A rare mood of elation swept through Croatia after the national team’s victory over England on Wednesday. As I ran up the stairs of my Zagreb apartment, I encountered a group of white and red clad fans waiting for the elevator. I let out a whoop of triumph from the stairs only to be surrounded and hugged by the whole group. We proceeded to jumped up and down, arms wrapped around each other, chanting ‘CROATIA CROATIA’ until the elevator arrived. They went their way and I continued racing up to my floor, where I hoped to join in a similar ritual with my wife, kid and neighbors. As the national team advances to the World Cup final, it seems like there has never been a better time to live in Croatia.
If Croatia’s astounding World Cup run is the first time you’ve heard of the tiny nation, don’t feel bad. Before falling in love with a Croatian woman and moving here from Oklahoma, I thought Croatia had been, or maybe still was, a part of Russia. It wasn’t and isn’t. Croatia is a beautiful country right across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, and has some of the world’s most beautiful, pristine beaches. Once part of Socialist Yugoslavia, the country fought a war for independence in the 1990s, and joined the EU in 2013.
And though we are riding high on World Cup euphoria, the country is facing a host of problems. In the last five years an estimated 300,000 people have left, dropping Croatia’s population to just under 4 million. The owner of the country’s biggest and most successful soccer team, Dinamo Zagreb, recently fled to neighboring Bosnia and Hercegovina after being convicted on fraud charges. And over the last 27 years from 1989-2016 Croatia has experienced the lowest gains in GDP in all of Europe, a paltry 6.5 percent.
But for the last few weeks these problems, which once seemed as insurmountable as they were inevitable, suddenly seem manageable. It’s as if each goal and each advance in the World Cup by the national team is boosting Croatia’s national confidence. For once, the conversation isn’t about difficulties with the country’s corrupt bureaucracy or stories of young, promising graduates moving to Ireland or Germany. Instead, the city streets are filled with smiling faces.
It’s hard to explain the importance of football in Croatia to my American family. For each American championship there is always two US teams to cheer for. The nation is never united behind a single team, and any calls for unity might seem like a political trap. But in Croatia support for the team is organic and genuine. Everyone cheers for the national team, from three year-olds to my 76 year-old mother-in-law. Fandom here is so serious that when the national team plays the whole country comes to a standstill. During the match with England, malls and grocery stores closed early, masses in the Catholic Church were cut short. All so that everyone could get to a TV in time to watch the game. And if you think it’s over after the game, things are just getting started. The parks become filled with late night revelers singing songs until 2-3 am. The incessant honking of car horns fills the night until the wee hours of the morning. What might sound like a cacophony of racket, is actually the sound of victory.
Over the seven years I’ve lived here, I’ve learned that Croatia is a country that often surpasses expectations. When family and friends visit, they can’t believe how beautiful the country’s beaches are. Nor can they believe how charming and pleasant its medieval towns and modern cities are. I mean who would’ve thought a once war-torn, socialist dictatorship would be so pleasant? Moreover, they can’t believe that a country with so many problems and so little resources can do so much. And that’s what Croatia’s advance to the finals is all about. Showing Croatians and the world that despite our problems, despite our size, and our limited resources, we’ve been able to outplay, outlast, and outshine some of the greatest teams on the planet. So, cheer for Croatia in the final game of the World Cup. And win or lose, come visit, you won’t regret it.