'Checkers' determined to ensure 'Football's Brexit'
The horrors of war and political chaos are all around but the nation is savouring this moment
The Roman Forum is about the only corner of Zadar to have escaped the cruellest ravages of war. "The Dresden of the Adriatic", this long-suffering city was dubbed, after 12 months of Allied bombardment from November 1943 all but erased it from the map.
From the Barbarian invasions to the shelling by Serb forces during the Croatian War of Independence, it has been Zadar's misfortune to lie perpetually in the crossfire. And yet somehow, through it all, the Church of St Donatus, the largest pre-Romanesque building in the country, is still standing after over 1,000 years, an imperishable monument to resilience.
Next to it, in what looks at first a jarring juxtaposition, is a giant makeshift cinema screen, where fans will gather to watch tonight's semi-final with England, Croatia's most significant game since their beloved "Class of 1998", led by Davor Suker and Slaven Bilic, reached the last four in France. All Croatian supermarkets are closing before kick-off in anticipation of a party like no other.
Here in Zadar, locals have greater reason than most to toast the national team, the Vatreni (literally, "those who are made of fire"). Luka Modric, Croatia's most globally-recognised talent, was born in a nearby hamlet and forced to flee to the city as a child, living with his family at the Hotel Iz.
Executed His grandfather, also Luka, was executed by Serb rebels in 1991. Sime Vrsaljko also traces his roots to this region, having played youth football here. So, too, does Danijel Subasic, the goalkeeper whose saves have illuminated this World Cup, and who has incurred Fifa's wrath by wearing a T-shirt in tribute to his friend, Hrvoje Custic, killed on the pitch at his hometown club NK Zadar.
Custic died when, playing a league game against HNK Cibalia in 2008, he fell into a concrete barrier surrounding the pitch at Stadion Stanovi. It is here that I meet Mario Grgurovic, who works for Zadar's academy, a former team-mate of Custic's and a midfielder accomplished enough to have once been Modric's closest childhood contemporary. "We started training together at 10 years old," Grgurovic says. "It was difficult at first to tell he would be such a great player. When he first arrived at Dinamo Zagreb, he went on loan, to Zrinjski Mostar. Now he is at Real Madrid, he is still, to me, a modest guy; very humble. Not like Ronaldo."
Not every testimony to Modric is so glowing. For all his disciples, he also invites hostility from sections of the Croatian population due to his uncomfortably close relationship with Zdravko Mamic, previously the executive director of Dinamo Zagreb and now a convicted felon who has escaped a prison term for embezzlement and tax evasion by escaping to neighbouring Bosnia.
Modric was accused of "false testimony" about his £16.5 million transfer from Dinamo to Tottenham, from which Mamic allegedly took a staggering £7.5 million cut. The dichotomy is stark: where Modric finds himself feted by outsiders as a creative genius for Real Madrid, he is castigated in some Hajduk Split chants as a "little s**t".
This type of polarity finds echoes throughout the Croatian game. Even at this high-water mark in Russia, there is one Hajduk fan group, called Torcida, agitating on social networks against them, due to accusations of corruption at the national federation. Not that these appear to bother Suker, president of the Croatian FA and winner of the Golden Boot in 1998, who shrugged: "When the tournament starts, we'll all be in checkers."
It is a symbol of national recognition, the checkerboard, covering the main shield of the Croatian coat of arms. Even in the days of the former Yugoslavia, the alternate red-and-white squares formed a banner under which Croats celebrated their identity.
Even though Croatia plan to line up in black against England this evening, to avoid a colour clash, it is the checkered shirt that Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, the country's president, has been wearing at the knockout matches. For the shoot-out win over Denmark in Nizhny Novgorod, she forsook her VIP box in favour of standing with the fans. Not that this picture of a head of state at one with her people is straightforward, given that her birthday party in 2015 was organised by none other than Mamic.
Igor Stimac, the former Croatia manager who had stints at West Ham and Derby County, expresses a sense of wonder that a nation of just 4.1 million punches so consistently above its weight, especially in light of its dysfunctional politics. "It is remarkable that a country without proper training facilities, without many modern stadiums, without any TV rights money, without any government help in fighting hooligans, and with a home league full of underpaid players, still manages to be so productive," he says. "With the exception of the three biggest clubs, most players work for €1,000-€3,000 a month. It's clear evidence that the game's only two good things here are pure talent and great coaches."
Franjo Tudjman, Croatia's first president, famously declared: "After war, sport is the first thing you can distinguish nations by." That much was evident in the wake of the Vatreni's cherished "bronze medal", their third-place finish at France 98. Miroslav Blazevic, the coach, was lavish in his sycophancy, saying of the president: "Without him, all my young players would represent Yugoslavia, not Croatia. Without his bravery, we would not have experienced any of this."
In Tudjman's words, World Cup success brought Croatia back to its "initial sense of unity". His critics lamented that the upsurge of patriotism merely papered over a deep-rooted political and economic crisis after years of conflict, and sport had been cynically co-opted by his regime to detract from indictments for war crimes.
Logic Dario Brentin, a specialist in this field at the University of Graz, has argued that sport serves in Croatia as a potent instrument in creating a distinctive sense of nationhood.
Such logic surely holds in the build-up to this semi-final. On online news portals, there have been as many mentions of Croatia in the last 12 hours as in the previous three years, while the front-page of 'Jutarnji', the biggest-selling national daily, proclaims: "Tomorrow is football Brexit!"
Indeed, in this of all weeks, the English can hardly suggest that Croatians have a monopoly on political chaos. The tone of the editorial, though, is playful rather than belligerent. There are mentions of the sporting ties that bind the two sides: the fact that the English played cricket on the island of Vis in the Napoleonic era, that their sugar factory workers imported football to Croatia in the 1880s, even that Sir Fitzroy Maclean, Churchill's special envoy to Tito's Yugoslavia, ended up buying a house on Korcula.
Croatia will, however fleetingly, shake off its troubles to relish an intoxicating showpiece in Moscow. A sense is crystallising that their star names, from Modric to Mario Mandzukic, from Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic to Dejan Lovren of Liverpool, represent a golden generation to stand comparison with the vintage of '98 - even if Stimac, a centre-back then, insists that the 2018 crop have had a "far easier" path to this stage than 20 years ago, when Croatia achieved a 3-0 win over Germany.
It is a view that reflects the discord running through this passionate football land, where, even on its most auspicious of days, little is quite as it seems. (© Daily Telegraph, London)