Football truly has come home. They may have lost the World Cup Final, but Croatia’s footballers won the hearts of millions. Their success was no surprise to those in the know, for the first evidence of world football came from Sinj back in Roman times, and a statue of the first ever modern football can be found as homage to the game in Županja.
A journey to the roots of these heroic players is a journey into the heart of the real Croatia. First stop Zadar region to pay homage to captain Luka Modrić, whose transformation from 5-year-old shepherd boy on YouTube to 2018 Golden Ball winner at 32 captivated the hearts of millions.
Luka grew up playing football on the streets as a refugee and the passion and determination of his fellow “Zadar kids” – Subašić, Vrsaljko, Livaković – usually known for its famous sunsets, greetings to the sun and sea organ, these boys put Zadar on the football map.
While in nearby Šibenik the fortresses are not the only defense mechanisms, as Duje Čaleta-Car will attest to. Both UNESCO and FIFA certified.
Is it such a surprise that Croatia did so well when they have some of the most picturesque football stadium locations in the world? Visit the stunning waterfront stadiums of Rijeka, Trogir and Ugljan, before heading to Imotski – home of stars Strinić and Rebić – where you will wonder at one of the world’s craziest stadiums, built into the rock.
But not as crazy as the world’s most unusual football match at the bottom of the Blue Lake, where the Elves take on the Werewolves every few years when the lake empties completely. And spare a thought for Europe’s sunniest island, where the football tradition dates back to 1913 on Hvar, and where an island league of 11 teams has been taking place for years – the Forska Liga is a unique island league.
Back on the mainland in Split, Lovre Kalinić will be happy to show you around one of the greatest sporting cities in the country, and nearby you should add the old pirate-town of Omiš to your list, the hometown of Ivan Perišić and if your perfect vacation includes a dose of adrenaline, then Omiš is definitely the right choice for you!
The world saw how Croatia welcomed home its heroes, with some 550,000 lining the streets from the airport located near Brozović’s home turf to the capital, where Zagreb natives Ćorluka, Jedvaj, Pivarić, Badelj, Kramarić, Pjaca and Kovačić saw their city light up as never before. A welcome as warm as is extended to all tourists visiting this hospitable land.
Croatia’s footballing talent, just like its natural beauty, is diverse and spread all over the country, so visit Karlovac, where centre-back Lovren – part of the official FIFA 2018 World Cup Team – celebrated with his roots.
Also, a short drive from Zagreb you will find a city whose rich history spans eight centuries. Varaždin, the baroque Capital of Croatia was home to the region’s wealthiest nobles, landowners, artisans and artists, especially in the late 1700s, when the city flourished and became the then capital of Croatia. Today, Varaždin is home to one of the best coaches, Zlatko Dalić.
Or for the embodiment of passion and determination, semi-final goal-scoring king Mandžukić (Slavonski Brod) and defensive lion Domagoj Vida (Donji Miholjac) were the pride of Slavonia, one of Croatia’s most fascinating and undiscovered regions.
And if you can put this romantic football story to one side for a minute while in Slavonia, check out perhaps Croatia’s most romantic story of all – the love storks of Klepetan and Malena.
Who will forget the cool finishing of penalty maestro Rakitić (Sikirevci, Slavonia), whose clean-cut images symbolises perhaps the pure natural beauty of Croatia’s numerous national and nature parks, including Plitvice Lakes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A tour of champions in the tiny country which won millions of hearts. And, a little like watching the Croatian team play, a tour of the beauty and diversity of their origins will capture millions more hearts still. #CroatiaFullOfExcellentPlayers