Australia

World Cup Fans: Croatia's 'golden generation' can win it, say expats

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Croatia's national side is one of the strongest in years and belief among supporters in Australia is growing.

'World Cup Fans' is a special SBS News series running in the lead up to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. It looks at the 32 qualifying countries through the eyes of their fans in Australia. 

The 1998 World Cup is the one Croatian fans treasure more than any other. Coming just seven years after the country celebrated independence from Yugoslavia, Davor Suker was the leading goalscorer at the tournament in France and Croatia finished in third place. 

Fans in Australia are hoping the current crop of Croatian stars, led by Real Madrid ace Luka Modric, can do one better this time around and make the 2018 World Cup final in Russia in July. Some even think a historic first World Cup title is in reach.

Jakov Miljak was born in Sydney and presents a Croatian community radio programme. He told SBS News: "This golden generation is good enough. The only thing stopping them is if they trip themselves up."

“The Croatian mentality” can sometimes do the players more harm than good, he said. 

Jakov Miljak
Australian radio presenter Jakov Miljak holds the shirt of his Croatian hero Luca Modric.
John Baldock / SBS News
 

The national team's jersey, the famous red and white check design, is one of the most distinctive in the world, and football is at the core of Croatia's sense of identity. Legendary club teams such as HNK Hajduk Split and GNK Dinamo Zagreb are supported by legions of fans and the passion is shared by those of Croatian heritage in Australia.

When the Socceroos held Croatia to a draw in the 2006 World Cup in Germany – enough to send Croatia out and put Australia through – it was both agony and ecstasy for them. 

"Like many Croatian-Australians, I'm born here, I love Australia … but at the same time I'm really respectful and I love my Croatian heritage as well,” Miljak says.

“It's a little bit of mixed emotions … you have a different connection to both teams”.

Locals say the tournament will see those who are not even big football fans get behind the national team.

Participants in the 2018 Martin Knezovic Cup in Sydney.
Participants in the 2018 Martin Knezovic Cup in Sydney.
John Baldock / SBS News

Johnny Gagro is one of the organisers of the Martin Knezovic Cup, an annual tournament for members of the Croatian community which took place at the weekend.

It is hosted by Sydney team Hurstville Zagreb FC in memory of a former player who died of a heart condition aged 22. Now into its 21st year, the 2018 tournament saw four women’s teams taking part alongside the men’s competition.

Four women’s teams took part in the local tournament this year.
Four women’s teams took part in the local tournament this year.
John Baldock / SBS News

Gagro says whenever the national team plays, Australians with Croatian heritage "gather together at venues right across Sydney to watch the games and cheer the team".

Croatia will need the support to get out of a group that includes Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland. And if that happens, the 15th ranked nation will need to really start believing their golden generation can deliver the golden trophy fans both in Croatia and Australia.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup begins 15 June. SBS will broadcast the biggest games, including the opening match, semi-finals and final, live, free and in HD.

The World Game: World Cup 2018 match schedule and How to watch live.

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