Small Country, Big Success: A Look at Croatia’s Celebrated Sports History

Daniela Rogulj



Croatia, the “biggest sports nation in the world”. You might have heard this saying a few times before, and it’s not without reason – Croatia’s success in sports is genuinely fascinating given the small size of the country, so today, we look at Croatia’s celebrated sports history. 

While this topic may be a bit overdone, considering the attention Croatia received after the success at the World Cup in Russia this summer, Croatians and their pride aren’t the only ones to blame. Recall, the renowned German Bild, also inspired by the magnificent success of Croatian football in Russia, concluded that Croatia, as a sporting nation with only four million people, achieved incredible results in almost all sports.

2018 is undoubtedly the most successful year of Croatian sport. Our footballers are the World Cup finalists, the Sinković brothers are World Champions in rowing, Dino Rađa became a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, and our tennis heroes won the Davis Cup title for the second time. And these are just some of the highest achievements.

The Germans were right when they wrote with enthusiasm about the success of Croatian sport, and while it is nearly impossible to choose the best, here are 12 of the most grandiose moments in Croatian sports history, reports on November 25, 2018. 

1) Croatia becomes World Cup finalists 

Croatians spent an entire month this summer dreaming with their eyes open. The whole country took each breath in unison with the national team. Zlatko Dalić and his players managed to unite the divided country – those who lean left and right – and those around the world who feel Croatia in their soul. Though Croatia did not win the gold thanks to an impeccable French side, the team showed they had the hearts of champions in Russia, giving the entire world reason to fall in love with the small but mighty country.

France, an economic giant of almost 70 million people, and Croatia, a state of only 4.5 million people who, besides sport, care about almost nothing else, played in the World Cup final. Croatia, a country without a proper stadium, and with an unstable economy, played against a national team whose players are worth more than a billion euro. In the World Cup. In football!

2) Three Olympic gold medals and one silver for Janica Kostelić in Salt Lake City

Janica Kostelić, perhaps the most prominent Croatian female athlete of all time and probably the most significant female skier in history achieved one of the most beautiful sports stories ever told in 2002 at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Janica claimed four Olympic medals – three gold and one silver.

3) Goran Ivanišević wins Wimbledon 

Every Croatian knows precisely where they were and what they were doing on Monday, July 9, 2001, when Goran Ivanišević used his fourth match point in the Wimbledon final against Patrick Rafter.

4) Croatia basketball wins the Olympic silver in 1992

While war broke out in Croatia, Croatian basketball players achieved the greatest success in the history of Croatian basketball at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Croatia played in the final of the Olympics against the USA. Croatia’s ‘Dream Team’, which included Dražen Petrović, Toni Kukoč, and Dino Rađa, rivaled against Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and other iconic international basketball stars. Before the final, not many people knew about Croatia, though that quickly changed.

5) Croatia wins World Cup bronze medal in 1998

The summer of 1998 was the summer of pride and glory. Croatian footballers were international sensations and became the third best nation in the world. Ćiro Blažević became the coach of all coaches, Davor Šuker won the ‘Golden Boot’ of the World Cup, and the ‘Vatreni’ became the model for future generations of Croatian footballers.

6) Croatia wins Davis Cup in 2018 

After the World Cup final in football, France and Croatia met again in the Davis Cup finals. France, a country that won the Davis Cup ten times and played in the finals a total of eight times, was the logical choice to win. But Croatia, away in Lille, was the one to win the Davis Cup for the second time in history.

7) 2004 Olympic gold for Croatian handball in Athens 

Handball is a symbol of Croatian sports and the most celebrated collective sport in Croatia. The handball players of Zagreb were the European champions, and the national team has won everything they could. Two Olympic gold medals, one World Championship gold medal, and countless other medals have been won. While we could have opted for the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta in 1996, as it was the first Croatian Olympic gold medal in general, 2004 was far more exciting. In only a year, the Croatia handball team went from the worst in Europe (2002), to the best in the world (2003), before going on to win the gold in Athens in 2004.

8) Croatia’s Davis Cup win in 2005

Ivan Ljubičić and Mario Ančić wrote some of the most beautiful pages of Croatian tennis and Croatian sports history when they won the 2005 Davis Cup in Bratislava.

9) Croatia wins 2012 Olympic gold in water polo 

The Olympic gold in London was the crown to what coach Ratko Rudić achieved. The second most accomplished coach in the history of the sport first won the World Championships, then the European, and finally the Olympic gold in 2012.

10) Sandra Perković wins Olympic gold in Rio 

In the history of athletics, it is difficult to name someone as dominant in their discipline as Sandra Perković. The best discus thrower of all time has for years had no real competition, and winning the gold in Rio was the crown on the marvelous career of this Croatian sports heroine.

11) Mirko Filipović wins the PRIDE belt in 2006

Mirko Filipović achieved his biggest career success on his 32nd birthday in 2006, when he won the PRIDE Champion belt. It was the first MMA belt of his career, which he won after knocking out the legendary Wanderlei Silva and defeating Josh Barnett in the third round. For the past decade, PRIDE has been one of the most popular and most powerful MMA organizations in the world, featuring the greatest stars of martial arts.

12) Iva Majoli wins Roland Garros in 1997

Croatia is a country of tennis, with a tradition even before the Second World War when Josip Palada, Franjo Punčec, and Dragutin Mitić were the great names of the tennis world. Later, it was Nikola Pilić and Željko Franulović, followed by Goran Ivanišević, Ivan Ljubičić, Marin Čilić, and Borna Ćorić. Croatian tennis players have won the Grand Slam and the Davis Cup, but only once has one of Croatia’s best female stars reached the top. In a move that shocked the tennis world, Iva Majoli won Roland Garros in 1997.

To read more about sports in Croatia, follow TCN’s dedicated page here


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