World Cup fever grips Croatia

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iol spt pic World Cup ball fans AP A pedestrian passes a graffiti depicting human hands holding the earth with the Brazilian flag in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo: Thanassis Stavrakis

Zagreb - The “biggest match in Croatia's history” read one newspaper front page on Thursday as the small Balkan nation, gripped by World Cup fever, gears up for its tournament opener against hosts Brazil.

Cafes across the country have installed new TV screens on their terraces and redecorated in the team's red and white colours, while live broadcasts will be held in the main squares of big towns and cities.

Giant posters of the Croatian team - nicknamed the “Fiery Ones” - stare out from shop windows in the capital Zagreb, especially star midfielder Luka Modric and striker Mario Manduzkic, and many shopkeepers are dressed in red-and-white jerseys.

“It will be a real drama,” said Hrvoje Tokic, manager of the popular Maraschino bar in downtown Zagreb, whose terrace is plastered in posters of the players and coach ahead of the 20:00 GMT kick-off.

It's not just patriotism driving the excitement, of course. Bar owners can expect a boost of 30 percent in their drink sales during major sporting events.

“We expect good business tonight. These games mean that one evening can be worth as much as a good weekend,” said Tokic.

Croatia needs a boost. Its economy is entering a sixth year of recession, with unemployment topping 22 percent.

On the evidence of Euro 2008, Croatia's last appearance at a major football tournament, economists expect each match in Brazil to generate 50 million euros.

That means the team's three opening group matches will add an estimated 0.35 percent to annual output - and even more if they progress into the later rounds.

The economic crisis means few Croatians have been able to make the pilgrimage to watch their team play live in Brazil. Some 6 000 Croatian fans are expected to attend the opening match in Sao Paolo.

That has left authorities having to cater to huge crowds back home. In Zagreb's main square, preparations for the opening of the giant “Fan Zone” were entering their final phase.

Up to two million people are expected to pass through this zone to watch the games on a 52-square-meter screen over the next month.

Zeljko Maric, sporting a Modric jersey, will be one of them.

“I expect a lot from this generation of players, they are among the world's best,” said the 42-year-old, predicting a 2-1 win for Croatia.

Many in the country of 4.2 million are just glad to have some distraction from day-to-day economic worries.

“For small nations such as ours, these sports events provide an opportunity to show ourselves off to the world. We still remember the famous 1998 tournament when we showed that we can win against a mighty country like Germany,” said sociologist Suncica Bartoluci.

That year's tournament in France was the first time Croatia had participated in the Cup and the country advanced all the way to the semi-finals to finish third overall.

As the clock ticks down to the opening match on Thursday evening, Croatians will be dreaming of going even further.

Sapa-AFP


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