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World Cup final is route to redemption for scandal-hit Croatia
[ZAGREB] The World Cup showpiece against France this weekend is a chance for Croatia to avenge a semi-final defeat two decades ago. There's also a shot at redemption for soccer in the Balkan country off the field.
In recent months, Croatia's soccer kingpin faced trial for corruption, team captain Luka Modric was charged with perjury and fans were boycotting games ahead of the competition in Russia. Coach Zlatko Dalic only took over the squad in October.
Now his players, some of whom started competing as kids during the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, will line up against France in Moscow on Sunday for the culmination of a tournament that's burnished - at least for now - the image of soccer at home. Should they upset the odds and win, Croatia would be the smallest country to lift the gold trophy since Uruguay in 1950.
"The country celebrates them, perhaps like never before," said Zarko Puhovski, a political analyst and professor at the University of Zagreb. "The team is a direct opposite to an almost universally felt disappointment with politics, with the justice system, as seen in so many people who have emigrated in recent years."
The court in the Croatian city of Osijek sentenced Zdravko Mamic last month to six and a half years in prison for siphoning off millions of euros in transfer fees when he was the head of the Dinamo Zagreb club. Mamic, who denies accusations, left for neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina shortly before the verdict. He's fighting extradition.
Mamic, 58, reigned over Croatian soccer for decades both on and off the field. Dinamo won 19 of the 27 titles since Croatian independence so far, including 12 of the last 13 seasons. He turned the club into a factory of talent, exporting players to the richer European leagues for millions of euros.
Former Dinamo players Modric, now at Real Madrid, and Dejan Lovren, currently at Liverpool, are being investigated for their testimony at Mamic's trial. Modric was charged after saying he couldn't remember details of his transfer from Dinamo to London club Tottenham Hotspur in 2008. They deny wrongdoing.
Croatia has also struggled with its historical demons when it comes to soccer.
The country has been punished by soccer authorities Fifa and Uefa for its rowdy supporters, who threw flares at matches and chanted racist slogans from the World War II era, when Croatia was a puppet Nazi state. A swastika that appeared on a pitch in Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy led to a fine and forced the team to play two matches behind closed doors.
For now, the past seems forgotten as the success of reaching the World Cup final resonated in an unusual sign of camaraderie across the Balkans.
Zoran Zaev, the prime minister of the ex-Yugoslav nation of the Republic of Macedonia, congratulated Croatia and his foreign minister posted a selfie with Croat President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic dressed in a red-white checkered shirt. In neighboring Hungary, premier Viktor Orban said Croatia's success brings glory to the entire region.
Serbian soccer commentators were so supportive of the Croatian endeavors that President Aleksandar Vucic, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, rebuked them and said he had to turn the sound off the television.
"The success, the heart, the strength, and the experience, everything they demonstrated, make us all proud," prime minister Andrej Plenkovic told lawmakers on Thursday. "Not only in Croatia, I had a feeling that many others have also identified with our success."
His cabinet wore national red-and-white checkered jerseys for its Thursday meeting following the semi-final victory against England, the team coming from a goal behind to win 2-1.
The Croatian government hopes that the unexpected performance will move the country, heavily dependent on tourism, forward. The nation seeks to start euro-adoption process by the end of the decade, further cementing itself in the European Union after joining in 2013.
"The fact that they can rise from near-defeat, a trait rarely seen here, has roused the people and given them hope for the country," said Mr Puhovski, the academic.
More of that hope will be on full display on Sunday. All of Croatia knows that in 1998 France prevailed 2-1 at home in Paris to lift the World Cup for the first, and so far only time.