It’s a tough time to be a fan of Croatian football.
I’ll say it now, and I’ve said it before, the Croatian national team was a significant identifier for me growing up as a Croatian in the United States. Supporting them in every World Cup and Euro competition from afar, wearing Croatian shirts across California, and confiding in Croatian strangers I’d stumble upon in unexpected places while watching them lose, was a sign of comfort. For me, the Croatian national team was a symbol of being Croatian in America.
Now that I live in Croatia, I’ve been lucky enough to frequent all of the national team matches played at home this year. The first game I attended was in Zagreb against Ukraine, the first game Croatia was allowed fans in almost two years. Morale was high, fans were excited, and a nearly sold out and screaming Maksimir stadium was a moment I’ll remember forever. We won that game, and at the time, there was no question of whether we would qualify for the World Cup in Russia next year.
The following World Cup qualifier played in Croatia was against Kosovo, also played at Maksimir stadium. The match, unfortunately, was a short time after Croatian captain Luka Modrić changed his testimony in the trial against Zdravko Mamić – forcing many fans to question their support of Croatian football. While this was the second home match for the team this year, Maksimir stadium was not able to enjoy a sellout. Sure, there was a considerable amount of rain and struggling through 90 minutes in a soaked poncho may not have been desirable for many, but for those who did decide to attend the match, the stands were quiet.
Because the game was ultimately canceled due to the weather and an utterly unplayable pitch, Croatia had their rematch against Kosovo the following day to even fewer fans. The result, which was expected to be much higher, ended 1:0 for Croatia. The team and then coach Ante Čačić was ridiculed. It was evident that there was a lack of heart on the pitch, and media reports across the country called out the players for selfishness and a genuine lack of motivation. With World Cup still on the horizon, would this be a team worthy of representing our nation?
I decided to make the trip to Rijeka from Split yesterday for the national team match against Finland. While my support for the team has been dwindling much like the rest of the country, I woke up at 3 am to catch a 5 am bus to Rijeka, traveled seven hours, and felt that clinching on to that last bit of hope I had for our players was well worth the journey. Thousands of fans across the country made the same trip as I did – and they remained hopeful as well.
This was the first Croatian national team match played at Rujevica, a stadium I’ve been wanting to visit after watching Rijeka play many times on television this year. While Rijeka’s fan group Armada called for a boycott of the match, I wasn’t sure if the 8,000 capacity stadium would be a sellout based on the last game at Maksimir. The game, after all, would also be played on anti-Mamić territory.
Sure enough, fans from all over the country found the strength to show their support, and while the stadium could not call for a sellout, the crowd was better than I had expected. It was also the 100th national team match for Croatian captain Luka Modrić – a moment that would typically call for a celebration. Unfortunately, we were far from that.
Once again, fans of Croatian football struggled to unite for the national team, not just in their cheering, but in their backing of the players, the coach, and the Croatian Football Federation.
What should have been a clear win for the national team was a more than mediocre display of the players – apart from Luka Modrić, of course, who time and time again was forced to carry the ten players behind him. There was not an ounce of passion, quality, or unity the team showed last night, and as expected, the “fans” in the stands booed the team off the pitch at halftime.
While there were bursts of good play, Ivan Rakitić, starting midfield for one of the best clubs in the world, was a deer in the headlights. And if Domagoj Vida was not there to save the day, the result could have fared much worse. At this point, the C team of players we brought to play in the friendly match against Mexico in Los Angeles would have done better – at the very least; they showed that they wanted to be there. And hell, they accomplished what 99% of us thought was impossible. They won.
After whistles, more boos, and chants of “Čačić, out!” were heard in the stands, fans of Croatian football got what they wanted today – and Ante Čačić is no longer the coach of the Croatian team. While this should call for a celebration across the country, was Čačić the ultimate problem? Is just changing the coach enough? Are these players worthy of representing our nation? Will Davor Šuker ever step down? I’m sure these are the questions many of you are having as well.
Today, Croatia has appointed a new coach to the national team, and Zlatko Dalić will take over the team to make his debut for the crucially important match against Ukraine in Kiev on Monday. If the players have any hope of advancing to the World Cup in Russia next year, a win is a must, and to be totally honest – I can’t say I’m hopeful we will advance if we enter the playoff round of qualifications for the competition.
While I don’t know what exactly is going on in the heads of the players considered worthy enough of wearing our Croatian colors, I can only hope that they can find the strength to show their passion, their heart, and their respect for the fans, like me, who have traveled countless hours to watch them play.
The players on the pitch aren’t the only ones to suffer heartbreak after a loss. And at this point, I have a feeling the dream of the national team is dwindling for them as well.
Here’s hoping, time and time again.