“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything’s a miracle.”
Thus reads the spoken introduction to My Friend by Jacques Houdek, the Croatian entry to the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest, carrying a somewhat bizarre gimmick (a duet between a pop singer and an opera singer except both are the same man) to 13th place in the final. Taken out of that rather odd context, it serves as an oddly appropriate framing device for the country’s national football team.
It’s become easy to take Croatian footballing success for granted after their astonishing World Cup debut in 1998, featuring a 3-0 quarter-final win over a German side who had Christian Wörns sent off shortly before half-time. Croatia finished third at that tournament, and several months later were ranked third in the FIFA World Rankings.
Croatia is also a nation of barely four million people. And the reason that they had never previously appeared in a World Cup is because Croatia essentially did not exist for any previous World Cup.
Prior to World War I, Croatia was a part of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian empire, which collapsed entirely in the aftermath of the war. The Sabor, the Croatian parliament, voted to join a short-lived “Union of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs” that would unite with Serbia to form what would ultimately become Yugoslavia. At no point was the decision to unite with Serbia approved by the Sabor, and its largest party opposed it. The leader of that party, Stjepan Radić, was shot dead in the Yugoslav parliament in 1928, and the fallout from that incident led to Yugoslavia becoming a dictatorship for several years.
During that period, Yugoslavia reached the semi-final of the inaugural World Cup in 1930, stunning Brazil 2-1 in the group stage. Yugoslavia would repeat that performance in Chile in 1962, but in the intervening period it had been subject to enormous upheaval: occupied by Germany and Italy in World War II, captured late in that war by Communist-led resistance and briefly a Soviet puppet state, then cut off from Soviet support after a split between Stalin and the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito in 1948.
Amidst the toppling dominoes of Communist collapse in Europe, Yugoslavia was crumbling amidst its own economic crisis following the death of Tito in 1980. Nationalist movements in each of its constituent republics grew, and Yugoslavia ultimately splintered with the rest of Eastern Europe; Croatia declared independence in June 1991, a declaration that belatedly took effect in October. The Yugoslav People’s Army – in practice, Serbia – soon attacked Croatia, attempting to reclaim it first in full, then latterly in part. More than a quarter of the country was occupied by a self-proclaimed Serbian state until Croatian military victory in 1995, by which time an estimated 20,000 people had died and hundreds of thousands of people had become refugees.
Many of them were children. One of them, the son of a man in the Croatian army, spent seven years of his childhood living in a hotel in the historic coastal city of Zadar with his family. Or, at least, what was left of it after his grandfather was slaughtered in the name of Serbia in December 1991. In that time, this young child would play football in the hotel car park.
In 2018, that car park is filled with the vehicles of tourists visiting a city that was voted the top destination in Europe in a major international online poll, and the kid who played football in it will lead his team onto the pitch in a World Cup final.
When Luka Modrić first kicked a ball against the walls of the Hotel Kolovare, the team he would lead to unthinkable heights weren’t even ratified by UEFA. That didn’t happen until 1993, well after the start of the 1994 World Cup qualification process, and hence the Croatian national team made their competitive international debut in qualification for Euro 96. They not only got there, they beat defending champions Denmark 3-0 in the group stage before losing a quarter-final 2-1 to eventual winners Germany. They would qualify for the World Cup at the first attempt too, again faced a quarter-final with Germany, and this time, stunningly, won it. Only the hosts and eventual winners France would deny them, and even they would have to come from behind. In then winning the third-place playoff against the Netherlands, Croatia’s very first World Cup had taken them to heights never reached by a country they were but one small piece of.
Croatia have only two failed qualification campaigns for major tournaments since then, fewer than the Netherlands in the same period. They have beaten Germany, Italy, and Spain at major championships this century. To then reach, and then win, a semi-final against a country that had never finished better than fourth in a World Cup on foreign soil and was eliminated from the last two major championships by countries with even fewer people than Croatia? Doesn’t sound shocking in that context. Nothing is a miracle.
But hold on. Whoever wins this World Cup final will be the sixth nation since 1954 to do so without home advantage. The other five are Germany, Brazil, Italy, Argentina, and Spain. All of these countries – and France, too – have at least 40 million people. Croatia has four million. Yet here they are, one win away from joining that illustrious company, with no sense that they have pulled off anything more than a standard dark-horse charge to get here given the team they have. Everything’s a miracle.
The official coaches of each national team at the World Cup were embellished with a slogan. Croatia’s, printed in both English and Croatian, read “Small country, big heart.”
A country that ranks outside the top 100 largest in the world by both population and land mass can quite easily be described as small. A country that literally fought for its very existence within the lifetimes of some of the players on the national team bus cannot be easily accused of not having a big heart.
Now, as little as 90 minutes of football could separate Croatia from sporting immortality.
To quote part of the chorus of that same Eurovision entry:
“Do your best, take a chance. Dare to dream and make it real.”