Yes Croatia came second in the FIFA World Cup 2018, yes the team Captain Luka Modric won the Golden Ball for best player at the FIFA World Cup 2018 and – yes the Croatian national pride and spirit are infectious; exhilarating.
Experiencing the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Croatia has been eye-opening for me; the demonstrated unity and love for Croatia was, to my memory, only matched in August 1995 as Croatian defence forces in military action “Oluja/Storm” liberated a large part of Serb-occupied Croatian territory and, hence, won the war for independence – when independent Croatia was crowned in decisive and determined battle.
As facts would tell us Croatia is the smallest country to compete in FIFA World Cup final since 1950. With its 4.3 million people Croatia produced a stunningly winning team of talent most large countries can only dream of. And yet, the Croatian national team doesn’t even have its own stadium or official training camp.
The team’s captain Luka Modric, as most of his generation; grew up in a war zone, experienced his beloved grandfather being murdered by Serbswhen he was 6 years old, ate beans in a shelter to the sound of grenades and had his family’s home burned to the ground by Serbian militants. It is understood the executed grandfather lived with a young Luka and his parents who were then forced to live as refugees, hopping from hostel-to-hostel in the town of Zadar before finding a permanent home. Born in 1985, Modric spent part of his childhood in the Velebit mountain surrounded by signs warning of “Mines — Keep out!”
The 32-year-old spent his early years there and in the nearby village of Zaton Obrovacki until Croatia’s 1990s independence war against Yugoslavian communists and Serbian forces broke out.
Modric ended up playing aged 18 in the Bosnian-Hercegovinan league for Zrinjski Mostar. Fast forward 15 years, through a journey that has taken him from Dinamo Zagreb via Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid. “Even though he still looks like, in the unimprovable words of the Guardian’s Barney Ronay, ‘a little boy dressed as a witch’, he is now one of the best players in the world: a midfielder of fabulous talents, one of the very few who can bend time and space to his will,” wrote British novelist, screenwriter and newspaper columnist Boris Starling on 12 July 2018.
Even though the World Cup ended with silver medal, not gold, Croats stood proudly by their national team and cheered loudly from every corner. The homecoming of the Croatian National Football team on Monday 16 July 2018 was, in today’s standards of community cheer and joy, truly second to none world-wide.
In an outburst of national pride and joy, Croatia rolled out a red carpet and staged a euphoric heroes’ welcome for the national team.
About 500,000 people, majority wearing national red-and-white checkered colours and waving Croatian flags poured into the streets in the capital Zagreb to greet the team. Observers described the homecoming event as the biggest ever in Croatia and if one compares it with country population then most likely this was the biggest event of this nature the world has ever seen. Greeting the team, people lined the whole 15 Km route from Franjo Tudjman Airport (where the plane from Russia landed with the national team on board) to the main city Ban Jelacic square. The cavalcade carrying the national team took over six hours to travel the 15 Km and reach Ban Jelacic square or the main celebration! Along the route, in a roofless bus moving at snail pace as people blocked the streets cheering, the joyful, singing crowd crammed the central squares and the route where the players passed in an open bus, greeting the public and signing autographs.
“Thank you Croatia, thank you Zagreb!” captain Luka Modric told the crowd after the team finally arrived at the central square in the evening.
Midfielder Ivan Rakitic added, “There are no words to describe how we feel now!”
There are no words to describe how Croatia felt. Jubilant, proud – victorious! Congratulations everyone who took part in these hours of absolute joy, triumph and unity! Croatia lives on in pulsating unity!