by Jozo Kolakušić
Inspired by HRT (Croatian radio-television’s) decision to show all the games from Croatia’s unforgettable performance at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia in the past week. I have decided to share my experiences of the whole tournament, to relive the memories of the unforgettable month in footballing and Croatian history.
After a 4 year long wait from the last World Cup in Brazil, where I had the honour of watching Croatia open the tournament against the host nation in Brazil. It was time to get on the road again in Russia, with a new coach, a similar lineup and a whole lot more experience and belief in this golden generation of players.
After having come awfully close to not qualifying at all, only 7 months prior, a refreshing change of coach in newly appointed Zlatko Dalic managed to salvage qualification through an away win against Ukraine in Kyiv and finally a double leg playoff against Greece, with a convincing win in Zagreb and solidifying draw in Athens (with no away fans, well for some anyway haha) which secured the much-coveted place for the summer of 2018 show that stops the entire globe. Expectations were realistic given that the same squad had been playing together for over 10 years, but there was a newfound enthusiasm going into the tournament, at the same breath.
Kaliningrad Game 1 – Croatia v Nigeria
Our first match of this tournament was against Nigeria in Kaliningrad. In order to reach this autonomous Russian exclave (separate from mainland Russia, wedged between Poland and Belarus). We embarked on our journey by flying from Croatia’s capital of Zagreb to Gdansk in Poland (with a quick stopover in Warsaw in which we saw we weren’t the only supporters making this journey), which is just a 166km journey to our destination where the game will be hosted.
Gdansk holding a certain significance in recent history, as it is where the 1980’s shipbuilding uprising against the communist regime in Poland started, lead by Polish Union leader and hero Lech Walesa (after whom the Gdansk airport is now named) and the late but very much loved Pope John Paul II, who was born in Poland.
These built up eventual momentum for the fall of communism and the Berlin wall in 1989, which proved to be a catalyst for independence and democratic changes for many small nations across Europe, including Croatia. A stopover at the famous shipyards was always a dream of mine and my fathers, therefore an absolute must-visit before we embarked on our journey to our destination for game day.
The following morning we embarked very early at 4.45 am for our organised shuttle bus from Gdansk into Kaliningrad, so as to avoid the expected enormous waits at all the land borders, as there was news that Croats from all around Europe and the world were descending by car, bus and bicycle upon this crucial first game. We certainly did not want to miss out on any of the game due to strict but expected security measures taken as this is the most important sporting event in the world (along with the Olympics).
As we reached the land border of Poland and Russia, we’re lucky enough to be one of the first ones to arrive at the crack of dawn, with our handy FAN ID’s in tow (which doubled as Visa’s for the country throughout the tournament) therefore expertly avoiding the expected hour-long queues that were to follow.
Once we arrived in Kaliningrad, we could see a great mixture of Russian and German architecture as it is a city that has been influenced by the changing times of history. We couldn’t wait to go out and explore, but first, some rest was needed after a night-long worth of travelling through various stops.
Midday it is, we’re all rested up and its time to head out into the city and explore what our first experience with Russian territory has to offer. It’s a bright sunny day, perfect for exploring and football. As we are leaving our accommodation and walking to the city centre, opposite us are local Russian football fans. Having heard the shock stories of the reputation Russian hooligans at the Euro 2016 tournament in France, we approached with caution (just in case) as we were about to pass this group of staunch looking young Russians. What happened instead of what the media was for months telling us to fear about? They approached us with smiles and said “Go Khorvatiya!”, “Welcome to Kaliningrad” and proceeded to hug us all. Wow, what a rush of emotions and our first official welcome to Russia and its people, which would be the first of many positive experiences which would bond our two peoples throughout the tournament. Definitely not what the international media was telling us and made us felt welcome immediately.
As we walked closer to the city centre we could see other groups of ‘checkers’ walking in small groups in the same direction as well. That old buzz of following the Croatian national team in a foreign land was back, it was a good uplifting feeling. As we reached the city centre, there was not just one square full of fans covered in checkers – there was 3 neighbouring squared, packed full of the red-white-blue tricolour and the red-white checkers. It was a complete invasion!
Over 20,000 Croats had made their way to this small city of Kaliningrad, just as we did and made it theirs for the day. It gave us all goosebumps once we saw how many of us there were on every corner of the city centre, you couldn’t miss it. Inside the shopping centres, inside the restaurants, café’s, bars and on the squares. All you could see is the unmissable colours of Croatia and that excitement in the air that Croatia was playing their first game of the World Cup.
Of course, we sat down at a restaurant terrace to relax, as it was a really hot summer day and any place under the sun was well sought after. What better way to build up momentum for the game, than to refresh with cold drinks, food and a view of the surrounding squares packed full of singing and jovial Croatian fans. As I went to go look for some of my friends who had arrived from other parts of the world, I came back to our table where my father and friends had already made some new friends. From the neighbouring table, a Nigerian fan and a local Russian, (draped in the Croatian flag) joined us at our table for some quality banter and atmosphere.
Dimitri, who lived in 600km away Saransk had travelled just to Kaliningrad, to support the Croatian national team as though it was his own. As he was a big fan of all of our players, like Modrić, Mandžukić, Olić etc. Unbelievable feeling, great conversation was had and not even the language barrier was overcome as we managed to converse through a mixture of mutually understood Croatian, Russian, English and hand signals. A friend was made for life and would be first of many who would also share their enthusiasm for our small country that we did not think anyone would even know of in Russia, let alone so ferociously support.
As the afternoon reached closer towards game time, so too did the atmosphere in the city reach fever point with the songs and sounds of Croatian fans, wherever you looked. It was time to leave for the newly built Kaliningrad stadium and future home of local team FC Baltika Kaliningrad. What a spectacular sight it was to see as we approached the much-coveted destination by the official shuttle buses which were regularly taking droves of supporters. As we arrived near the stadium and walked towards, we were welcomed by smiling young volunteers from across Russia, handing us high fives with their big wavy foam hands as we reached the stadium. Any questions we had, any questions we had, friendly volunteers in perfect English that would answer them. We immediately felt that this was a World Cup with an organisation on a much higher level than ever seen before.
Approaching the stadium as sunset approached, there were more familiar faces that we knew from previous tournaments, national team games and old friends from Australia and around the world saying hello. Everyone was in good spirits and it was phenomenal to see so many familiar faces in the one place. Russians and Nigerians were stopping Croat supporters to pose for photos as it was a remarkable occasion. As we reached the gates of the stadium, there were babushka’s on stilts, posing for photo’s as well in their traditional local costumes. My father, of course, had to show his Croatian charm upon the young Russian girls and took a photo with them as well. Once we entered the gates, we could we this giant, modern and flashing new stadium in the flesh. Quite an impressive sight to see up close indeed, but more importantly, we wanted to make sure we were at our seats before the big event was to begin.
Reaching our spots in the stadium, we realised we had some of the best seats in the house, with our seats being front row behind the corner post to face the action. Flashing Budweiser World Cup plastic cups in hand, with inscribed match details written as a souvenir “Croatia-Nigeria, 16.06.2018”, hopefully, it was to be a positive memory at that. It was now time for the national anthems and as we looked around the stadium, all around us was a sea of the Croatian checkers, a small contingent of green-white Nigerian fans and Russians with Croatian facepaint and Russian flags draped around them. As the notes of Lijepa Naša (Our beautiful homeland) began to play, a belting chorus from all the Croatian fans reverberated around the stadium. The atmosphere was electric and we were ready for kickoff!
Most of the 20,000 Croatian supporters made it into the stadium and the song was loud and it was constant. Flags with the names of cities from around Croatia and the world. Quite an army of fans to have behind you, let alone the millions at home and in café’s and squares, closely following and with just as much intensity. But more importantly, the players looked extremely focused and hit the ground running immediately.
This was a new national team we were watching, well put together in formation and extremely motivated to prove a point at this tournament. They were sharp, attacking and the moment of attack was constant. Already in the 14th minute, an initial shot by Ivan Perišić flew above the bar, centimetres from being the first goal of the game. But the next major chance came not long after, with the captain Modrić taking a corner, which was headed by Andrej Kramarić, Mario Mandžukić’s head and tapped by the foot of Ante Rebić (a superstar in the making this tournament) and deflected off a Nigerian defender to make it inside the goal net. GOAL!! The stadium erupts in raptures, the first goal of the tournament and it doesn’t matter who scored the goal, Croatia is 1-0 up and the players are celebrating their team effort of a goal around Kramarić with the initial header inside the box. The intensity of the players and the crowd lifts up a level. Another chance just before halftime by Kramarić again! A Rakitić cross and another header our number 9 upfront, which is devastatingly close to being our second goal.
As we reach halftime, a sense of positivity is in the air. We’re playing well, but we’re also cautious as we know from experience that misguided euphoria can never lead to anything good. However, we are optimistic for the second half as well. We are approached by friendly Russians, who would like a photo together with us, holding the Croatian and Russian flag side by side and telling us how they will be supporting Croatia at this tournament. But also to capture the memory for our own sake, we pose for our own photo.
A proud father, son and fellow friend from Geelong (Ivica, who is the father of my best friend in Australia). Melbourne Croatia, Geelong and Socceroos insignia included (representing both our dear homelands), this same photo went on to be shared throughout the Australian Croatian community and brought on many well wishes from friends watching from back home.
The second half starts, immediately in the 49th minute Nigeria have a dangerous opportunity by Victor Moses to score inside the box, with the shot straying just wide of the right post. Our cautious optimism at the halftime was well placed, this is not an easy game to win either. Not long after, in the 55th minute from the left-hand side, Perišić places a beautiful cross inside the box for young Ante Rebić to strike towards the goal in a karate kick attempt, which once again, so closely sails above the post but leaves us waiting for that crucial 2nd goal to seal a sense of security for this game. As it sets the tone for the rest of the group games.
At the 69th minute mark, as Luka Modrić steps to take the corner from Croatia (behind which we’re standing less than a metre from) and as Mandžukić is brought down Nigerian defender Ekong (reminiscent of the Šimunić-Viduka tackle from World Cup 2006), a penalty is awarded to Croatia! The kick taker: the captain Luka Modrić. Coming hot off the heels of winning the Champions League with Real Madrid. Modrić, who has had mixed results with penalty-taking for Croatia in the past. Just as he would for his club, steps in calmly to take the penalty, booting a low, firm, hard kick into the left-hand corner. GOAL!! Absolute delirious scenes around us, pandemonium! Croatia is 2-0 up in its first game at the World Cup, the stadium is rocking and rolling in its praises for the golden maestro Luka Modrić who has cemented a solidifying lead, with 20 minutes left on the clock. It’s smiles all around, wherever we look as this tidal wave of positive emotion blows winds in the sails of players on the pitch.
The momentum by Croatia did not stop, as they kept the comfortable lead until the final minutes and the whistle by the Brazilian referee blown by Sandro Ricci. An explosion of euphoria travels throughout the stadium amongst the Croat fans, knowing full well the importance of the outcome of the first game. As it always determines whether or not they will progress to the next round or nervously chase points and narrowly miss out on making the round of 16. Locals and foreigners flock towards fans in red-white checkers to congratulate them on the opening win. Whilst the absolutely appropriate song by the late Tomislav Ivčić is belted out, ‘Večeras je naša fešta’ is being sung by the crowd and players alike.
A beautiful sight of unison between the two and would set the tone for the rest of the tournament, something not seen in a long time. During the celebrations, the stadium announcer, announces that Luka Modrić has won the ‘Man of the Match’ award for the game. Now there is no stopping this party (‘fešta’) tonight, Kaliningrad will be exploding as the crowd descends back into the city centre and celebrates this remarkable win.
As we leave the stadium, the constant congratulations of Russians and other international fans do not stop towards the sea of red-white checker clad fans making their descent towards the happiest place for Croats on earth, as the celebrations in public spaces in Croatia and in the living rooms of Croats around the world continues. The party did go throughout the whole night, with the main squares full of young Croatians, Russians, boys and girls. Exchanging drinks, emotions, numbers and dancing into the sunrise. The first 3 points had been sealed, the atmosphere of the Croatian national team was back and the momentum was set for the rest of the group matches to follow.
The next game in Nizhny Novgorod against powerhouse and last World Cup runners-up (two-time champions) Argentina would be no easy match and the first real test for the generation of players of Croatia. If they were the real deal or pretenders. We were to see that in the coming days, but until then, it was time to explore Russia and its vast and beautiful sights.