BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) – In the Balkans, soccer is so political that it has created bitter divisions about Croatia’s surprising success at the World Cup.
The team will face France in the tournament final in Moscow on Sunday, provoking mixed reactions and strong emotions in the region scarred by war.
From Montenegro and Serbia in the east and Slovenia in the west, Croatia’s neighbors have been split over whether to support Croatia or France, reflecting the persisting rifts stemming from the 1990s conflict.
While many in those nations have expressed pride and joy that a Balkan country has made it to the final, Croatia’s stellar achievement also has caused envy and nationalist outbursts evoking the war era.
“The World Cup generally is a joyful event, but we in the Balkans somehow manage to turn even ball-kicking into a clash,” said Draza Petrovic, an editor at the liberal Danas daily in Serbia.
Petrovic said that sports rivalry was also strong among the Balkan nations even while they were all part of the former Yugoslavia, when it was also rare to see Serbian or Croatian teams support one another. But he added that the former federation’s bloody breakup turned sports competitiveness into something more.
“The wars were not so long ago, so people view things not just as sports,” he said of the conflict that tore the former Yugoslavia into pieces and in which more than 100,000 people were killed.
Nearly three decades after the war, a number of unresolved issues still plague relations among the former Yugoslav republics, while nations stick to their own versions of what happened and who were the victims.
Illustrating postwar tensions, Serbia President Aleksandar Vucic said publicly that he would support Slavic ally Russia over Croatia in the quarterfinals, and the foreign minister openly backed England in the semifinal.
Even Serbia’s most-adored sportsman, tennis star Novak Djokovic, has faced criticism from a nationalist lawmaker after openly supporting Croatia, while the issue triggered a heated for-and-against debate on social networks and in the media.
Petrovic noted that “those divisions are bad, particularly if fueled by the state media and top officials, including the president.”
Some Serbs – whose team didn’t make it past the group stage – joked about Croatia being a better team, with a popular post on social media declaring that Serbia’s biggest success recently in soccer was being a neighbor to a World Cup finalist.
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic has thanked Balkan countries after his team’s win over England, saying that “the whole region is supporting us and of course this is normal.”
Croatia also has many supporters among Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups – Croats, Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks – that fought against each other during the country’s bloody 1992-95 war.
In Slovenia, generally a Croatian ally but with a looming border dispute, hundreds of supporters are expected to travel to Croatia to join street viewing of the match on Sunday. This prompted the Croatian railway company to introduce more trains and ticket discounts.
One supporter from Slovenia congratulated Croatia on its victory against England, noting that: England wanted Brexit and they got it!
In Montenegro, the national divide over the country’s loyalty to Orthodox Christian and Slavic neighbor Serbia, was reflected in the support for Croatia:
“There is no way I could back Croatia because they are our enemies,” declared Milan Bulatovic, from Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital.
But retiree Igor Nikolic, also from Podgorica, told The Associated Press that when Croatia beat England to make it to the final “I felt as if my old dream of Yugoslavia at the top has come true.”
Associated Press writers Predrag Milic in Podgorica, Montenegro, and Ali Zerdin, in Ljubljana, Slovenia, contributed to this report.