FIFA World Cup 2018: Croatia, like quarter-final opponents Russia, are united by football but divided by politics

Srijandeep Das
From dominating displays to Luka Modric's brilliance, Croatia's road to final has been nothing short of a rollercoaster ride

When Karl Marx was defining socialism, he mentioned how it's the movement of the socius. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was not as subtle, and went on to use football as an example for the nature of organisation. He suggested any activity (praxis) done by an individual which is for the benefit of the team, will eventually elevate him. The collective action distills the individual thought through the immersion in a greater cause, in the same spirit of a collaborative build-up leading to a beautiful team goal. This thinking €" the tempering of talent with the fine steel of team ethic €" has been the backbone of Russia and Croatia as countries, and also of the finest teams to have graced Eastern Europe.

Yet, with any kind of philosophy, footballing or institutional, there is a duality €" a stark contradiction between the collective responsibility football enthuses on the pitch, and profiteering off of it. For all of Croatia and Russia's systematic synchronisation on the pitch, the politician tremors under it are palpably persistent. And while Russian football's complicated working relationship with President Vladimir Putin has garnered wide attention, little has been noted of Croatian football's institutionalised corruption.

Sweden take on England in the first quarter-final at the Samara Arena at 7.30 pm while hosts Russia face Croatia later in the day at 11.30 pm at the Fisht Stadium

Croatia President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic was reported to have appeared in the team's dressing room following their recent Round of 16 penalty shootout win vs Denmark, and unsolicited hugs were bestowed upon Luka Modric and Co. While it may seem innocuous on the surface as conventional PR for her re-election campaign next year; for Croatia's captain, the uncomfortable association runs deeper.

Modric was charged with multiple counts of perjury during the case against Croatian football kingpin, Zdravko Mamic (Mr Big), a friend and financial backer of the President. Modric was found to lie to protect the best interests of the man who extorted and corrupted the very system which produced the Croatian No 10.

Mamic was found to be guilty of wire-transferring millions in transfer fees while the CEO of Dinamo Zagreb, the most powerful club in Croatia, and a former vice-president of the Croatian Football Federation. Mamci was also the power broker between Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur, and stood to gain a large profit from the transfer fees, as revealed this week by The Guardian. He was shot on the shoulder and detained when he visited his father's grave. On the eve of the verdict in Osijek, Mamic, through bribery and cunning, escaped to Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina €" a country at odds with Croatia, where extradition is next to impossible.

The Vatreni (The Blazers) is a common nickname for the Croatian football team. It is a name that implies its national stature and its calibre in world football. The Croatian jerseys are not merely shirts: once put on, like in many other countries, it symbolises a sense of duty and pride, a beacon of positivity, a projection of progress.

Since their first appearance 1998 World Cup in France €" where they finished third and with Davor Suker as the top scorer €" no other team have had a better debut World Cup campaign. Croatia have only failed to qualify for one World Cup and one European Championship €" a consistency held better than most of the European elites. Their successes on the pitch often translated into the national mood. This could swing elections in the favour of those who aligned with the cause of Croatian football. Politicians, cognizant of this curious nature of the role football plays in shaping national perception and conversation, have used it as a tool.

While there have been efforts in the past to rebuff political connections by the Croatian federations, it was as useful as a tiny cocktail umbrella against a tidal wave. Historically, Croatia has been a child of resentment and separation of the previous Yugoslavian states. And football was part of the national commentary even through a pan-national identity crisis, revolt and independence.

Long before they became The Vatreni, they were a FIFA-sanctioned team representing the Banovina of Croatia and Independent State of Croatia from 1940 to 1944. The spark of the religious revolution between Orthodox Christian Serbians, Catholic Croats, and Bosnian Muslims that broke Yugoslavia's back started at the Maksimir Stadium, bang in the middle of a football match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade, two among the most incendiary football factions in the world. It was not until 1993, three years after their independence, that Croatia recovered and were reinstated as an independent national football team.

Football unites Croatia, and much like Russia, the politics divides them. In the face of gross economic negligence, unemployment and corruption, football is a blanket that kept the chilling everyday reality away for two months every four years. But now, with more and more politicians like Grabar-Kitarovic investing their time and assets into the game, for Croats, it has become a disillusioning symbol of everything wrong with the global political landscape.

On 15 July, either of Croatia or Russia may go through and win the World Cup this year, but it'll do very little in terms of the bigger picture.

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Also See: FIFA World Cup 2018: Balance of power rests firmly in Europe after traditional South American powerhouses face decline

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