the country’s national team prepares to play in its first World Cup final — on Sunday against France.
But the 1998 success was not really what motivated my cousin’s father to keep a private sanctuary in Boban’s honor. For Boban’s most famous kick was aimed not at a soccer ball but at a Yugoslav police officer in the middle of a riot at Zagreb’s Maksimir Stadium in May 1990. The unrest came during a match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade, top professional teams in Yugoslvaia before the breakup of the league and the country.
The brawl involved fighting between two blocs of ultra fans — Zagreb’s Bad Blue Boys and Belgrade’s Delije — and many Croatians believed the Yugoslav police were beating only those who supported Dinamo Zagreb. Boban’s flying kick was meant to protect a Dinamo supporter being beaten by police.
“In Zagreb he has a special place because of that kick. He is still the legend,” said Sven Milekic, a reporter for Balkan Insight who is based in Zagreb and has written about the national team. “That’s why he has this special glow around him. He took on the policeman.”
Boban’s counterattack has been called “the kick that started the war” and “the day the war started.” A little over a year later, Croatia declared independence, the civil war was underway, and the Bad Blue Boys were volunteering and fighting their Serbian ultra-counterparts on the battlefield instead of at soccer matches.
“It’s something that is deeply ingrained in collective memory,” said Dario Brentin, a researcher at the University of Graz in Austria who is writing a dissertation on sports and national identity in post-Yugoslav Croatia. Still, he said, the role of the 1990 soccer riot in the foundation of modern Croatia has been exaggerated. “This is the mythologized version of events,” he said.
The police officer who was kicked was neither Serb nor Croat, but an ethnic Bosnian named Refik Ahmetovic. As for Boban, he continued to play for the combined Yugoslav team until Croatia became independent. But a legend was born nevertheless, and the link between soccer and Croatian national identity only deepened at the nation’s first-ever World Cup appearance.
In that 1998 tournament, Boban and the Croatian team made a surprising run all the way to the semifinals, falling to the eventual champion, France, by a score of 2-1. For such a young country, the World Cup run took on outsized significance. Players like Davor Suker, who won the Golden Boot for the most goals at the tournament, became national heroes. Suker now heads the Croatian Football Federation.
According to Brentin, politicians like Franjo Tudjman, who served as the country’s first president until his death in 1999, latched on to athletics in building the national identity. “The nexus of the people, the team and politics created a sort of holy trinity and elevated sports and athletes above their occupation,” Brentin said. “Through this process sport became a pillar of Croatian national identity.”
Win or lose Sunday, the current Croatian team has surpassed the achievements of the 1998 squad by reaching the World Cup final. But ascending to the heights of 1998 in the national consciousness might require this team to beat France and become the champion.
As the announcers have reminded us several times during this tournament, some Croatian fans have not embraced the current team and, in particular, its star, Luka Modric, in quite the same way as they took to Suker and Boban. That’s in no small part because Modric and his teammates are chasing a national myth from the 1990s on top of a sporting one.
Modric himself was touched at an early age by the violence that plagued the region. His grandfather, after whom he was named, was among those brutally killed during the Balkan wars. He died when Modric was just 6 years old. And Modric and his family were internally displaced in his youth, living in a hotel in the town of Zadar.
An undersized player, he managed to rise through Croatia’s top league and move on to the English Premier League before taking on a prominent role at the powerhouse Spanish club Real Madrid, where he won the past three Champions League titles alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. Modric’s superior midfield play has helped drive Croatia, a nation of just 4 million people, to the final match of what is possibly the most compelling sporting event in the world.
But Modric also faces perjury charges at home related to an alleged kickback scheme involving a powerful soccer executive. Some fans consider him an example of corruption in the sport. Paying kickbacks on a deal is bad, no question, but it hardly seems like the kind of infraction that would stop supporters from rooting for a star athlete. Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, soccer’s two biggest stars over the past decade, have both been ensnared in tax-evasion cases with few repercussions for their public images.
But in Croatia, it appears you have to be almost perfect to match the idealized version of the players from two decades ago. So perhaps sporting perfection will be required by Modric on Sunday to overcome personal failings.
“If they win the World Cup, like with Messi and Ronaldo, who failed to pay taxes, this will be forgotten,” Brentin said.
Milekic, the reporter in Zagreb, said attitudes were already shifting. “There is a group of fans mad at Modric,” he said, but added that the semifinal victory over England and the prospect of winning it all has people forgetting “all about that.”
“Nobody was expecting this from them,” he said of Croatia’s battle to the World Cup final. “This was way over expectations.”
“Football is sacred,” Suker said in a recent interview. “We built the foundation for our house in ’98, and now we’re building the second floor.”
My cousin’s father would have enjoyed watching this team’s three come-from-behind victories in the knockout stages, all of which required 30 grueling minutes of extra time, but he has since died. These players will be celebrated, and emulated, but I wonder if they’ll get any shrines. Perhaps Sunday’s result will provide the answer.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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