Zagreb rocks: ‘We have heart, we are proud and we have been forged in war’

Julian Borger in Zagreb on 11 July 2018

In case you were wondering, it is “Nogomet dolazi doma” in Croatian. And Croatia is the home which football seemed to be heading to after a helter-skelter World Cup semi-final on Wednesday.

Now the rest of the world will have to work out what makes this country of four million people such a sporting powerhouse but to the crowds celebrating in the streets of Zagreb it was never a mystery.

“We have heart and we are proud and we have been forged in war,” said Marian Kirin, a 39-year-old telecommunications engineer, whose father died in the conflict that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

It is not an uncommon story in a part of Europe still very traumatised by violence. The players in Moscow were not spared. Serbian militiamen killed Luka Modric’s grandfather. As a child Mario Mandzukic was a refugee in Germany.

Hours before kick-off a hundred thousand red and white chequered shirts had converged from all directions on the central square, like a giant rippling tablecloth.

A big screen was set up in the middle of the square named after a 19th-century rebel nobleman, Ban Jelacic, who sat atop a bronze horse with a sideways view of the main screen as a folk band shouted out an anthem boiling over with defiance.

Croatia supporters gathered in a central Zagreb square to watch the match.
Croatia supporters gathered in a central Zagreb square to watch the match. Photograph: Denis Lovrovic/AFP/Getty Images

From high above the square the words “We’re going for the win, no surrender” shone down from an illuminated billboard through the smoke of dozens of red flares. Then 10 minutes before kick-off in Moscow, the storm that had been threatening all afternoon broke open and soaked the crowd in an instant. That was nothing like the dampener that came five minutes into the game. Kieran Trippier’s goal for England spread silence across the square and through the streets of the city.

It took a good 10 minutes for the noise to resume and for hope to return, although the rain kept falling on Ban Jelacic, running in streams off the side of his mount. The human tablecloth was sodden but way past caring.

When Ivan Perisic’s equaliser came the centre of Zagreb exploded with another fusillade of flares, turning the air above a volcanic red. And that was a mere salvo compared with the reaction to Mario Mandzukic’s winner in extra time.

That Croatia were in the semi-finals at all was a victory over demographic and economic odds. This small, horseshoe-shaped country is gradually emerging from economic crisis but is mired in political problems and has a small under-resourced league.

“Imagine if Croatian football had England’s money!” the manager, Zlatko Dalic, had said after beating Russia in the quarter-finals. The last time such a small country made it to a World Cup was Uruguay in 1950, and Uruguay went on to win.

“It never thought this would happen. It’s amazing,” said Lucia Pupic, a 19-year-old student wandering euphoric through the streets around the square with a flag-draped cluster of friends. “It feels like a dream.”

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Her companion Filip Culibrk insists he never had any doubts. “We believed from the very beginning,” he said. “We have passion in everything we do and this is what we are showing the world.”

At the final whistle much of the city’s population not already in the streets emptied out of their houses and apartment blocks into a rolling party. They hung out of car windows and sun roofs waving flags while the drivers leaned on their horns. The tram drivers draped Croatia team shirts on their grills and edged their way through the delirious traffic jams.

Somewhere in the middle of it some ingenious entrepreneur rigged up a spit on the back of his car and was handing out slices of roast lamb and shot glasses of plum brandy.

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