I Like This New Happy Croatia: How To Use It to Bring Change

By 17 July 2018

July 17, 2018 - As the euphoria of Croatia's World Cup success looks set to continue for some time yet, how to channel the national happiness into a longer-term positivity?

What a difference a few football matches can make to a country!

Truly unbelievable scenes in Zagreb, as some 550,000 people took to the streets of the capital to welcome home their heroes. In a population of just 4 million, that is about 15% of the whole country. Add the parties in other parts of the country, and one has an idea of what this great performance has meant to the Croatian population. As a long-time resident, it has been a pleasure for this foreigner to watch and, as I wrote before the semi-final with England, I would be more than fine with Modric lifting the World Cup. In the end, it was not to be, and the only Croat who got her hands on the trophy and managed to kiss it was Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, whose spirited performance during the World Cup Final attracted 25% more international column inches than Modric himself, according to Croatian media monitoring service, Mediatoolkit

Record media interest in Croatia, the country is full of tourists in the peak season, and the travelling fans, with their distinctive chequered shirts, have won the hearts of millions, with their performance and behaviour in Russia being very much part of the success of exporting this brand of Croatia, the small country with the heart which dares to dream. It would be interesting to research if any other team had as much global support in a previous final as Croatia, the underdog, had going into the game with France. 

On the surface, Croatia looks like an amazing visit - and it is - and if the Google search traffic coming to TCN in the last week is anything to go by, the World Cup success has attracted significant tourism interest in Croatia, which should translate into new tourist arrivals either this year or certainly next. An intelligent campaign now could pay substantial dividends for next season. 

Looking around Croatia, it is impossible not to feel happy for the locals, as they walk around proud of their Vatreni footballers for all they have achieved. A young nation struggling to make its way, but at the biggest football stage in the world despite the unlikeliness of it all. Their players fought like lions, and never was there a prouder time to be a Croat. This was the biggest gathering of Croats of all time, and although they had to wait hours to see their heroes, the proud national partied on as they waited patiently. I was not living in Croatia in 1998 when they reached the semi-final in France, but I can just imagine what the atmosphere was like for a new nation that had emerged from war just three years previously. 

The main reason I wrote that I was fine with a Croatian victory ahead of the semi-final was that the longer the Croatian success on the field continued, the longer the state of euphoria back home would last. As beautiful as Croatia is, life 12-months a year is extremely tough, and followers of TCN will have read about the economic problems, corruption and mass emigration on a regular basis. The World Cup changed all that and pushed all the negative stories off the back page, and rather than complaining about the daily grind of life, there was renewed optimism and pride. As one friend wrote on Facebook after the final:

"Thank you, Vatreni. You made us feel good about ourselves again."

Even Croatia's leading portal, Index.hr, which recently brought down the Deputy Prime Minister in an email scandal, entered into the spirit. Index declared that it would only publish happy news from Saturday until Tuesday (today), and what a change it was! As a long-term follower of the Croatian media, opening Index each morning to find wave after wave of positivity was a rather unusual experience. Everyone pulling together, everyone proud, tourists on the beaches, the sun shining, everyone smiling - Croatia in mid-July is a Utopia indeed. 

How to keep that momentum? 

Although the memories of the last week are etched in the minds of those who witnessed the scenes, the summer will end, the euphoria will die down, and there will be an inevitable return to the daily grind and the economic and emigration realities. Politicians who made such public shows of support and understanding will return to their self-interest and ignore the needs of their constituents, and Summer 2018 will go down in history as an unforgettable time of life. Or can something more be achieved?

As I was watching the incredible scenes in Zagreb, with over half a million people welcoming home its footballers, a thought struck me. In order to force a referendum in Croatia, one needs signatures from 10% of the electorate followed by the support of the constitutional court. Thanks to the work of Marko Rakar erasing 800,000 ineligible names from the electoral roll a few years ago, the number of registered voters in Croatia is now 3.74 million, so a referendum application would need 374,000 signatures before being presented to the constitutional court. Imagine, I thought to myself in jest, if everyone who turned up in Zagreb signed a petition to have a gold statue of Zlatko Dalic erected in Zagreb's Ban Jelacic square. 550,000 signatures!

And now imagine that someone could harness that people power to try and influence some positive change in the country. Croatians are fairly apathetic by nature, but some issues can get them really engaged, none more so than football. But is there a way to harness all this positive energy and pride to start to effect certain levels of change? 

One obvious area would be the subject which has got us all excited in the first place - football. One thing that is clear over the last month is that football is a passion and belongs to the Croatian people. Except it doesn't. The corruption within the Croatian Football Association has alienated much of the country's football-loving supporters, and it took an amazing World Cup run to get them excited again. The King of Croatian football, Zdravko Mamic, was recently sentenced to 6.5 years in prison, with others also sentenced. It is time for change at the top, so that this victory which has made Croatia so proud can have a legacy. A fresh start for the Croatian Football Association and the people of Croatia, perhaps with the biggest symbol of a new dawn - that missing national stadium to be located at Poljud in Split, the bastion of opposition to the current corrupt regime. 

Now is an amazing time to be in Croatia, and I encourage you to visit if you can. This will either be just one unforgettable summer or perhaps - just perhaps - it can be used to sow some tiny seeds of change.