Croatia’s performance in reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup has reconciled fans with their squad and removed the spotlight from corruption that have plagued the country’s football in recent years.
For the past few weeks Luka Modric’s side have been on everyone’s lips in the Balkan country of around four million people.
As they prepare to face England on Wednesday, coach Zlatko Dalic and players are celebrated as national heroes and their names are chanted on the streets throughout Croatia, while they are described as embodying courage, perfection and humility.
But only a month ago the situation was very different.
“Pray to God they lose it all!” read graffiti and banners, dating back from Euro 2016, notably in the coastal town of Split and the surrounding region.
“Each of your defeats makes us happy, Split wishes you the worst!” read a banner on a bridge in Split after a defeat by Brazil in a friendly in June.
Critics say that murky management within the Croatian football federation has led to huge animosity among many football fans and the public towards both the federation and football in general.
The country has been repeatedly punished by FIFA and UEFA over unruly fans known for throwing flares at matches and chanting fascist slogans.
Recently, Modric and Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren were targeted over their links to the former boss of the Dinamo Zagreb club, businessman Zdravko Mamic, who was sentenced in June to six and a half years in prison in a multi-million-euro corruption case.
Mamic, widely seen as the real boss of the Croatian federation, is currently in hiding in Bosnia.
Both Modric and Lovren testified during Mamic’s trial, over their transfers from Dinamo Zagreb.
The evidence given by Modric, visibly confused and unable to even remember the year he made his debut for the national squad, infuriated fans who feared it could have led to a reduced sentence for Mamic.
The Real Madrid midfielder was indicted over false testimony, punishable in theory by a jail sentence, while Lovren was also investigated.
– Anger forgotten –
But anger from the fans appeared to be forgotten after Modric’s brilliant performances at the World Cup.
Mamic’s trial, insufficient and outdated infrastructure at stadiums, poor-quality refereeing, and the fans’ revolt against the federation and its head Davor Suker created a negative atmosphere around the squad.
Although the success in Russia has lifted the grim mood, the problems with Croatian football remain.
“The worst thing is that the whole of society’s trust in football has been lost,” former international Dario Simic told AFP in April.
Suker, once the adored 1998 World Cup Golden Boot winner, is disliked by fans because he was named head of the federation in 2012 due to Mamic’s lobbying, and is accused of being his puppet.
Suker was re-elected to a four-year-term as the federation (HNS) head last year. A top HNS official, Damir Vrbanovic, tried along with Mamic and sentenced to three years in jail, retained his position.
“The team’s success at the World Cup and all the other issues are not related,” prominent sports journalist Robert Matteoni told AFP.
“What is happening now is the consequence of pure football. Now we have great players and a coach who can draw a maximum from them and this is where this result comes from.”
– Deep changes needed –
After a dramatic win on penalties against Russia, Croatia will play England on Wednesday in front of 80,000 people in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium for a place in the World Cup final.
They have repeated the success of the 1998 team who reached the semi-finals in Croatia’s first World Cup as an independent nation.
Some local media say that once the tournament is over, it could trigger a change for better.
“Maybe football is really coming home. Where it belongs, to Croatia,” commented the influential Jutarnji List paper, playing on the chants in England of “It’s Coming Home” — the resurrected theme song from the 1996 European Championships.
“Croatian football has a chance to turn this ugly page … and start a new history,” the paper said.
But it warned that “after showering in the champagne of victory, not only cosmetic but deep changes should be made.”