The Dark Side Of Croatia's World Cup Success

Usually, a range of auspicious factors need to come together for a national football team to have a realistic chance of winning the FIFA World Cup. But in the case of Croatia, a country playing France in its first ever final on Sunday, this rule does not seem to apply. 

Croatian football club GNK Dinamo Zagreb vividly illustrates the problems besetting the country's football scene. Switzerland's International Center for Sports Studies has found that the Croatian side is the fourth most important "supplier" of football players to Europe's top teams. Indeed, Dinamo matches are hugely popular with football scouts looking for fresh talent. And the club, in turn, profits handsomely.

World champions at selling football talent abroad

In theory, then, that would make Dinamo solid Champions League material. In practice, however, they rarely even make it to the group stages of Europe's premier club competition. The reason for this is simple — many talented players are quickly snatched up by wealthy European clubs, so building a proper team becomes a major challenge. 

Croatia's "golden generation," with football legends like Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker and Alen Boksic, managed to come third at the 1998 World Cup in France. But they, too, had not played in their home country for very long. For many years now, Dinamo have perfected the business of taking in promising football talents from the countryside, training them up, increasing their market value, and then selling them to bigger clubs, such as those playing in Germany's Bundesliga. Often, they are then bought up once again by richer English, Spanish and Italian clubs, which generates many millions in profits within just a few years.

Mamic and the criminal machinations in Croatian football

Zdravko Mamic and his family are deeply involved in this scheme. The former president of Dinamo Zagreb relocated to Bosnia-Herzegovina before the World Cup kicked off. A court found him guilty of unjust enrichment, tax fraud and other crimes. Mamic, who started out selling stadium seat cushions, is alleged to have received an annual cut of the salaries of Croatian footballers playing abroad — for the duration of their entire career.

Captain Luka Modric playing in the World Cup (Reuters/C. Recine)>

Croatia captain Luka Modric has been a standout during his side's run to the final

Stars like Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, Dejan Lovren and former player Ivica Olic are allegedly caught up in the affair. Modric, the national team captain, has made contradictory statements in court regarding the matter. At first, he admitted to the payments, but later retracted his statement. He is now suspected of having lied under oath.

Croatia's football scene is mired in scandals. During the 2016 UEFA European Championship, the president of the Croatian Football Federation, 1998 World Cup star Suker, infamously instructed the Croatian coach which players to substitute and which tactics to apply mid-game. 

The criminal machinations of the Croatian FA are also driving a wedge between ordinary football fans — Croatia supporters started hitting each other when their national team faced the Czech Republic at Euro 2016.

And things don't look much better in Croatia's domestic football league. Clubs based in Split, Rijeka or Osijek feel powerless against the dark dealings in favor of Dinamo Zagreb. Match fixing is not just a rumor, rivals would be astonished if games were not skewed in Dinamo's favor.  

Even Dinamo's notorious "Bad Blue Boys" ultras fan group have begun boycotting games in protest against the club leadership's criminal activities. These days, few supporters attend Dinamo's home games.

Football to raise Croatia's international profile

Despite all these illicit activities, the Croatian people are rallying behind their national team, which now has the historic opportunity to win the World Cup for the first time. Franjo Tudjman, the first president of the newly proclaimed independent state of Croatia, was well-aware that football represents a way to make the young nation known worldwide. He attached great importance to football made in Croatia. Now, the tiny country on the Adriatic coast is on its way to becoming a football giant.

Zdravko Mamic (picture-alliance/Jurica Galoic/PIXSELL)>

Mamic and Croatian football are inextricably linked

Dinamo dominate Croatian football

In Croatian football, Dinamo Zagreb's fat bank account almost guarantees its total supremacy in the national league. Because the club has the means to snatch up the most promising young players, its competitors have little chance of winning the title.

And it didn't help that Tudjman established a system that favors the team to this day. It has just made things even more one-sided. In 1999, for instance, newly-promoted side NK Rijeka was within sight of the title, but Tudjman pulled various strings and ensured that his favored Dinamo finished champions nevertheless.

Transforming a group of football mercenaries into a real team

That Croatia has actually made it to the Wold Cup final is therefore almost miraculous. The team's little known coach, Zlatko Dalic, has succeeded in forging a motley band of football mercenaries into a harmonious whole. They are hungry for the title. Dalic has only taken players to Russia who are ready to give everything for the trophy. Now, they are very close to making their dream come true.

  • World Cup Champions France (Reuters)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Champions du Monde

    Rain could not dampen the spirits of the French team as they lifted the World Cup trophy at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. They beat Croatia 4-2 in the final to win their second ever World Cup.

  • Kevin De Bruyne smiling (Reuters/T. Hanai)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Best ever finish

    Despite missing out on the final, Belgium were all smiles as they beat England 2-0 in the third place playoff. With the victory, the Red Devils confirmed their best ever finish at a World Cup.

  • WM 2018 - Kroatien - England (imago/PanoramiC/A. Birard)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    A new teammate?

    Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic (from left to right) celebrate with a photographer they had just bowled over in their excitement after Mandzukic scored Croatia's winning goal in their semifinal against England. It looks like the photographer was okay.

  • FIFA Fußball-WM 2018 in Russland | Halbfinale -Frankreich vs Belgien | Final (1:0) (Reuters/L. Smith)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Into the final

    France coach Didier Deschamps embraces Samuel Umtiti after their semifinal win over Belgium. Umtiti scored the only goal France would need to reach their first final since 2006. The win means that Deschamps will get the opportunity to become just the third man to win the World Cup as both a player and a manager, having been part of the 1998 team that won the title at home in Paris.

  • Fußball WM 2018 Schweden - England (Reuters/L. Smith)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    New England hero

    Harry Maguire scores his first international goal in England's 2-0 quarterfinal win over Sweden. The Leicester City defender, who traveled to France to watch England as a fan, has been one of the feel-good stories of this World Cup

  • Fußball WM 2018 Brasilien - Belgien | Romelu Lukaku (picture-alliance/AP Photo/F. Seco)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Belgium beat Brazil

    Romelu Lukaku celebrates after Belgium beat Brazil to make their first ever World Cup semifinals. The Manchester United striker delivered another brilliant performance to help his team to victory on another historic night in Kazan.

  • Russland, Spartak Stadium: WM 2018: Kolumbien - England (picture-alliance/T. Goode)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Penalty hero

    England finally won a penalty shoot-out at a major tournament, thanks to Eric Dier (pictured above) and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. After a dramatic Round of 16 game, Gareth Southgate's side made history.

  • Fußball WM 2018 Belgien vs Japan Tor 3:2 (Reuters/T. Hanai)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Comeback complete

    Nacer Chadli finishes off a swift move that started with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to score Belgium's third goal against Japan deep into time added on in their last 16 clash in Rostov Arena. This completed Belgium's comeback after they had gone down 2-0 in the 52nd minute.

  • Fußball WM 2018 Kroatien vs Dänemark Sieg Jubel (Reuters/C. Barria)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Heroic shot stopper

    Ivan Rakitic scored for Croatia to win the penalty shootout over Denmark, which put the Balkan nation through to the quarterfinals, but it was Danijel Subasic who was the real hero, stopping three shots in the shootout.

  • Fußball WM 2018 Spanien vs Russland (Reuters/K. Pfaffenbach)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Hometown hero

    Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev stopped two in the penalty shootout to send Spain packing. Here he stops Iago Aspas' effort, his second save, which sent the Cinderella host nation through to the quarterfinals.

  • FIFA Fußball-WM 2018 | Achtelfinale | Uruguay vs. Portugal | Ronaldo & Cavani (Reuters/M. Sezer)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    A helping hand

    Edinson Cavani provided the two goals Uruguay would need to get past Portugal in the round of 16, but in the 74th minute he was forced to hobble off injured. Portugal skipper Cristiano Ronaldo rushed over to help him off. A sporting gesture? Perhaps. But with Uruguay in the lead, maybe CR7 was just making sure there was no time-wasting on Cavani's part.

  • FIFA Fußball-WM 2018 in Russland | Senegal vs Kolumbien (Reuters/M. Brindicci)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Major blow

    Some moments are memorable for the wrong reasons. Colombian fans would love to forget this one. James Rodriguez limps off the pitch injured after half an hour of play in his country's last group stage match against Senegal. Even without their biggest star, Colombia won the match to finish top of Group H.

  • FIFA Fußball-WM 2018 in Russland | Deutschland vs. Südkorea | Jubel Südkorea (0:2) (Reuters/J. Sibley)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    South Korea eliminate Germany

    Son Heung-Min wheels away in delight after doubling South Korea's lead in the dying moments of their Group F clash with Germany in Kazan. The win sent Germany crashing out in the opening round of a World Cup for the first time since 1938. A devastating loss for the reigning world champions.

  • Fußball WM 2018 Nigeria vs Argentinien Tor 0:1 Messi (Getty Images/A. Morton)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Messi finally arrives in Russia

    It all happened in a matter of seconds, but it was the moment football fans around the world had been waiting for. Ever Banega supplied the pin-point pass and, two sublime touches later, Lionel Messi was picking out the top corner with his weaker foot. After being late to the party in the group stages, Argentina's star man has a chance to make amends with France to come in the Round of 16.

  • Fußball WM 2018 Australien v Peru Tor 0:2 (Reuters/M. Rossi)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Guerrero's crowning moment

    After having a doping ban temporarily lifted in order to feature at the World Cup in Russia, Paolo Guerrero assisted Peru's first and scored their second in a 2-0 win over Australia. It was a true captain's performance, helping Peru secure their first World Cup win since beating Iran back in 1978.

  • Russland WM 2018 l Iran vs Portugal 0:1 - verschossener Elfmeter von Ronaldo (Reuters/I. Alvarado)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Ronaldo's emotional rollercoaster

    Cristiano Ronaldo was at the heart of a series of VAR incidents as Portugal drew 1-1 with Iran, finishing as runners-up in Group B. CR7 had a penalty saved by Ali Beiranvand and also picked up a yellow following a review as Iran's players called for him to be sent off for an incident with Morteza Pouraliganji. A tough end to a what had been a glittering group stage campaign.

  • Russland WM 2018 England gegen Panama (Reuters/M. Childs)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Striking from the spot

    Harry Kane scored a first-half hat trick for England in their 6-1 win over Panama in Group G. The Tottenham Hotspur striker already has five goals in the tournament, putting him in the running for the golden boot. Panama also made history scoring their first ever goal at a World Cup courtesy of Felipe Baloy.

  • Russland WM 2018 Deutschland gegen Schweden (Reuters/)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Life in the old dog yet

    Toni Kroos curls home Germany's 95th-minute winner against Sweden. Despite a positive start in Sochi, the same carelessness which had been so costly against Mexico was present again, and Kroos was a major culprit. But the Real Madrid star demonstrated all his experience and class with this free-kick to spare the reigning champions' blushes.

  • Russland WM 2018 l Serbien vs Schweiz – 1:2 Tor Xherdan Shaqiri (Getty Images/C. Rose)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    A game of two halves with a political twist

    Xherdan Shaqiri celebrates his dramatic stoppage time winner over Serbia by making an Albainian eagle gesture with his hands. He and fellow goalscorer Granit Xhaka, who also made the gesture, are of Albanian descent, their families having fleed to Switzerland during the Balkan war. The pair were booed throughout by the match by Serbia fans.

  • Fußball WM 2018 Gruppe D Argentinien - Kroatien Lionel Messi (picture-alliance/empics/D. Klein)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Argentina falter in the other group of death

    If Germany have it bad after their defeat to Mexico, Argentina's second match against Croatia put the giants in dire straits. Slumping to a 3-0 defeat, triggered by a goalkeeping howler, Lionel Messi and co. no longer have their group stage fate in their own hands. Messi, 30, has already "retired" briefly from international football once before; if he goes to Qatar, it surely won't be at his peak.

  • Russland WM2018 | Sepp Blatter in Moskau (Getty Images/AFP/V. Maximov)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    A surprise guest

    Disgraced former FIFA president Sepp Blatter made a shock appearance as Portugal beat Morocco 1-0 on Wednesday. The 82-year-old said he was invited to the tournament by Russian President Vladimir Putin. His successor Gianni Infantino was also at the fixture, according to FIFA's list of dignitaries. "I am still president, just suspended," Blatter told Russian channel RT.

  • Russland WM 2018 Russland gegen Ägypten (Reuters/L. Smith)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    The Egyptian king is back

    Less than a month after the Champions League final, when he sustained a shoulder injury that some thought could threaten his World Cup, Mohamed Salah returned to the pitch. Liverpool's Egyptian king first drew a foul that led to a penalty and then converted from the spot. But it was a mere consolation as Egypt lost 3-1 to hosts Russia and lost their chance of progressing to the knockout stage.

  • Russland WM 2018 Tunesien gegen England (Reuters/G. Garanich)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Kane and able

    Harry Kane scored England's first ever second-half stoppage time World Cup goal to give the Three Lions all three points against Tunisia. Kane had given England a deserved early lead before Tunisia equalized with a controversial penalty. But captain Kane popped up again in injury time with a back-post header to win it for Gareth Southgate's team.

  • Fußball WM 2018 Gruppe F Deutschland - Mexiko (Reuters/C. Hartmann)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Beyond Neuer's reach

    Germany lost their first match at a World Cup for the first time since 1982, when West Germany lost 2-1 to Algeria. This time they fell 1-0 to Mexico. Joachim Löw's men were beaten by a better organized and more energetic Mexican side. Even Germany's No. 1, Manuel Neuer, couldn't prevent the defeat.

  • Russland WM 2018 | Islands Fan (Getty Images/AFP/H. Kolbeins)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    A draw that felt like a victory

    Undeterred by the driving rain, Icelandic fans in Reykjakvik followed their team's first-ever World Cup match on large video screens set up in the heart of the capital. After the match, they celebrated their team's 1-1 draw with 2014 finalists Argentina as if it had been a victory.

  • Russland, WM 2018: Gruppe D: Argentinien - Island
(Reuters/C. Recine)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Messi misses from the spot

    Superstar Lionel Messi and the rest of the Argentinian national team had their problems with Iceland in their opening match in Group D. The 2014 finalists could only manage a 1-1 draw, and Messi, the five-time world footballer of the year, often looked very ordinary indeed. In the 64th minute, he even failed to score from the penalty spot.

  • WM 2018 | Russland | Marokko - Iran (Reuters/D. Martinez)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Political message

    Shortly before the match between Iran and Morocco kicked off, the Iranian government banned outdoor public gatherings to watch the game. In St. Petersburg, though, Iranian women, who would not be allowed into a stadium in their homeland, took the opportunity to make their view known.

  • Russland, WM 2018: Russland-Saudi Arabien,Tor 2 für Russland durch Denis Cheryshev (Reuters/C. Recine)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Five star hosts

    One of the lowest-profile opening games to grace any World Cup wasn't much of a contest. Russia were far too good for a poor Saudi Arabia side and ran out 5-0 winners. Denis Cheryshev (center) came off the bench to score the second and added another sensational strike in injury time.

  • Russland, WM 2018 Eröffnungsfeier (picture-alliance/TASS/A. Druzhinin)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    "El Gasico"

    The opening fixture of this year's tournament between two of the world's biggest gas exporters, Saudi Arabia and Russia, was ironically dubbed "El Gasico" by some fans. Here, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud chats to FIFA President Gianni Infantino, while Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the action.

  • Russland Fußball WM | Präsident Putin mit Maradona, Pele, Matthäus (picture-alliance/dpa//TASS/M. Metzel)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    Among the stars

    Putin (second from left) also made an appearance before the opening with a plethora of footballing greats. Lothar Matthäus (far left), Pele and Maradona (center), Jay Jay Okocha (far right) and Kanu (back right) were also in attendance.

  • Russland, WM 2018 Eröffnungsfeier, Gruppe A - Russland - Saudi Arabien (picture-alliance/empics/T. Goode)

    World Cup 2018: Memorable moments

    The show starter

    More than 500 local dancers, gymnasts and performers joined pop star Robbie Williams and Russian soprano Aida Garifullina on stage at the tournament's opening ceremony. Shorter than most such events, the 15-minute-long display also featured speeches from Russian President Vladimir Putin and FIFA President Gianni Infantino.

    The dark side of Croatia's World Cup success
    The dark side of Croatia’s soccer ‘soft power’
    The Latest: Croatia arrives at stadium for World Cup final
    France win World Cup Final 2018 REPORT: Les Bleus beat Croatia to become champions for second time
    FIFA World Cup: A Beautiful Midfield’s Ugly Realities – the Croatian Irony
    World Cup: What's the secret to Croatia's footballing success?
    Ken Early: cold-blooded France won the World Cup in third gear
    The Quint’s FIFA World Cup XI Features Mbappe, Modric and Ronaldo
    France’s victory was a befitting end to a thrilling World Cup
    Why His World Cup Final Appearance Solidifies Luka Modric’s Legacy as an Elite Midfielder