The following article first appeared in Issue Twenty One, released in June 2016.

Zvonimir Boban, a controversial interview and Croatia’s conflicted relationship with its national side

There was something very odd about the Zvonimir Boban interview published last October in Magazin, the Saturday supplement of Croatia’s Jutarnji list daily newspaper. Well… a few things were, actually.

The interviewer, for one. Probably the nation’s most prominent contemporary author, Miljenko Jergović is a regular columnist for Magazin; he mainly writes about literature and cultural phenomena and doesn’t normally do interviews. The style in which it was written was striking as well. Despite the classic Q&A form, Boban’s answers were distinctly literary, even poetic in many places. Quite obviously this wasn’t just a transcription of a conversation that took place, but something that someone – be it the interviewer or the interviewee, or maybe both – put a lot of thought into.

Above all, it was the fact that it didn’t make the front page of either the newspaper or the supplement, even though it was clearly a major coup for Jutarnji. The former national team captain, whose public stature and charisma transcends football, rarely speaks to the media: this was his first real interview in several years. It was also densely packed with controversial quotes regarding the state of Croatian football, as well as about politics and society in general. But as it turned out, the controversy itself was behind the paper’s awkward attempt to downplay it: it had taken a lot of editorial courage just to run in the first place.

It’s now 20 years since Croatia first stepped onto the big football stage. At Euro 96 in England, the Vatreni wore slightly psychedelic checkerboard shirts resembling tablecloths, held their hands on their hearts while the anthem was played and lined up in a 3-5-2 formation which their manager, the colourful Miroslav ‘Ćiro’ Blažević, claimed to have invented back in the early 1980s with Dinamo Zagreb. Representing a new nation fresh from the War of Independence which had only ended the previous summer, they were bustling with patriotic pride – that, as well as the unconditional support from the fans back home, was their main drive.

A talented lot, they were. Raised and schooled in the Yugoslav socialist system, most players knew each other from an early age. The squad was built around the hard core of the so-called ‘Chileans’ – members of the Yugoslavia side that won the 1987 World Youth Championship in Chile. These were Igor Štimac, Robert Jarni, Robert Prosinečki, Zvonimir Boban and Davor Šuker; Slaven Bilić and Alen Bokšić had been in the same 1987 crop but didn’t travel to the tournament. In England, they went out in the quarter-final against eventual winners, Germany. Two years later, they would get their revenge at the World Cup in France, defeating the Germans 3-0 in the same stage of the competition before finishing third.

Almost all of them have stayed in football, one way or the other, since hanging up their boots.

Slaven Bilić, of course, was Croatia manager between 2006 and 2012 and before that managed the nation’s Under-21 side. His staff included Robert Prosinečki, Aljoša Asanović, Nikola Jurčević and Marjan Mrmić (the reserve goalkeeper from the 1990s). Prosinečki, who was in charge of scouting the opposition, controversially left in 2010 for his first job as head coach – he took over Crvena Zvezda in Belgrade, the club that made him as a player. It was quite a bombshell: leaving the national team to join the club that has always, to Croatians at least, represented Serbian nationalism. Incredibly, though, few resented him. A maverick personality like his could get away with it.

Štimac unsuccessfully ran for federation president, worked as a pundit for national television and coached a bit before being appointed Bilić’s successor in 2012, also bringing Alen Bokšić on board. Dražen Ladić managed Croatia’s U21s for five years; later he worked in the Middle East. Robert Jarni, Zvonimir Soldo, Igor Pamić, Igor Cvitanović and Tonći Gabrić are coaches, too. Goran Vlaović is now a TV pundit, albeit not a very good one; Dario Šimić is the head of the players’ union, while Mario Stanić writes a column for an obscure blog that often gets picked up by other media outlets. He has been the most vocal in criticising the current state of things in Croatian football.

The two most iconic players from that generation, however, had managed to stay away from domestic affairs for years. But then one of them got involved as well.

Davor Šuker mainly travelled the world and enjoyed the finer things in life for a decade after his playing days ended. From time to time, photos of him relaxing on the beaches of various tropical destinations would appear in the media and there were reports of the former talismanic striker “committing shrimp genocide”, as one football writer put it, on his gastronomic travels. He would occasionally get into trouble for petty things like receiving betting tips from Ante Šapina, the convicted king of match fixing in Germany, or stealing antique coins from a plane.

By 2012, however, he got tired of the bon vivant lifestyle and decided to run for president of the Croatian Football Federation. In one interview, even before he was elected, he said his main goal was to get onto the Uefa Executive Committee, because “… that’s where all the lobbying is taking place. After that, the next step is Fifa.” Back then, I spoke to Andrew Jennings, the British investigative journalist who has spent years uncovering the numerous Fifa corruption affairs, and told him what Šuker had said. “I’m afraid he might be too late,” Jennings said with a sarcastic grin. “The golden age of Fifa lobbying is coming to an abrupt end.”

Where Štimac failed in 2010, Šuker succeeded and was elected. The difference was the support of Zdravko Mamić, the Dinamo Zagreb chief executive and the most powerful man in Croatian football by some distance. The two men made a pact with the power-hungry Štimac, giving him the post of the national team manager almost as a consolation prize – but he proved so grotesquely incompetent and unpopular that he was fired before the end of the qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup. Ahead of his last game in charge, which ended with a defeat in Scotland, an online poll on one of the most popular news portals had 97% of people saying he should leave immediately.

Zvonimir Boban is a different sort. He graduated in history after his playing career, owns a restaurant and a pastry shop in Zagreb and does punditry work for Sky Italia. Although his charisma and uncompromised status are such that many in the country see him as a potential saviour, he has repeatedly refused to consider any kind of engagement in Croatian football. As things went from bad to worse in the federation, a number of fans came to resent him for such an attitude. But, as he said himself in March last year, in one of the very rare appearances on public television, “One person cannot save Croatian football. With the current constellation, I can’t be bothered to lose myself in all that. Football is trapped in a small circle of people.” In that same brief outing, he called Zdravko Mamić a “scoundrel” (hulja).

However, he started a monthly column for Sportske novosti, Croatia’s only daily sport newspaper, in which he wrote about his former teammates. But not only that – he also returned as the paper’s CEO, a position he had held a decade earlier. This was intriguing, because EPH, the media conglomerate that owns Sportske as well as Jutarnji list, had just changed ownership. In a rather hostile takeover, its new boss became Marijan Hanžeković, a wealthy lawyer also known as Zdravko Mamić’s confidant and a member of his clique that runs Dinamo Zagreb.

I met Boban a couple of weeks before the controversial interview for the Jutarnji.

Months before that, I’d been trying to speak to him for FourFourTwo magazine: after long consideration, he agreed to talk and gave me his phone number via a mutual contact. I was fully aware of how significant that was because he had refused interviews for the likes of the BBC and the New York Times. You don’t speak to Boban – he speaks to you if he so chooses, and he also gets to pick questions: there is no way you’re asking him about that “high kick that started the War” (which is the biggest myth of Croatian football, by the way – a whole season of the Yugoslav league was played after that incident, with Dinamo and Zvezda playing each other home and away without any serious trouble).

He phoned me to confirm and I enthusiastically mailed my editor; then, as the magazine asked people on Twitter to pose their questions, Boban backed down because he had not been consulted about the interview being advertised on social media. The interview was postponed indefinitely; I texted him once or twice to see if he had changed his mind, but also to commend him on his columns, some of which were really good. He always replied and seemed genuinely interested in what I thought.

As I was rushing to a meeting with my editor at Jutarnji’s Magazin, I bumped into Boban at a café just across the road from the EPH building. He was sitting on a terrace, wearing a military-style shirt, smoking a big Cuban cigar and reading Sportske. It was all a bit surreal and awkward, so we just shook hands and exchanged a few pleasantries. Five minutes later, my editor told me Boban had contacted Magazin and chosen them for his big, revealing interview, provided he spoke to Miljenko Jergović. The reason he was doing it, he said, was to say he was going to vote left in the upcoming general election that was just weeks away.

Now, I’m aware of how bizarre this may sound to anyone not familiar with the quirks of Croatian society: why should anyone care that much about what an ex-footballer thinks about politics, even if he is the legendary captain of the legendary national side? But politics and football are never far apart in Croatia and Boban is one of the truly independent and influential public figures. His opinion very much counts. Besides that, he is known to be right-leaning in his political views.

“Athletes are our country’s best ambassadors,” Franjo Tuđman, Croatia’s first president and an avid football fan, used to say. At the time, everyone seemed to believe it – or at least dared not to question such a statement that would soon become a truism. It implied not only the ultimate honour, but the ultimate duty as well. The Vatreni did not simply represent Croatian football: they represented the whole of Croatia, in such a way that their fortunes and success were linked to those of the nation itself. And the duty extended to the general population. To suggest you didn’t care if they won or lost would have been deemed deeply unpatriotic and it didn’t even matter whether you followed football or not – because, you see, it’s was not only about football. It was a matter of national interest.

Tuđman himself tried to translate that point of view to club football as well. At the time, Dinamo were known as Croatia Zagreb and secured lavish funding in a bid to create a true ‘national’ club which could compete with Europe’s finest while promoting the new country. The name was the president’s own suggestion and he vehemently defended it in public until the end of his days. He attended the club’s matches and at times even acted as their director of football – in 1997, he talked Prosinečki into returning to the club he had left as a youngster a decade ago; two years earlier, he had secured the signing of 19-year-old Mark Viduka, an ethnic Croat, during his ceremonial visit to Australia. “The president wanted me to board his plane and fly to Zagreb with him straight away, but I told him I needed some more time,” the striker said.

The irony of it all, of course, was that Tuđman used to preside over Partizan Belgrade as a young general of the Yugoslav People’s Army.

And although Croatia the national team – the eponymous club side perhaps slightly less so – took to representing their nation with patriotic fervour, the system Tuđman tried so hard to keep in place was already disintegrating by the late 1990s. Dinamo supporters regularly protested and demanded the return of the name: they found the new identity artificial and resented the fact it had been imposed on them. Their bitter rivals, Hajduk Split – who as recently as 1995 had played in the Champions League quarter-finals – had to accept playing second fiddle, but they would boo Tuđman, seeing him as the main reason for Dinamo’s dominance. When he fell ill, a macabre terrace chant sprung up among Hajduk fans: “Tik-tak, tik-tak, Franjo ima rak” (“Tick-tock, tick-tock, Franjo has cancer”).

In January 2000, Tuđman’s national-conservative party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), lost the general election for the first time since independence. But the president was not there to witness it – he died less than a month earlier. In February, the name Dinamo returned: the club’s chairman, Zlatko Canjuga, claimed Tuđman had ordered him to do so on his deathbed, but no one believed him. The following season, the club lost the title to Hajduk after winning five consecutive honours and it took them three years to reclaim it.

Underneath it all, a new, peacetime civil society started to bloom. Media freedoms were part of it and Jutarnji list, founded in 1998, established itself as the most important national daily newspaper. While the political alignment of the paper itself could perhaps be roughly described as (neo)liberal, the most influential columnists for Magazin, its Saturday supplement, have mostly been leftist intellectuals.

I joined Jutarnji in September 2014. By then, it was well past its prime, but writing for the Magazin was still as high as you could get professionally in Croatia. My debut there was a 2,000-word piece about how Hajduk joined the communist partisan resistance in the Second World War and played a friendly against a British Army XI, featuring Stan Cullis and a young Tom Finney.

A story like that would have been almost unthinkable in a major paper back in the 1990s. Although many of their members, including Tuđman, were former communists, the ruling HDZ did its best to dispense with the remnants of the nation’s socialist past, elevating an ethnocentric identity and making patriotism a preserve of the Right. After 2000, it seemed as though those days were gone, but as economic depression hit Croatia harder and longer than most other European countries, the authoritarian, nationalist past reared its ugly head again.

A political block calling itself the Patriotic Coalition was formed, led by new HDZ president Tomislav Karamarko, a former director of the national security and counterintelligence agencies: the boss of all spies. The coalition included some minor parties further right on the political spectrum and vowed to seize power. It certainly seemed to have a head start, especially after its candidate, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, won the presidential election in February 2015. But Karamarko’s talk of ‘Re-Tuđmanisation’ and the rising right-wing extremism on the fringes of the society scared some people off and their advantage in polls started to melt.

The members and sympathisers of the Patriotic Coalition often complained about what they saw as unfavourable treatment in the media, which they denounced as “unpatriotic”. Marijan Hanžeković’s EPH takeover, however, offered them a chance to start changing that: allegedly the new owner signed some kind of agreement with the HDZ, apologising because the conglomerate’s publications often attacked and criminalised the party, promising to be less biased in the future.

As an outside correspondent, I tried to keep my contacts with office politics to a minimum, but I’d hear rumours about various conservative right-wing columnists being proposed as counterbalance only to be rejected by the editors – surely much to the owner’s discontent. It was a patient game: he couldn’t just fire all the editors and columnists (although some were dismissed, immediately after the change of ownership) and do a U-turn, because he would then lose much of the readership.

Football was a much more important part of it than you might think. It has been one of the few walks of life which was never ‘De-Tuđmanised” and democratised. In terms of power, it remained largely a domain of local populist politicians, HDZ or otherwise, and the conservative federation made sure the status quo was kept through a system of election to its Executive Committee that favoured local bosses with strong political backgrounds. About two thirds of the ExCo members have been members of the HDZ at any given time. Meanwhile, chauvinist, racist and other discriminatory messages remained the staple of the fans’ chants, especially at national team games, and nobody was doing anything about it. It was as if though they wanted to say “you’re welcome here” to all the idiots who had nowhere else to go with those kinds of attitudes.

Zdravko Mamić was the main figure that rose from the ashes of Tuđman’s Croatia, the club, and worked his way up. He established a network of connections with politics, the judicial system, the police and the media. His friend Hanžeković, sometimes referred to as the “Consigliere” in the independent media, was the brain behind the loophole in the club’s statutes that enabled Mamić to keep power at Dinamo, even though it is a citizens’ association and – as such – supposed to give all of its members the right to elect and be elected.

Hajduk was so ruined and looted by incompetent chairmen, installed by politics, that it came to the verge of bankruptcy. When it seemed that there was no way out and the club’s only chance was to fold and start from scratch, it was the fans who saved it. When there was nothing to pillage anymore, the city – Hajduk’s majority shareholder – offered the supporters the opportunity to take over. But instead they devised a set of rules every club functionary has to meet, mainly to do with ethics, education and expertise, organising elections for the Supervisory Board among the club members. Against all odds, the new, democratically elected club leadership managed to stabilise the club financially and get rid of most of its crippling debt. But on-pitch results have suffered: Hajduk only signed players on free transfers, paid them low wages (their wages budget last year was 10 times lower than Dinamo’s) and patched the holes with transfers before they slowly began to breathe freely again.

What they are doing is radical not just in football, but in Croatian society as a whole: Hajduk completely expelled politics from the club and organised it on a sustainable, community-led basis: they have around 80, mainly small, sponsors and partners and – at the time of writing – 37,000 paid members for 2016, which would make them a top-10 club in Germany, a country known for its club membership culture and with a population almost 20 times as big. As the support for Hajduk grew into a popular movement despite the team’s failures in the league and in Europe, it became a threat to the system: it was clear that the democratic principles could be replicated at Dinamo as well, where supporters have been boycotting games and campaigning for “One member, one vote” free club elections.

These were the kind of things I wrote about in Jutarnji, while some of the paper’s other football journos took to glorifying Mamić and degrading Hajduk, especially after the new owner settled in at the EPH. I knew it couldn’t go on like that for much longer.

In late 2011, aged 58 and unemployed for more than four years, Ante Čačić was leading a quiet life, running a café in downtown Zagreb. He used to repair TV sets for a living back in the 1980s before embarking on a distinctly unremarkable coaching career, which has seen him in charge of several smaller Croatian clubs, as well as briefly managing Libya’s U21 side. But then Zdravko Mamić called.

The Dinamo Zagreb boss, also known as the “puppet master” in Croatian football, installed Čačić as coach of Lokomotiva – Dinamo’s feeder club which is, against all logic and regulation, allowed to compete in the country’s top division.

Čačić only led Lokomotiva in four league games. Just before Christmas that year, he was shockingly revealed as the new Dinamo head coach. He held the post for almost a year before getting sacked, having lost all of his five Champions League games in charge without scoring, and almost ruining Dinamo’s brightest young talents – such as Mateo Kovačić, Marcelo Brozović, Šime Vrsaljko and Andrej Kramarić – with his relentless tactical experiments and positional rotation.

By 2015, he was back at Lokomotiva, but didn’t last much longer this time, either. Two months into his term, Niko Kovač was sacked as national team manager and Čačić chosen as his successor. Widely seen as Mamić’s ‘house coach’, he was only appointed as someone who can be easily controlled and open to suggestions about who to call up and who to leave out: he is expected to allow easier access to the team and better treatment for players in whose careers Mamić has a vested interest and from which he may personally profit. This may include raising profiles and price tags for those who are still at Dinamo, but possibly also those who are playing abroad and have bonuses and sell-on percentages in their contracts.

The federation didn’t even try to deny that Čačić was Mamić’s choice and had his support from the start, despite not possessing much in terms of references for the job and clearly lacking authority over the players, as well as their respect. This was the final straw that pushed the travesty beyond every limit: the definite proof that Croatia is now Mamić’s private enterprise. It inspired a growing anti-team sentiment and many fans started declaring that they do not support it anymore.

Meanwhile, the House of Mamić came under serious threat, the foundations of its business shaken by an investigation launched against Zdravko, his brother Zoran (Dinamo’s sporting director, who also doubles as their head coach these days) and his son Mario, who was the middle man in many transfer deals. Damir Vrbanović, a highly ranked federation officer, was involved as well. The men were accused of making illegal personal profits off Dinamo player transfers abroad, embezzling the club’s funds on a massive scale through offshore bank accounts.

National team stars such as Luka Modrić and Dejan Lovren were called to testify: according to media leaks, they revealed everything about the schemes, because otherwise they would have been seen as accomplices. The Mamićs were brought into custody in the summer of 2015 (Zdravko twice, actually, as the investigation extended), only to be bailed out with large sums that, as it turned out, Davor Šuker helped pay. The charges against them were finally raised in April 2016 and they are now awaiting trial.

While Zdravko was banned by the court from working at Dinamo during the investigation, there haven’t been other real consequences for him so far (or for his brother, who is still coaching Dinamo). He resumed his duties as the federation’s vice-president and this further blow to his reputation doesn’t seem to have affected his political links. He spent the entire election night at the Patriotic Coalition headquarters with Tomislav Karamarko and had previously thrown a birthday party for Croatia’s new president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. He was seen having coffee and engaging in friendly conversations with judges.

“I feel sorry for Mamić,” Boban said in the interview. “I’ve known him for ages and that man is a tragedy to himself, but that could be accepted if that tragedy didn’t cost us as much. Both our football and Croatia as a whole. That is our shame. Our national shame.” He touched upon Šuker as well: “Our genius number nine, the obedient executor of the shady business who took himself away from us in the most brutal way…”

But these observations were lightweight compared to what he said about politics, where he was much more straightforward. “I believe it is crucial that the Left wins – among other things, for the sake of the Right. Because then we’ll perhaps get the “true” Right which is closer to me in many respects. Unfortunately, this current one is not in any of them.” Boban went on to praise Zoran Milanović, the Prime Minister at the time and head of the centre-left coalition, stating that he wasn’t corrupt and compromised “… and that, to our shame, is his big advantage.”

The EPH boss Hanžeković, the insider story goes, was furious upon learning the contents of the as yet unpolished interview. He demanded that Boban retracted some of his statements, which he refused to do; he then asked the editors not to run the interview or leave out the controversial parts, which they refused to do. It ended in an absurd compromise that nobody was happy with – the interview was published, but wasn’t advertised on the front page. Disillusioned, Boban immediately quit both his columnist and CEO gigs.

This was about a month before the elections. Polls still favoured the Patriotic Coalition and almost every analyst in the country forecast it would win.

But it ended up in a hung parliament, with both big blocks winning exactly the same number of seats; none could have formed the government without the help of Most – a new political power, basically an alliance of independent candidates with various ideological alignments that called for extensive reforms in just about every sector. After two and a half months of negotiation and quite a few dramatic shifts, they chose go with the Right, but refused to accept Karamarko as Prime Minister. Tim Orešković, a Croatian-Canadian businessman with no party affiliation, was agreed upon and appointed instead.

A few months into their term, things just don’t seem to be working, with the two blocks in power quarrelling and obstructing each other’s initiatives all the time. But the Patriotic Coalition has managed to push forward their agenda of bringing the “unpatriotic” media in order: there have been purges at HRT, the public broadcasting company, while Ministry of Culture abolished the financial backing of non-profit media outlets and civil society programmes. A wave of historical revisionism and neo-traditionalism appeared, swooping down on key opinion-makers as not affirmative enough for traditional Croatian and Catholic values.

As for football, some members of Most stressed clearing off the situation in the federation as one of their (many) priorities, while the new Minister of Sport said Mamić was “not his biggest problem”. Meanwhile, Šuker and Mamić himself have called for bigger government investment in football, including a new stadium in Zagreb. “It’s shameful how little money we receive from the state,” Zdravko said just days after charges against him were raised.

A majority of Hajduk fans are now alienated from the national team and claim they are no longer supporting it. A good part of Dinamo’s support feels the same way, as do some of the neutrals who can’t accept how the Vatreni have been usurped for private interests. Then there are those who are put off not only by that, but also by displays of nationalism and hate speech among the fans. “Za dom – spremni!” (For home – ready!), the salute infamous for its usage by Croatian fascists in the Second World War, can be heard at every game.

It’s the same salute shouted by Joe Šimunić over the PA system that got him suspended and effectively ended his international career after the Croatia v Iceland 2014 World Cup qualifying play-off match. Shooting themselves in the foot, the federation appointed Šimunić as Ante Čačić’s assistant – despite having no qualifications, not even his badges, he’s employed in the capacity of a “motivator”. While the federation claims to be committed to the fight against racism and discrimination, it is, in fact, encouraging (and rewarding) this type of behaviour.

There will be three types of Croatia supporters at the Euros in France. Some will just want to support the team and have a good time, oblivious of everything else. Others will go there to support the Vatreni as hardcore nationalists, shouting those slogans despite being aware they can hurt the team that way, racking up fines for the federation or worse. Finally, there are those who will do it not despite, but because of that – they are the anti-federation, anti-Mamić radicals, who will be looking to sabotage the team, as they feel that international shame and on-pitch failure is the only chance for change to finally start happening in Croatian football. Those have been actively engaged since they realised that that was perhaps the most effective weapon at their disposal, since all the legal remedies and initiatives failed. It’s very likely that the same thinking was behind the incident at Split’s Poljud Stadium, where someone sneaked in during the night and painted a swastika on the pitch before the Croatia v Italy qualifier that was played behind closed doors due to previous crowd incidents.

The team that was once a unifying force for all Croatians, regardless of their political and club allegiances, is now very much a divisive factor.

I only wrote for Jutarnji for less than a year, but I came very close to quitting on three occasions during that period. I’ve struggled with it for months, torn between having the chance to use such a popular, mainstream platform for saying things others might keep silent about, and the nauseous feeling of being on the Consigliere’s payroll.

Then came the Boban interview and its aftermath, and my doubts were gone. On the same day it was published, I quit my job and have since found another that makes me feel much better about myself. The next day, Boban texted me. I’ll probably never get that interview if he finds out I wrote this, but here’s what he said: “I’m sorry and I’m glad for you. Greetings with, I suppose, ‘Brothers in Arms. Zvone.”