Croatia National Football Team’s BLM Controversy and Historical Context

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There is nothing the media likes more than a bit of controversy. The Croatian Football Federation and the country’s national team are well aware of this. They recently came under a bit of scrutiny when it became known that the players will not be taking a knee before the game against England this Sunday.

EURO 2020 is upon us and it will dominate the news around the continent for the next month or more. Some of the first titles to appear to have to do with the Black Lives Matter movement and the symbolic gesture seen mostly on the British football fields. Following some American athletes, football players in England started kneeling before the games in support of the BLM movement. Sometimes teams from other parts of Europe join in and sometimes they don’t. The Croatian National Football team caused a stir during their last friendly match against Belgium. The Belgian players took a knee at the beginning of the match, and the Croats didn’t. While the national football association (HNS) pretty much explained everything in their statement released a few days ago, this situation gives us a chance to talk about the underlying cause of the entire issue – the fight against slavery.

Croatian Heritage

Slavery, one of the most shameful activities in human history, has a long and sad tradition. So does the fight against it. While all the countries in the world have abolished slavery, it is by no means completely eradicated. We’re still seeing human trafficking and slave labour across many parts of the world. To find out how to fight against it, we might want to look at some successful historical examples. The most important one might be the Dubrovnik Republic, the first European country to abolish slavery. Yes, the southernmost part of Croatia was once its own country in many ways, officially starting from 1358 and lasting until 1808. During this time, this small republic became one of the most successful city-states of the entire Mediterranean. The Dubrovnik Republic’s large and powerful merchant navy and excellent diplomatic skills allowed them to thrive in a politically turbulent area.

The Dubrovnik Republic’s Decision

At the peak of its power, in 1416, this aristocratic European merchant force voted in favour of a law prohibiting slavery and the slave trade. It was a remarkably interesting decision and one they had all the intention of keeping. The Dubrovnik Republic was a no-nonsense place when it came to laws and regulations. The punishments for transgressions were swift and serious as we already talked about in a related text.  Anyone caught selling or buying a slave would have to pay reparations and would be imprisoned in the toughest prison cells for six months.

This is nothing compared to those who made the slave trade into a business. These people would have to free all of their slaves, and then their eyes would be gauged out. If they didn’t comply with freeing the slaves, the sentence was death by hanging. However, the most interesting part of the story concerns the financing of the slave trade. Bankers who worked with slave traders would also be imprisoned. All this was done in the very heart of Europe of that time, centuries before the United Kingdom in the North abolished slavery and almost half of the millennium before the USA did the same. Interestingly, the Dubrovnik Republic wasn’t the first place in modern-day Croatia to abolish slavery. It was actually the island of Korcula in 1214. Korcula wasn’t its own country, but this is still a strong testament to the heritage of the anti-slavery fight by the Croatian people.  

A Valuable Gesture?

Regardless of history, you might be for or against the Croatian National Football team’s decision to not take a knee. The fact remains, that the BLM movement is a movement for the better rights of an oppressed minority and as such it will have the support of any right-minded individual. The only question is, at what point do gestures like this go from being a powerful statement by people directly affected by the issue, to becoming an Instagrammable trend followed by random individuals across the world without really knowing anything about the movement itself.

One trend that has been dead for a long time is brutal honesty. Let me try to revive it by saying that with the historical context kept in mind, perhaps those playing under the European flags of England or Belgium have a little bit more reason to kneel before the movement for the rights of people of African descent than those playing under the flag of Croatia.

For more on the Croatian National Football team, follow our sport section.


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