Why this World Cup final is like no other

Despite a small population, Croatia goes up against France – and against its own history of war and struggle.

Croatia's fans watch the July 11 broadcast of the World Cup semi-final match between Croatia and England.

In the final match of the World Cup on Sunday, soccer powerhouse France will go up against a country that, just 25 years ago, was in the midst of an ethnic war in the Balkans marked by genocide, snipers, and concentration camps.

In fact, Croatia wasn’t even a country until 1991, when it emerged from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. To top it off, it has the smallest population (4.3 million) of any country to reach a Cup final since 1950. And so far during the 2018 tournament of the world’s most popular sport (“football”), it has beaten the likes of Argentina and England with grace and gumption.

Even if Croatia loses on Sunday, it is a winner.

Fans back home are preparing a hero’s welcome in the capital, Zagreb. Politicians there have already donned the team’s jerseys. Foreign tourists along Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast are rooting for the team. And even many former enemies in other Balkan states are quietly cheering the fact that a team from Europe’s backwater region has found the legs to crawl onto the promised land.

To put this in perspective, imagine if South Sudan, the world’s youngest country and one now engulfed in civil war, were to be in a Cup final in a decade or so.

Yes, all nations deserve recovery and redemption from a horrid past. And even the meekest can inherit the earthly title of champion or near-champion. Let us remember that the United States and China did not even qualify for this tournament.

Croatia’s team members ascribe their victories to a tough mentality, born of national struggle. Three of their best players were exiles during the conflicts of the 1990s. And like other Cup teams, the players have wrapped themselves in the flag of ardent nationalism.

Yet Croatia itself has also learned that a nation can rise above an ethnic or religious identity. Among former Yugoslav states, it is only the second after Slovenia to become a member of the European Union. Its neighbors – Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina – are patiently waiting in line to join the bloc while steadily improving their democracies and economies. EU membership would help bring stability and peace to a corner of Europe that triggered two wars in the 20th century.

If Croatia does beat France, its people might recall the words of one of the country’s most famous athletes, Mate Parlov, who won an Olympic gold medal in boxing. In a 2004 interview, he said, “How can I be a nationalist if I am the world champion?”

With sentiments like that, we might even be able to retire that tired term: Balkanization.

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