It’s July 1998, and Croatia take the bronze medal in their first ever World Cup.
This news doesn’t reach me until years later. I watch a choppy, pixelated video replay of their match against the Netherlands, and my heart beats for these men making the impossible happen back when I was still too young to understand its importance. I see Davor Šuker sneak the ball past Edwin van der Sar to secure the historic win. I type his name into Google’ I start to learn. Nearly all of these players either have retired or are well on their way, but there are new faces and new names to learn, new matches to watch, new history to write. The Vatreni open up to me like a gold-gilded book, each page a new story that burns in my head and my heart.
Luka Modrić is a bit older than me, but still young and impressionable when this all goes down. He watches his national team claw their way to something close to glory from a hotel room in Zadar, where he and his family live as refugees during the Croatian War of Independence. At the time, he’s a scrawny boy in NK Zadar’s youth ranks, anonymous but for his prodigious talent beginning to shine through. He doesn’t know it yet, but his career will be dogged by journalists asking him if he thinks he can ever emulate the glory of 1998. Maybe he dares to dream it: What it would be like to be the captain kissing the medal, kissing his teammates’ cheeks.
In time it will all come to a head. For the moment, there’s nothing but sweet possibility clouding the air.
Croatian football is a tangled, snarling mass of dirty money and deceit.
Well, all football is. Show me a football association devoid of any type of corruption and I’ll hold up a mirror to show you a liar. But the level of corruption the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) has consistently operated at and the extent to which they’ve gone almost entirely unchecked boggles the mind.
At the center of it all, Gordian for how impossible he is to remove, is Zdravko Mamić. Nobody could ever claim that Croatian football was squeaky clean before him, but when Mamić burst on the scene in 1980, he started dragging it down to new lows and never stopped.
Mamić, who grew up supporting Dinamo Zagreb and failed trials to make it into their youth system, has always been a person who desires power and who will strongarm his way into getting it, no matter the cost. Make no mistake, he is not a particularly skilled businessman and he doesn’t have a brilliant mind for football—every position he has achieved in Croatian football has been because of his connections, his money, and his insatiable thirst for prestige. Beginning in the 80s when he befriended legendary manager Ćiro Blažević and used their relationship as a springboard into Dinamo’s backroom, Mamić has only maintained forward momentum and burrowed deeper into all aspects of Croatian football. Nothing, not even arrest, has ever caused him to relinquish an ounce of control.
While at Dinamo, Mamić embezzles millions from the club. No surprise there; stealing is almost de rigueur for club officials in many parts of the world. But he also began financially backing players under the promise that they would share their future earnings with him, and took to brokering transfers in his own unique way. It was a simple enough scheme—after players transferred out of Dinamo, they would backdate and sign an addendum to their contract stipulating that their transfer fee be split between the player and the club. This kept it under the table during the actual transfer negotiation, and the player’s share would quietly go, in part, directly to Mamić. It’s been proven that he profited personally off the sale of several enormous Croatian talents, and one can only estimate how many others brought him big bucks.
One could look at the titles Mamić held until very recently—Executive Director of Dinamo, Vice-President of the HNS—and easily see that those positions afforded him a phenomenal amount of influence. A rightful conclusion, but one that barely scratches the surface. The titles themselves don’t begin to cover how deeply embedded he is in Croatian football, even now that he’s been stripped of them.
To root out the corruption Mamić has caused isn’t as simple as getting rid of the man himself. It also necessitates ferreting out everyone who has ever lived in his pocket and who can do his bidding while he’s gone, a larger undertaking than anyone can conceive. Mamić wasted no time getting his family involved as well. His brother, Zoran, is a manager (who coincidentally managed Dinamo for three years) and his son, Mario, is an agent who represents the lion’s share of current and former Dinamo players for his father’s benefit. Over the decades, Zdravko expanded his sphere of influence to include a formidable cadre of friends and colleagues who value loyalty to him above all else. Their positions of power extend beyond football—Mamić is well known to be connected to lawyers, politicians, law enforcement officers and judges as well. Mamić’s influence is cancerous, so much so that his most recent trials were relocated from Zagreb to Osijek (175 miles away) to ensure his connections influenced the proceedings as little as possible.
While the trial that began in April 2017 is far from his first, it has been the most publicized and heavily scrutinized. In November 2015, Mamić was arrested under suspicion of embezzlement, bribery and tax fraud. For a while, it looked like this might be the time for Mamić’s world to unravel. High profile Croatian footballers were tapped to testify against him, evidence was gathered about the money Mamić directly pocketed from their transfers. Chief among them was none other than Croatia’s crown jewel, Luka Modrić.
Modrić’s transfer from Dinamo to Tottenham Hotspur came under investigation when it was found to include one of Mamić’s illegal addendums. Modrić complied with authorities and testified in no uncertain terms that this was indeed the case: He was made to sign the additional paperwork after he had already transferred to Spurs, that with every installment of his transfer fee he was escorted to the bank by Mamić’s family and made to hand over Mamić’s portion.
This point-blank testimony from the greatest Croatian player in the world seemed bulletproof. Modrić mentioned that he always had full faith in Mamić, and for as foolish as that might sound, the nation largely took it in stride, seeing him as just another hapless victim of Mamić’s scheming. The tower looked poised to fall and finally take the man atop down with it.
Life would be boring if it was really that easy, wouldn’t it?
Low on the list of Mamić’s indiscretions—to those investigating his illegal wheelings and dealings, but no less insidious to football fans—is how he’s impacted the development of the Croatia national team and used it to further his own agenda, even at the expense of the team’s standing.
During the summer of 2012, Slaven Bilić resigned as coach of the national team, and Vlatko Marković retired after fourteen years of serving as the president of the HNS. This opened doors for Mamić to gain more power, and he quickly did just that.
Despite Croatia’s lackluster Euro 2012, Bilić left his post in a positive light. If there is one Croatian manager who can still inspire fondness in Vatreni fans’ hearts, it’s undoubtedly Bilić. He was replaced by Igor Štimac, whose tenure with the team was largely unremarkable but set a precedent for incoming managers. Mamić advised Štimac to choose current and former Dinamo players for Croatia’s starting lineups, hoping to engender the sort of transfer interest that would line his pockets. This trend continued with the appointment of former Croatia captain Niko Kovač, and now with current manager Ante Čačić. Mamić has kept every Vatreni manager on as short of a leash as he can manage, and if that means less stellar results for the team as a whole, then that’s life. In the end, what matters to Mamić is that he is the one in control.
Davor Šuker—the same Davor Šuker who first drew my attention to Vatreni, the same man I idolized for years before I learned what a reprehensible person he is—took up the position as president of the Croatian Football Federation. He did so with much fanfare but little in the way of concrete plans to improve Croatian football. Šuker has never kept his desire to join UEFA’s executive board quiet, and he blatantly views his presidency as a stepping stone to that. As with everything else he does, he does it only to further the Šuker brand. This gave Mamić free reign to pull the strings as his vice-president for years—and even now that he’s resigned from that position, would anyone really be dense enough to assume he isn’t still whispering in Šuker’s ear?
The fanbase isn’t blind to this. The common defense of Croatian hooliganism in recent years, from marking the pitch with a swastika during a closed-door match against Italy to throwing live flares onto the pitch during the group stages of Euro 2016, is that everything is done in protest of Šuker, Mamić and the HNS. A sector of Vatreni fans believes that the only way to restore Croatian football is to first destroy it, and they will do so by any means necessary. It doesn’t matter that they’re endangering their players’ lives or using a symbol that still represents the most reprehensible racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism. To them, their point is justified, and their actions will escalate until they see them take effect.
All of this has created an incredibly tumultuous atmosphere surrounding the national team. The federation is corrupt, the hooligans are unchecked, no amount of fines or docked points from UEFA make a difference, the team’s form continues to dip, Mamić carries on his machinations even from behind bars, formerly beloved players are nationally reviled, everything keeps ramping up with no sign of stopping.
And yet, in spite of all this, the Croatia national team stays standing, a pillar of light in the dark, however dim that light may be at times like these. When viewed on their own, without the larger context, they are still worth celebrating. They are still a desperately talented team, superstar players making the trek from their respective clubs to gel together into one national mass. There are young players waiting in the wings to help grasp for glory as their heroes before them. It’s a cycle that repeats endlessly, in spite of the seedy back office dealings. A Croatian child looks at the team and sees a promise. A Croatian adult looks at the machinations behind the team and sees a threat.
It’s June 2017, and Luka Modrić reneges on his previous testimony to proclaim his loyalty to Zdravko Mamić, the man who helped to shape him into the footballer he is today.
This news reaches me immediately. I’m at work, I get the push notification on my phone, I try to absorb the words as tears preemptively well up in my eyes. I’m profoundly saddened and disappointed, but I’m not surprised. Maybe that’s what stings the most.
When he takes the stand two years after his original testimony, he is a very different Modrić. He is unsure, confused, backpedaling on everything he originally said. He claims he never said the addendum was signed at a later date, that he only ever said he didn’t remember when it was signed. There are a great many things Modrić can’t recall during this testimony. Maybe it’s the stress of testifying—then again, most footballers would still be able to remember the year they debuted with their national team. But Modrić is shaky even on that.
One could draw several conclusions from this swift turning of the tides. It would be easy, maybe even tempting, to call Modrić a traitor, denounce him and leave it at that. But I can’t do that. It’s fueled by my attachment to Modrić, absolutely, I’ll always be the first to admit that—but it’s also because I believe the situation to be far more nuanced.
Everything I’ve said about Mamić’s web of influence, about the vast power he wields even when he’s only an “advisor” to Croatian football, about all the people in his back pocket ready to do anything asked of them in his name—couldn’t that have something to do with the new tune Modrić is singing? That isn’t so far-fetched to think, is it? There could very well be larger forces at play here, external pressure on Modrić. I can’t help but look at the confidence in his original testimony, then compare it to the uncertainty and nervousness of the second—and I have trouble taking it at face value. That doesn’t change the fact that Modrić is now under investigation for potentially perjuring himself with his newest testimony, of course. But when put into the larger context, taking Modrić’s words as those of a turncoat doesn’t sit right with me.
The Vatreni feel evermore like iron bars banging down onto my hand every time I try to reach in and recapture my youthful hope. I still love them, in the way one can only love the team their blood stems from. I always will. But there is something dark at the edges now—something that was always there, but that I had to grow into, discovering the underbelly of corruption alongside my own adult cynicism. Life loses its glorious promising sheen, and the Vatreni along with it. I learn to love both in new ways. Critically, but still passionately. With tempered expectations, not blind hope.
I still want to believe. I just have to relearn how.
After Modrić’s testimony, the trial imploded. Mamić had an outburst in the courtroom and fired his lawyers, saying he would only represent himself. The trial was temporarily suspended, right before another high-profile testimony from Dejan Lovren was set to occur.
The same Dejan Lovren who was seen partying with Mamić at the wedding of fellow Croatian international Mateo Kovačić this same summer.
Peel back layer after layer and Mamić is still there, carrying on as if nothing has happened. Well, that’s not entirely true—before he fired them, his defense’s main argument was that everything that’s been levied against Mamić did happen, but there was nothing illegal about any of it. This is the same stance Mamić himself is expected to take when the trial picks back up in September. There is no shame or remorse, and there is no admitting that anything he’s engaged in throughout his decades in Croatian football was unlawful.
So, where do we Croatia supporters go from here? Do we give up all hope on the federation and the team, force ourselves to stop caring? Do we sweep it under the rug and pretend this gross betrayal never occurred? Do we scrub the graffiti from Zadar, slip the captain’s arm band back onto Modrić’s bicep, and try to win the World Cup despite it all? The answer may be different for you than it is for me. You may be able to stop loving the Vatreni and Modrić and Croatian football, you may be able to dig deep into your soft tissue and rip it out. I can’t. It is too integral to who I am. To turn away would be to present one of my own limbs for removal. Life would go on if it happened to me, but why would I do it willingly?
I choose the route of cautious optimism. Despite his lust for power and glory, Mamić is not eternal. Neither are Šuker or the rest of his cronies. Inevitably, he will become a chapter in Croatian football history that comes to a close. The same could be said for the 1998 team, brilliant as they were. The page turned, their time in the spotlight ended, but they remained an inspiration for the young players who watched them succeed against all odds. Croatia has the opportunity now to spark that same ambition in a new generation of talents, and to use Mamić’s dying reign as an example of what they can never stoop to again.
With the next World Cup, we’ll round the corner on twenty years since Croatia truly made their mark on international football. The team’s motto is Budi Ponosan—be proud. Funny, considering the dark cloud hanging over Vatreni fans. Sometimes pride feels like an emotion entirely divorced from the national team. Sometimes, when I’ve spent too long reading and writing and thinking about it all, I can’t imagine feeling a swell of pride in my chest ever again.
And then they take the pitch, and the anthem rings out, and I recall being young and enraptured by an almost entirely unknown team delighting in their bronze medals. I think of that spark at the core of it all, immutable even as the infrastructure around it changes, and feel it in my own heart. I’m not proud of what Croatian football has become, but I love what the team represents at its most base level. I love where I come from, I love the players who represent the dream of millions, I love the narrative of a scrappy and fiery team. I love what we have the potential to become, if only we shake off our demons and hold them accountable for what they’ve done.
Budi Ponosan, they say.
I raise the challenge back at them: Give me something to be proud of.