Croatia at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar: Andrej Kramaric and how football helped to define this country in the wake of war – Sky Sports

Andrej Kramaric on the FIFA film that helps to explain the emotion that Croatia’s players feel when representing their country and why national pride continues to inspire them as the finalists from 2018 try to go one better at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar
Comment and Analysis @ghostgoal
Wednesday 16 November 2022 11:15, UK
When Luka Modric was named FIFA footballer of the year for 2018 following his Golden Ball win at that summer’s World Cup, he dedicated the award to Zvonimir Boban. “This trophy is not just mine,” said Modric.
“I would like to mention my footballing idol, the captain of Croatia from the generation of 1998. He was my big inspiration and that team gave us belief that we could achieve something great in Russia.”
Modric will captain Croatia once more at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar but even if the great midfielder were no longer on the pitch, that red-and-white check thread that runs through the country’s football history would continue.
Right from the beginning, the game has been at the centre of it all. “If we can talk about creating a national identity through sport,” Boban himself has argued, “Croatia should be number one in the world.”
Boban makes that point in a fascinating new FIFA film that explores Croatia’s relationship with itself and puts the World Cup successes of 1998 and 2018 in the context of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s.
It is clear that 30 years on from the disintegration of Yugoslavia, that background continues to explain not just Croatia’s past but its future too. Those events still resonate with the players of today.
Asked by Sky Sports to reflect on the film, Croatia striker Andrej Kramaric says: “I would recommend everyone watches it. Then people would understand what Croatia is, why we have these emotions, why we are so proud to be Croatian and why we give 200 per cent on the pitch.
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“I think this movie describes everything. There is so much emotion, so much passion, and it is one of the reasons, of course, why the generation of 1998 pushed us to do better. It is one of the best movies for me.”
At an exclusive screening of the film – Croatia: Defining a Nation – in London this summer, former war correspondent Martin Bell described the war in the Balkans as the worst conflict that he has witnessed. And he has seen 18 war zones up close.
“This was the most brutal of all wars,” he explains. “Civil wars always are.” It is not just the raw numbers – 98,000 dead, two million driven from their homes. It is the personal nature of it. “You had instances where men were killed by the best man at their wedding.”
That is the context of Croatia’s rebirth, the reason why the war remains, according to Bell, “in the psyche of the nation”. And if it seems crass to think that a game can play any meaningful part in such matters, consider Bell’s own assessment of football’s role.
“I think it can be defining in the way that religion can be defining.”
There is an irony in FIFA’s attempts to distance football and politics in Qatar at a time when they are also promoting this extraordinary film. Football does not just walk hand in hand with politics. It is politics.
Almost two years prior to Croatia’s admittance into FIFA, they played their first unofficial international – against the United States in Zagreb.
“It was like an icon we could use to promote Croatia in the best possible light,” said Aljosa Asanovic, the scorer of their first goal that evening in October 1990. “I feel that I opened a path for myself and the boys that followed.”
In the subsequent years, the importance of sport was underlined as athletes were cast in the role of ambassadors. Slam-winning tennis stars such as Iva Majoli and Goran Ivanisevic spread the message, while footballers reminded the world of Croatia’s place in it.
“That part always hurt me,” said Boban of his move to Milan. He felt helpless, perhaps even guilty that he was enjoying life while his compatriots suffered back home. Others tried to embrace their role. “We were fighting to put Croatia on the map,” said Davor Sukur.
In the case of Petar Krpan, that was a literal truth. “I went to the front line, grabbed a Kalashnikov and defended our country.” He was just 17 years old at the time and would go on to be part of the 1998 World Cup squad alongside Sukur and Boban.
It is hard to imagine what he endured but easier to understand why representing Croatia means more. We were playing for the people who died,” said Slaven Bilic. “We were playing for a whole movement.” Igor Stimac cries just thinking of wearing the shirt.
“I would not say that Yugoslavia was not mine because it was,” said Boban. “But to play for Croatia was the stuff of dreams.”
Does that really still apply to the next generation? How much can patriotism truly explain the ongoing success of this relatively small country? How do Croatia continue to maintain such an oversized presence in the global game?
“Beautiful women,” suggests Kramaric rather breezily when asked to come up with a reason why so many young men are inspired. “It is football, basketball, handball, it doesn’t matter which sport, we are just gifted and born with talent.
“It is really crazy that a nation of four million has so much talent. And to be really honest, every year you can find new players who are fantastic. There are so many more behind the scenes but sometimes the wrong character of lifestyle doesn’t show their talent.”
He offers a more emotional explanation when sharing memories of Croatia’s run to the World Cup final in Moscow four years ago.
“Of course, the last World Cup in Russia was amazing. To play in the final is still unreal. It was something amazing, something special, which is hard to describe.
“We had an amazing atmosphere. We had 52 days with the squad. That is not so easy but we had a family atmosphere. After the group phase, the Argentina game that we won 3-0, we believed after that moment we could reach something big. That happened in Russia.
“We did not realise what was happening in Croatia. When we came back it was something impossible, something unreal. The atmosphere, the people, this celebration I think will never happen again in my life and maybe in the history of Croatia.
“It would be nice to feel it again but it was something crazy. It will stay forever in our memories. It was maybe the most special moment in my life.”
He was not alone in that. Others felt the parallels with all that came before perhaps even more keenly. Zlatko Dalic, Croatia’s head coach in Russia and Qatar, not only lived through the war but had team-mates past and present in that 1998 World Cup squad.
Modric’s grandfather, after whom he was named, was killed by Serbian militia at the outset of the hostilities. Dejan Lovren lost a close relative in the fighting and had to flee the region as a child. He still remembers hiding in the basement as the sirens went off.
They are the senior players in this squad. Their stories ensure that the oral history continues. Football’s role in Croatia’s creation myth continues to inspire.
Will the 2022 World Cup see them take the final step?
“It is going to be interesting,” says Kramaric.
“We are playing in the last few months really great football. I have to be honest we have a great team with great young players, great experienced players. If we perform like we have in the last few months we can achieve nice things. In football, as in life, you need luck.
“It is going to be hard. But also it is good that we maybe don’t have so much pressure because we did amazing things in Russia. But we still wish and we still want to achieve more.
“If you just see one example of Luka Modric. He has won everything in the Champions League and how he is playing at the moment at 37 years old, he is just the perfect example for us younger players that you want more, you want to be better and you want to win games. Croatia are going to be like this at the World Cup.
“We are going to be fully motivated. I am not going to say that we are a better team than four years ago. If I say we are a better team then we should win the World Cup. It was 20 years ago [before] that we were third. Maybe in 20 years we will win the World Cup.”
Whatever happens in the next month, whatever happens by 2042, football will continue to play its part in defining Croatia as a nation.
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