Not everyone in the Balkans wants Croatia to win the World Cup

In the Balkans, football is so politicized that not everyone is very happy about Croatia’s surprise success at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

The Croats will face France in the final in Moscow on Sunday. And this provokes mixed and deep feelings in a region where the scars of war persist.

Croatia reached the World Cup Final for the first time in its history, but not all is celebration in the Balkans. AP Photo

From Montenegro and Serbia in the east to Slovenia in the west, Croatia’s neighbors are deeply divided on whether to support Croatia or France. This reflects the lingering discord after the armed conflicts of the 1990s.

While many in these nations have expressed pride and joy at a Balkan country advancing to the final, Croatia’s achievement is also cause for envy and fiery nationalist demonstrations reminiscent of wartime.

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«In general, the World Cup is a joyous event, but we in the Balkans somehow managed to make even kicking a ball into a clash,» said Draza Petrovic, editor of the liberal daily Danas in Serbia.

Petrovic commented that the sporting rivalry is also intense between the Balkan nations, despite the fact that they were all part of the former Yugoslavia. He says that also at that time, it was rare for Serbs to support Croatian teams and vice versa.

However, he added that the bloody fragmentation of the Yugoslav federation turned the sporting rivalry into something more.

«The wars happened not so long ago, so people don’t just see this as a sport,» he said, referring to the conflict that tore the former Yugoslavia apart. More than 100,000 people perished in that war.

Nearly three decades later, numerous unresolved issues continue to plague relations between the former Yugoslav republics. Each country sticks to its version of what happened and calls itself the victim.

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In an event illustrating post-war tensions, Serbian President Aleksandar Vuci publicly stated his desire for his ally Russia to defeat Croatia in the quarter-finals. The Chancellor openly supported England in the Semi-Final.

Even Serbia’s most admired athlete, tennis player Novak Djokovic, has faced harsh criticism from a nationalist lawmaker after expressing his wish for Croatia to win. The issue has generated a debate on social networks and traditional media.

«Those divisions are bad, particularly if they are fueled by state media and top officials, including the president,» Petrovic said.

Some Serbs — whose team was eliminated in the group stage — joked that Croatia is a better team. They have published a text in which they declare that Serbia’s greatest recent success in football is being a neighbor of a World Cup finalist country.

In Slovenia, often an ally of Croatia but with an ongoing border dispute, hundreds of fans are expected to travel to Croatia to join their neighbors and watch Sunday’s match on giant screens. This has led to the Croatian railway company allocating more trains to transport Slovenians and offering discounts on tickets.

A Slovenian supporter congratulated Croatia on their win over England, noting: «England wanted Brexit and they got it.»

In Montenegro, national divisions over the country’s allegiance to Serbia, its Orthodox, Christian and Slavic neighbor, were reflected in the issue of support for Croatia.

«There is no way I can go to the Croats because they are our enemies,» said Milan Bulatovic, from Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital.

But retiree Igor Nikolic, also from Podgorica, told The Associated Press how he felt when Croatia beat England to reach the Final.

«I felt my old dream of seeing Yugoslavia at the top coming true,» he said.