Soccer craze, pride grip Croatia before Argentina semifinal

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Forget Croatia’s forthcoming historic change of currency, or joining European Union’s travel-free zone. The World Cup semifinal against Argentina is all that most Croats are thinking about.

With hours left before Tuesday’s decisive match in Qatar, workers removed Christmas and New Year decorations from a central square in the capital, Zagreb, to make space for a more pressing festivity — the live broadcast of the soccer match to thousands of expected fans.

The small Balkan state of about 4 million, known for its stunning Adriatic Sea coastline and resort islands, is on a roll: as of Jan. 1 Croatia is adopting the EU’s common currency, the euro, and joining the so-called Schengen zone — the 27-nation bloc’s borderless free-travel area — which prompted the prime minister to say that 2022 will be remembered as one of Croatia’s most successful years.

Adopting the euro offers economic benefits stemming from deeper financial ties with the currency bloc’s other members and the European Central Bank. More tangibly, it means that any of the current eurozone’s 340 million inhabitants who visit Croatia will no longer need to exchange their euros for Croatian kuna and can cross the borders without stopping at border controls.

But all that is temporarily overshadowed by Tuesday’s soccer game in distant Qatar.

Thousands are expected to gather in Zagreb’s Bana Jelacica square and watch the match against Argentina on big screens, despite freezing weather. Fans are hoping Croatia will get through to the final like it did in the 2018 World Cup, in a stunning achievement for the small country — even though it lost then to France, which plays Morocco in the other semifinal Wednesday.

“We are advancing, no doubt about it,” a Zagreb student who gave only his first name, Luka, said. “I would love it if we got to play against France, so we can pay them back for what happened just four years ago.”

The soccer craze that has gripped the nation is visible everywhere — people wear the national team’s distinctive white and red checkered jerseys, while the semifinal is on everyone’s lips and dominates the media. In one Zagreb bakery, employees donned Croatia jerseys for work.

“All of Croatia is with our national team,” said Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic. “Already, what they have given us is a fascinating success by a brilliant generation.”

Plenkovic said the soccer distinction will prove a major boost for Croatia’s global branding.

“Everyone’s trying, we are all trying to promote Croatia, but this today is such a mega publicity that we can never forget,” he said.

For Croats, the national team’s exploit is a source of pride in a country that only gained independence in 1991 from the former Yugoslavia, and which fought a bloody war until 1995 to assert its statehood.

In six World Cup appearances, the country has reached the semifinals three times, and winded up second in the world to France in 2018.

While hopeful from the start of the championship, fans were cautious in getting their expectations too high until now. In the previous, quarterfinal match, Croatia faced powerhouse Brazil.

But after ousting Brazil in a penalty shootout, Croatia fans say everything is possible against yet another South American favorite, Argentina.

“I am an optimist, Croatia is full of confidence,” said state HRT radio commentator Srdjan Fabijanac. “What Croatia has done is already fantastic, twice in a row in the semifinals, that’s something even stronger soccer nations could not achieve.”

Croatia built its team from scratch after the war. While players and soccer experts had experience and knowledge stemming from the era of the former Yugoslavia, it took years of patience and work before any success was in sight.

In the postwar period, Croatia also struggled to move forward economically and rebuild, before it joined the EU in 2013.

For many, the national soccer team captain Luka Modric, who himself lost his home and his grandfather in the war, has become a symbol of persistence and effort following the conflict that cost more than 10,000 lives.

Fans say that even if Argentina prevails in Qatar, Croatia’s success so far is already so big as to leave no room for disappointment, only gratitude.

“This (game tonight) will remain in history for generations to come,” Prime Minister Plenkovic said.

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Jovana Gec and Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.

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