Let’s just say it was a long night. All around this village, on an Adriatic island where cars were banned many years ago and the locals amble around at a pace that would make Andalusians look like sprinters, flares ignited, strangers hugged wildly and you could hear an entire country roar.
They say voices carry on the sea. Believe me they do. I am in deepest Dalmatia, Croatia’s rugged and beautiful coast. To see our neighbours’ hearts burst open with pride is truly a beautiful thing because Croatia has been through the mill in recent years.
Unlike the football team, the economy has underperformed dramatically. But all that is forgotten when one of their own, the diminutive Luka Modric from Zadar, shows that combination of talent and grit that defines great players.
Let me make a disclosure here. I have been coming to this part of the world for three decades. Many years ago, we bought a house here and Croatia is like a second home for my family. Although mine is passable, my children speak Croatian impressively, hang out with teenage islanders all summer, and the missus hunkers down every morning with the locals chatting about the crucial details of the day, such as what’s for lunch, what’s fresh from the sea and who is sleeping with people they shouldn’t be.
Football is taken seriously here.
The year we moved in, we were the only foreigners on the island and there was understandable curiosity about who were these Ircis (Irish) who had decided to come to this out-of-the-way place. On my first day here, I was pushing my daughter, now 18, in a pram at the tiny harbour. A fit-looking lad, in great shape, with a ponytail, shirtless and smoking a fag approached me, shook my hand.
Dobro Dosli na otok!
Igrate li nogomet?
Translation: “Welcome to the island, do you play football?”
That evening on the village square when the blistering sun went down, I togged out for the daily village football match. I have been playing ever since.
The lad with the ponytail was the village priest, a gorgeous person, immensely kind, wise, great fun and a fine poker player who, it is rumoured, was “banished” here for being associated with the Croatian anarchist party. A real leader and an ideal priest, he is available to all, non-judgmental and truly Christian.
During the war, from the pulpit, he told the locals that anyone who laid a finger on the few Serb families who lived here would not be welcome across the threshold. In so doing, he certainly saved lives and property at a time when the hills on the mainland some 20 miles away were held by the Serb army.
That was Krajina, home to Serbs for hundreds of years. They are now gone, having fled the Croatian army’s counter attack in August 1995. But here they weren’t touched.
And can these people play football? This place is a bit like Inish Meain in the sun. Every evening at least two generations tog out, and the level of skill displayed by these farmers, fishermen and labourers is quite astonishing. For an Irish journeyman it’s frankly embarrassing. It is not for nothing that the Yugoslav teams used to be called the Brazilians of Europe. They have technical ability unrivalled almost anywhere.
It’s wonderful to watch Croatia celebrate this culture and talent on the biggest stage: the World Cup. And Croatia needs something to celebrate, because since the last time the national team featured in the last four, the country’s economy has stagnated.
Real GDP growth in Croatia has lagged that of its Eastern European and Balkan neighbours since 1995. The Croatian economy is only around 60 per cent bigger than it was in 1995 – by comparison, Ireland’s is over 240 per cent larger.
The country had a population of 4.8 million in 1995; today is it just about 4 million. They say here that every month the equivalent of a small-sized town leaves Croatia. Many of them come to Ireland – 18,621 Croatians have been issued with Irish social-security numbers since 2013.
Croatians see Ireland as an economic nirvana. A Croatian ska outfit, called Postolar Tripper, topped the national charts in 2016 with a song called Irska(Ireland) about young Croatians emigrating to Ireland.
For Croatian emigrants money is clearly the biggest attraction in Ireland. The average salary after tax in Zagreb is €715 per month, as against €2,468 in Dublin. The local press regularly carries stories warning Croatians that they need €1,700-€2,000 to get set-up when they first move to Ireland. They also advise those looking to come to Ireland to avoid Dublin, due to rental prices and to settle down in smaller towns instead.
On Thursday night, one of my neighbours, a little tired and emotional, told me that although he was delighted for the country, the feeling was also bittersweet because the success of the football team underscored the failure of the economy.
He asked how many of the young lads and girls in their Croatian chequerboard jerseys, singing and dancing at the harbour, would have left the country by this time next year? How can a small country punch above its weight globally in football and yet fail so miserably economically? Then he said: “Look at Ireland, how come you guys did it? You were poor like us once.”
This is important to note: while Ireland might not feature in football, what the country has achieved economically and socially in the 30 years since Euro ’88 has been truly phenomenal – as impressive and unlikely as Croatia’s achievement in the one game that really matters to the world.