Croatia and football go hand in hand

9:36 pm on 11 July 2018

by Adriana Weber

Little did I know when I booked a month-long trip to Croatia that I'd spend most of it glued to a TV screen.

Croatia's players celebrate a goal during the extra time win over Russia in the World Cup quarter-final.

Croatia's players celebrate a goal during the extra time win over Russia in the World Cup quarter-final. Photo: AFP

For all its beauty, its rugged coastline, ancient walled cities and pristine waters - which would rival those found in the Pacific - my eyes have instead been firmly fixed on a group of tiny, uniformed figures on TV.

I've become a football addict. It's something I thought was about as likely as winning the lottery, having only ever watched the game to salivate over the deliciously-good looking players (Christiano Ronaldo? Mats Hummels anyone?).

Cristiano Ronaldo earns his first yellow of the match for taking his shirt off.

Cristiano Ronaldo earns his first yellow of the match for taking his shirt off. Photo: Photosport

But the Croatians' love for the sport is simply infectious. On every street corner there is a string of Croatian flags billowing in the breeze and swarms of locals in checked football shirts. Even life-sized cut-outs of some of the country's most loved players, the likes of Mario Mandžukić and Ivan Rakitić, greet at supermarket doors, a confident smile fixed upon their faces.

And the football madness has only grown as the team have progressed through to their second World Cup semi-final since the Croatian national team was formed in 1990. It's a buzz that is everywhere: A chorus of cheers, fireworks and chanting in the streets. I've never experienced anything like it.

At first, it was the offer of cheap wine in a narrow alleyway in Dubrovnik's Old Town that lured me into watching a game.

After Croatia's first match and win of the tournament I noticed a local sitting a few seats away with a smoke balanced in his fingers. He turned to me and proclaimed, with a thick accent, that he loved football more than cigarettes and that loving football went hand-in-hand with loving his country.

The sentiment was no exaggeration: The patriotism surrounding the sport here in Croatia is everywhere. Entire families, children and their grandparents, relish the chance to watch the game.

When Croatia faced a usually formidable Argentina, a few friends and I stumbled upon a little family-run bar on the outskirts of Pula, a city known for its beautifully preserved Roman amphitheatre. The owner quickly set to work pulling our table closer to the TV so we sat amongst his daughters, a handful of local patrons and about a dozen children waving flags, clad in the team's colours.

Croatia triumphed 3-0 and as the whistle blew marking full-time, there was an explosion of cheers, not only from the bar but from inside all the little limestone houses surrounding it. The children sang and danced, the grandparents embraced and the bar owner's grin was as wide as my waistline after weeks of eating too many Croatian pastries.

He was so elated that he offered to drive us home in his plush Audi A5, a welcome reprieve from the cramped Volkswagen we've been travelling in. With a firm handshake and brief hug, he said goodbye with a toothy smile still etched on his face.

Local Stjepan Jelačić grew up on a diet of football. We met through his work as a guide for the popular sailing company, Sail Croatia. He sees football as a way to bring the country's 4.2 million people together.

Ante Rebic of Croatia about to be challenged by Thomas Delaney of Denmark

Ante Rebic of Croatia about to be challenged by Thomas Delaney of Denmark Photo: Photosport

"When Croatia gained its independence from what was then Yugoslavia, sport was a great way of showing love for our country and promoting it worldwide," he said in flawless English.

"People still talk about France in 1998, three years after the war ended, where we managed to come third in the Football World Cup. For such a small country, that's a great success."

As for Croatia's chances of success in this year's competition, he's convinced the team can triumph over England.

"People here have been ecstatic. Every game makes them go more and more crazy! The boats are blowing their horns and flares light up the sky everywhere. I think we can take England, straight on. It's not 'coming home' boys, it's going to Croatia!"

For the sake of my newly acquired love of football, and with that, love for this beautiful country, I hope so too.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs

We have regular online commentary of local and international sport.