Croatia — preparing for a first-ever World Cup final against France — punches above its weight in many sports, with talent, passion and patriotism making up for a lack of resources in the small nation.
The nation’s soccer players, including Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic, are preparing for soccer’s biggest game in Moscow today knowing that they have a guaranteed place in the Balkan country’s sporting folklore whatever the result.
However, the list of sporting heroes churned out by the country of just over four million also includes former tennis player Goran Ivanisevic and current star Marin Cilic, as well as high jump double world champion Blanka Vlasic.
Drazen Petrovic, killed in a car crash, and Toni Kukoc were both NBA stars, helping to bounce Croatia into the sporting spotlight.
Former Croatia international soccer player Niko Kovac, the new coach of German giants Bayern Munich, talked of his pride in wearing the red-and-white jersey.
“Sports is in our blood,” Berlin-born Kovac wrote in the German newspaper FAZ. “Croatia loves competition and comparing itself against others, and it wants to be the best.”
Sports was a way to earn a living or a passport to work abroad at a time when the Croatian economy was struggling, he said.
“That gives an example for young sportsmen and women, and we already have many idols who they can emulate,” he said.
While facilities in Croatia were not on the same level as those in Germany, school sports was still a priority, Kovac said.
“They might not have the most modern facilities, but basketball rings hang in every school playground and mini-football pitches and handball courts are marked out everywhere,” he said.
Croatia’s national handball team are former world champions and Olympic gold medalists, while the water polo squad are reigning world champions.
Experts say that sporting success comes mostly in ball sports because they are cheaper to play.
Achievements in individual sports such as athletics, swimming, skiing or gymnastics are rarer.
Siblings Janica and Ivica Kostelic became alpine skiing champions against all the odds in a country lacking high mountains.
Despite a lack of financial support, stories of the Kostelic family sleeping in tents and their car while traveling between competitions and training venues are legendary in the sport.
“There is no special secret for the success of Croatian sports, but simply a true, genuine love and passion for what one is doing,” said Janica Kostelic, the first woman to win four gold medals in Olympic Alpine skiing history.
“Particularly persistence, because only one missed training cannot be substituted with anything,” the 36-year-old said.
Gymnast Tin Srbic, who won Croatia’s first world title in the men’s horizontal bar, trains in a hall built more than 100 years ago, while two-time women’s discus Olympic champion Sandra Perkovic has achieved success despite the lack of a structured system.
“It’s not the fruit of the system,” Croatia’s men’s water polo coach Ivica Tucak said.
“It’s a struggle for survival, that’s how I would explain it,” said Slavko Goluza, former handball player and coach, who won two Olympic golds as a player.
“We work in very poor conditions lacking sports infrastructure, from football to handball,” Goluza said. “We definitely have an enormous spirit, which combined with strong emotions creates incredibly beautiful things.”
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