It’s taken two nerve-shredding penalty shootouts but 20 years after their memorable class of ’98 achieved the feat, Croatia are back in the semifinals of a World Cup.
Excitement in the country is building ahead of Wednesday’s clash with England in Moscow but not everything is quite as positive as the news from the pitch.
The economy is performing badly, young people are emigrating in droves, state leadership is at an impasse and there is a general political disenchantment. But, thanks to the World Cup, there is finally a reason to rejoice. They are someone in the world of football again — like when they came third in 1998. People are finally proud of their own country again.
“In Croatia, and also in the other former Yugoslavian states, sporting successes are an integral part of the national spirit. Sport plays a central role in terms of national identity,” said Dario Brentin from the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz.
For Brentin, however, this is not surprising “considering what there really is to be proud of in the region — internationally speaking.” The fact is, there’s very little. Other than sports, there is hardly any other area where former Yugoslavian societies can keep up with the international competition.
‘The best sports country in the world‘
In soccer, tennis, handball or water polo, Croatians or Serbs have been achieving above-average success for years. Germany’s Bild newspaper recently described Croatia, with just 4 million inhabitants, as “the best sports country in the world.”