November the 8th, 2023 – Croatia abounds in sporting talent, ranging from skiing to football and from basketball to tennis. Here are five Croatian sporting heroes from past and present that put this country on the map.
Luka Modrić (Football)
The name that the whole world now knows from The Beautiful Game is of course the one and only Luka Modrić. The winner of the Ballon d’Or (2018) hails from the same place that bears his surname – Modrići, in the hinterland of the wider Zadar area. His humble beginnings were shown to the world back in 2018 in a poignant video in which a young Luka Modrić is seen as a slip of a boy aged just five herding goats in the hills above Zadar. Growing up during the Croatian War of Independence meant a significant amount of time spent in danger and uncertainty for the young Modrić, who wanted nothing more than to play football. His beloved grandfather was murdered in cold blood after Modrići was captured by the marauding Serbs, after which the remaining members of the Modrić family sought refuge in a hotel in Zadar. These unstable and traumatic circumstances only strengthened the Ronaldo Nazario-idolising Modrić and his desire for football. It’s needless to say that Modrić’s dogged determination and constant work on his ability has more than paid off, for himself and for the global view of Croatian football as a whole.
Dražen Petrović (Basketball)
This remarkable basketball player is one of the Croatian sporting heroes who died tragically and prematurely. Born in Sibenik in 1964, Dražen Petrović won many awards, including the Olympic Order, and is remembered for his astonishing skill on the basketball court. Named Mr Europa twice, he was awarded the Golden Badge and was rightfully declared the best athlete in all of the former Yugoslavia. Horrifically, Dražen’s promising life was cut much too short after he was killed in a traffic accident in Germany on the 7th of June 1993. The Dražen Petrović Basketball Hall was named after him, he was posthumously enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the FIBA Hall of Fame, and had the Dražen Petrović Award named in his honour. In 2013, he was named the best European basketball player to have ever existed. His grave can be visited at Zagreb’s iconic Mirogoj cemetery today.
Sandra Perković (Discus)
Born in Zagreb and known as the Discus Queen, Sandra Perković has made a huge name for herself among the long list of Croatian sporting heroes. She is a two-time Olympic and world champion, as well as a six-time European champion. With those titles, she’s achieved something no other female athlete in any sport has managed to. She has been crowned the best Croatian female athlete of the year multiple times and has been an inspiration and an idol to a great many young Croatian girls hoping to break through in all kinds of athletics and sporting disciplines.
Mirko Filipović (MMA)
Known as Cro Cop, Mirko Filipovic is is a mixed martial artist and kickboxer from Vinkovci who began his sporting path by training in his dad’s garage as a teen after watching Jean Van Damme in action. Raised in a working class family in struggling eastern Croatia, he is widely considered to be among the best MMA fighters and heavyweight kickboxers of all time. Cro Cop, whose name derives from his time spent employed as part of the well-known Lučko Anti-Terrorist Unit, has even served as a member of the Croatian Parliament after having being elected as an independent Social Democratic Party candidate. Known for his deadly roundhouse kick, described as his signature move, Cro Cop’s talents were quickly recognisable as he rose through the proverbial sporting ranks, seeing him dabble in amateur boxing, for which he took home an array of medals. Cro Cop retired in 2019 following a stroke which made him concerned for his overall health and decide to quite while he was ahead.
Goran Ivanišević (Tennis)
Another of the Croatian sporting heroes to shine a light on the talent this country has for producing sportspeople and athletes of an enviably wide range is Split-born Goran Ivanišević. He is the only tennis player to have ever won the Wimbledon mens singles title as a wild card. Now coaching Serbian tennis sensation Novak Djokovic, he’s as famed for his coaching skills as he is for what he can do out on the court in person. Having gone professional back in 1988 for the then Yugoslavia, he played for that now defunct state until 1992, after which he picked up the racket for the then newly independent Republic of Croatia, which he played for until 2004. Indicted into the Tennis Hall of Fame back in 2020, this Croatian tennis star is known for his strong serve and a very aggressive, quick-paced game. In addition to being the only person ever win the Wimbledon mens singles title (2001), he’s also crowned with having the most aces of any player in any single season from 1991 until now.