Tragedy and triumph: the remarkable tale of Croatia’s first football steps | Croatia

Igor Stimac, a 54-year-old Croatian man usually full of laughter and love, begins to cry as his memories grip him in a world darkened again by a devastating war. The fleeting tears of the former footballer fall for Ukraine and its people. They have suffered in a way that reminds Stimac of everything his own country endured during the terrible Balkans conflict that surrounded its independence from Yugoslavia almost 30 years ago.

It was a time when football gained a rare real-life significance as, out of bloodshed and carnage, Croatia’s defiant, gifted and fiercely intelligent players lifted their young nation by lighting up Euro 96 and then leading France in the semi-finals of the 1998 World Cup in Paris.

Croatia’s first international match in the modern era had occurred less than eight years before, in October 1990. Stimac played 53 times for Croatia before becoming their manager while Slaven Bilic, his centre-back partner, won 44 caps and managed the national team from 2006 to 2012. They both believe Croatia could have become European and world champions despite their country having just gained freedom.

They were driven by a deeper purpose than ordinary ambition. “We were not just playing for ourselves or even Croatia,” the 53-year-old Bilic says. “We were playing for the people who died.”

Stimac and Bilic, alongside their friends and teammates Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker and Robert Prosinecki, have contributed to a riveting and moving documentary made by Louis Myles about this era of Croatian football. “I was very emotional,” Stimac says of his involvement in the film. “I didn’t feel good going back to that time because, whenever anyone brings me back to those days, it’s suffering again.”

Igor Stimac when he was Croatia’s coach in 2014.
Igor Stimac when he was Croatia’s coach in 2014. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

Bilic and Stimac grew up in Split, in communist Yugoslavia, alongside other Croats but also people who would become citizens of Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo. “I had a great childhood,” Bilic stresses. “It’s easy now to say everything negative about Yugoslavia. But we had a great education, played football in the streets and it was unbelievably safe. Split is a beautiful town, a sporty town, and we were not aware of anything else.” Stimac, who is a year older than Bilic, felt the same: “We had nothing to worry about because our parents protected us from talk of politics.”

On 4 May 1980 the death of President Tito shocked all of Yugoslavia – which had been reconstituted in the aftermath of the second world war. Tito had ruled over the different groups of people in communist Yugoslavia from its inception, first as prime minister and then as president. Bilic was a ballboy at a Hajduk Split match that day and he remembers how the game was abandoned once the news broke: “I was only 11 and a half, but I could tell people were scared to death. I’m not saying Tito was popular but he was extremely powerful, so people were afraid for their families and futures.”

Tito’s demise left a vacuum which nationalist forces exploited. Yugoslavia had also been a more liberal country compared with neighbouring communist countries who were under the Soviet Union’s shadow and, as Bilic explains, “we were not like Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Poland, those stricter countries. We were in-between. We watched FA Cup finals from England on television and my father bought AC/DC and Iron Maiden LPs which you couldn’t buy in Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Of course we were not allowed to talk openly like the Serbs and it was illegal for us to be nationalists. I remember us singing Croatian songs like they were forbidden fruits because, at that age, you like to be a rebel.”

Bilic blossomed as a young defender but, as he says, “I never played for Yugoslavia under-16s, under-17s or under-18s. I wasn’t [Franz] Beckenbauer or Bobby Moore but I was good. We had a manager from Serbia and he pulled me aside and said: ‘Your family is labelled.’”

He is keen to stress he was not a martyr. Other Croatian players, especially the obviously great ones like Boban, were picked by Yugoslavia. Admitting that he only learned of his father’s work with nationalist groups in later years, Bilic stresses that there was “nothing extreme about my dad’s views” and he concentrates instead on the quality of Yugoslavian football. Players were not allowed to go abroad until they were 28 and so the standard of the league was not far behind the best in Europe.

There was a dynamism and flair to their football which meant Yugoslavia were often acclaimed as “the Brazil of Europe”. A remarkable crop of talented players also elevated their generation. Bilic and Stimac talk poetically about the beauty of Prosinecki’s play, of Boban’s drive and leadership and Suker’s lethal finishing. They were united, too, by unbreakable friendship.

Stimac was part of the Yugoslavia Under-20 team who won the Youth World Championship in Chile in October 1987. Prosinecki and Boban were the stars of a side that featured six Croats in their starting lineup. Yugoslavia began by trouncing the hosts 4-2 in front of 67,000, won all their group games and beat Brazil in the quarter-finals. A key moment then occurred as Stimac and Boban had an opportunity to go out with two Chilean models. “We were young boys enjoying life,” Stimac says with a grin. “We were expecting permission from our coach to go out for a drink with these beautiful girls but when the answer was ‘no’ it was difficult to accept. I said to Boban: ‘I’m going.’ He said: ‘I’m joining you.’

“When the coach found out he told us we were going home. East Germany, with Matthias Sammer as captain, were waiting in the semi-final. To send us home for nothing was not good. But the team stood by us. They said to the coach: ‘If they go home, we are going too.’ The coach had to give in.”

Yugoslavia eventually beat West Germany in the final and Stimac is certain that bond strengthened the team spirit that elevated Croatia at Euro 96 and at the World Cup in 1998. “We had friendship, loyalty and respect. We admired each other, and were never jealous, even with such big egos and heroes in the team.”

War, however, was looming. After the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, nationalism in eastern Europe intensified. Croatia’s first democratic elections were held in May 1990 and independence seemed an enticing reality. But tensions deepened as Serbia reacted with forceful aggression. A few days later, on 13 May, Dinamo Zagreb played Red Star Belgrade.

Dinamo were the most fervent nationalist team in Croatia while Red Star were the powerhouse of Serbian football. The match had to be abandoned after 10 minutes when the Zagreb fans were attacked in their own stadium by the Red Star Ultras – most of whom came from the Serbian military and were led by Zelijko Raznatovic, who became the infamous Arkan, a murderous paramilitary during the Balkan conflict.

As the battle raged in the stadium a policeman assaulted a Croatian fan. Boban, who captained Dinamo, was incensed and launched a flying kick at the policeman as he became a symbol of Croatian defiance against Serbia on the brink of war.

Dinamo Zagreb’s captain Zvonimir Boban kicks a police officer who had assaulted a Croatian fan as battle rages before their match against Red Star Belgrade was abandoned.
Dinamo Zagreb’s captain Zvonimir Boban kicks a police officer who had assaulted a Croatian fan as battle rages before their match against Red Star Belgrade was abandoned. Photograph: AP

“It was all planned by the Serbs,” Stimac says. “Even the war criminal Arkan said they organised themselves so they could provoke incidents and then point fingers at Croatian nationalism. We are very similar, me and Boban, because when we feel injustice we are ready to die. Boban was defending the boys who were maltreated by the military police. Most of those guys were Serbian and they allowed the Red Star fans to do whatever they liked in a Croatian stadium.”

Boban was suspended from the national team for six months and missed the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Yugoslavia lost on penalties to Argentina in the quarter-finals in their final major tournament. Their place at the 1992 European Championship was taken by Denmark who, despite being late replacements, won the tournament.

Before then, on 8 May 1991, the last cup final was played in Yugoslavia. Red Star Belgrade, who beat Marseille in the European Cup final later that month, faced a Hajduk Split team featuring Bilic and Stimac. “I was the captain,” Stimac remembers, “and the big question was: ‘Are we even playing?’ First for security reasons and second because it was obvious the Yugoslavian league was ending. Should we participate in that cup final for the last time? When the decision was made and the army transporter flew us to Belgrade we knew what we needed to do. We played a magnificent game.”

Bilic says: “I was shocked we were going to play in light of what happened in Zagreb in 1990. It was very hostile and boiling and on television every day we heard the Serbs were in Croatia and Slovenia. We were always big rivals but that season Red Star were better than us. They would soon become European champions but we felt like we were playing for Croatia against Serbia. We won, of course, and that cup is treated like a war trophy.”

The Croatian war of independence cost an estimated 20,000 lives. It was ultimately overshadowed by the 98,000 people who died in Bosnia. But Bilic and Stimac cannot forget the horrific massacre of Vukovar in November 1991 when the Yugoslav People’s Army, the JNA, handed over Croatian civilians and prisoners of war to Serbian paramilitaries. “If we depended on Europe we wouldn’t be alive,” Stimac says. “It was only because of our Croatian hearts and wonderful young boys who lost their lives that we exist as a country today.”

Relatives of victims take part in a commemoration ceremony on the anniversary of the Vukovar massacre.
Relatives of victims take part in a commemoration ceremony on the anniversary of the Vukovar massacre. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Stimac is an engaging man, who now manages India’s national team, but his pain bursts open when he considers the parallels and contrasts with Ukraine today. “It’s the same but there’s a huge difference. All the world stands by Ukraine. No one stood by us. No one wanted Croatia to become independent. Europe and the world needed Yugoslavia as a flexible communist country, as a peace shield. What kind of help did we get? There were guys selling us pistols for $1,000 to defend against tanks and planes.

“But I have fears now for Ukraine’s people. They are suffering, they are dying. It’s an injustice what is happening there now. The whole world should fight that. I remember how it felt for us in Croatia, so I know how Ukraine needs us.”

Stimac chokes back the tears and he remembers how the city of Vukovar withstood a Serbian siege which lasted three months with day after day of bombardment. Stimac suggests Vukovar “had great importance in keeping the Croatian spirit alive and showing that no army can defeat us. Resisting for three months in a blocked city, being bombed from each side? That is heroism.”

Croatia’s leading footballers were instructed to keep playing so they could inspire their people. And so, rather than fighting in a war zone, Bilic remembers hearing the distant sound of grenades and gunfire while he and Stimac defended their goal.

When the war finally ended in victory for Croatia in 1995, with independence and their borders guaranteed, the national team were managed by the brilliant Miroslav “Ciro” Blazevic. From the silk scarf he wore to his inspirational man-management when controlling a team of such strong-willed players of extraordinary talent, Ciro was exceptional.

“He was unbelievable,” Bilic says, “and always telling us we are the best team in the world. In the 1998 World Cup he told me I was the best centre-back in the world. I know it’s not true but I liked hearing it.”

Slaven Bilic with the former Croatia manager Miroslav “Ciro” Blazevic at a premiere in Zagreb of the documentary Croatia: Defining a Nation.
Slaven Bilic with the former Croatia manager Miroslav “Ciro” Blazevic at a premiere in Zagreb of the documentary Croatia: Defining a Nation. Photograph: FIFA

Stimac adds: “With our quality Ciro didn’t go too much into tactics. He just needed to handle the big egos and characters and the way he did was so impressive. We used to speak about him – me, Boban, [Alen] Boksic, [Aljosa] Asanovic, Suker and Prosinecki – and we knew no other coach in the world could handle our dressing room. But we respected Ciro so much. From the first day he was telling us: ‘You are ready to become world champions.’ At first we all laughed: ‘C’mon, Ciro, don’t bullshit us.’ But it was soon obvious we were ready for big things.”

At Euro 96, in Croatia’s first tournament, they played Germany in the quarter-finals and were desperately unlucky to lose 2-1 to the eventual winners. Stimac was sent off in a controversial game and he says: “We were very confident of winning Euro 96. We didn’t see Germany as a serious opponent but that referee took the role of the main man. We only went out after an injustice which shouldn’t be acceptable. It hurt so much.”

Bilic felt defeat as acutely. “I didn’t cry when we just missed the final at the World Cup,” he says. “But at Old Trafford I cried because we were better than Germany.”

In the quarter-finals of the World Cup two years later Croatia, burning with vengeance, beat Germany 3-0. “I couldn’t see any way we could lose because of all that pain we went through,” Stimac says. “We needed revenge so badly.”

In the semi-final against France, Croatia went 1-0 up. “We scored early in the second half,” Bilic recalls, “and 80,000 people were suddenly muted. There was no sound apart from a small group of our fans high up in the stadium. I said: ‘Guys, all we’ve got to do is keep it quiet for 10 more minutes and then Suker will score again. Game over.’ We knew they weren’t scoring many goals and we were very solid at the back. We were so close to the final but then it happened.”

Croatia’s Davor Suker celebrates after scoring in the 1998 World Cup semi-final against France.
Croatia’s Davor Suker celebrates after scoring in the 1998 World Cup semi-final against France. Photograph: Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images

France equalised within 30 seconds through the unlikely figure of Lilian Thuram. Their full-back hardly ever scored but then, with 20 minutes left, he struck his second and winning goal. Croatia were out and France crushed Brazil in the final. It was a great victory for the hosts and their multicultural team – but Croatia’s legacy is even more lasting. Three years after the last burst of gunfire faded in the war of independence, this grieving but proud new nation came close to winning the World Cup.

Twenty years later, Croatia knocked out England in the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. They lost again to France, in the final, but outstanding players such as Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic had been nurtured by Bilic and Stimac, who both managed Croatia. The 2018 team made constant reference to how much they owed to the players who had established Croatia as a force in world football after the war. And when Modric won the Ballon d’Or he paid a heartfelt tribute to the boys of ’96 and ’98.

“I could feel that respect,” Stimac says. “Working with those amazing players I also saw they are just simple boys. They are very similar to us even if it’s a different time. But I know their path was easier because we made the road for them.”

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Bilic suggests: “They were crazy proud we [he and Stimac] became their managers. They wanted to impress us more. They were asking for lots of stories about when we played for Croatia. ‘How is Boban? How is Suker?’ I asked them about their stories. It was emotional to hear they were not quitting football when life was very hard. They also suffered and when anyone told them they were not good enough they said they thought of us and kept fighting.”

A tangled expression of pride, framed by the memory of all that Croatia endured, crosses Bilic’s face. He looks up and then, almost shyly, he says: “We were their heroes.”

Croatia: Defining a Nation is now available to watch for free on Fifa+

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