Wed | May 22, 2019

Mixed emotions - Most of Croatia's neighbours supporting France in World Cup final

Published:Saturday | July 14, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Croatia's football fans celebrate with a model of the World Cup trophy in Red Square as their team won the semi-final match against England during the 2018 soccer World Cup at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia on Thursday.
Croatia's Josip Pivaric celebrates after his team advanced to the final of the FIFA World Cup after a 2-1 semi-final win over England in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, on Wednesday.

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP):

In the Balkans, football is so political that it has created bitter divisions about Croatia's surprising success at the World Cup.

The team will face France in the tournament final in Moscow tomorrow, provoking mixed reactions and strong emotions in the region scarred by war.

From Montenegro and Serbia in the east and Slovenia in the west, Croatia's neighbours have been split over whether to support Croatia or France, reflecting the persisting rifts stemming from the 1990s conflict.

While many in those nations have expressed pride and joy that a Balkan country has made it to the final, Croatia's stellar achievement also has caused envy and nationalist outbursts evoking the war era.

"The World Cup generally is a joyful event, but we in the Balkans somehow manage to turn even ball-kicking into a clash," said Draza Petrovic, an editor at the liberal Danas daily in Serbia.

Petrovic said that sports rivalry was also strong among the Balkan nations even while they were all part of the former Yugoslavia, when it was also rare to see Serbian or Croatian teams support one another. But he added that the former federation's bloody break-up turned sports competitiveness into something more.

"The wars were not so long ago, so people view things not just as sports," he said of the conflict that tore the former Yugoslavia into pieces and in which more than 100,000 people were killed.

Nearly three decades after the war, a number of unresolved issues still plague relations among the former Yugoslav republics, while nations stick to their own versions of what happened and who were the victims.

Illustrating post-war tensions, Serbia President Aleksandar Vucic said publicly that he would support Slavic allies Russia over Croatia in the quarter-finals, and the foreign minister openly backed England in the semi-final.

Even Serbia's most-adored sportsman, tennis star Novak Djokovic, has faced criticism from a nationalist lawmaker after openly supporting Croatia, while the issue triggered a heated for-and-against debate on social networks and in the media.

In Slovenia, generally a Croatian ally but with a looming border dispute, hundreds of supporters are expected to travel to Croatia to join street viewing of the match. This prompted the Croatian railway company to introduce more trains and ticket discounts.