BLATO, Korcula — They trounced Nigeria. They banged up Argentina with humiliating authority. They waved bye-bye to Denmark. They destroyed Russia—the host nation—and with it their soccer fantasies.

And then, perhaps the most satisfying of all, they gave it to Merry Old England.  

To think about:

  • Population of England: 53 million
  • Population of Russia: 144 million
  • Population of Croatia: 4 million

Something extraordinary is happening in little Hrvatska. 

To consider: it wasn’t so long ago that Croatia was a part of Communist Yugoslavia. It broke with the Soviet Union in 1948; that history makes beating Russia extra meaningful.

The same with its humbling of England: the newest member of the European Union taking down the first country to leave the European Union.

Symbols and optics count for a lot.  

The British newspapers were full of crushing, gushing headlines, as if they expected England to easily knock off those Balkan nobodies: “End of the Dream.” “They’re Coming Home.” “You Did Us Proud.” “Heroes—We’re Proud of You All.” (The coverage was all about England losing and not about Croatia winning. Oh the resentment here!)

When it comes to pride, there’s a lot more of it bouncing around Croatia right now. Better to be a proud winner, than a proud loser.

In Blato, which has an old beautiful church and a big, green soccer field, two cars roared up and down the main street blowing their horns and waving Croatian flags.

If you stood outside when the game was on, you could hear televisions blaring from all directions. It was the same all across the island of Korcula and everywhere else in this country.

The Sardelic family—three generations—watched the game from the front porch of their summerhouse perched on the Adriatic, with a bottle of red and a bottle of white on the table (the grape harvest looks good this year; the olives not so good.)

They didn’t just watch the game, they jumped and swore and tortured themselves through every close call, every disappointment, every nerve-wracking, excruciating moment until it was over—with the volume at full blast. A visitor from South Africa was secretly cheering for England and wisely kept his mouth shut.   

Ned Sardelic, the family’s crown prince, believes that if you curse and scream at the television, the team will do as he says. On the night Croatia beat Russia, his father Peter had to tell him to stop swearing. We have watched three World Cup finals together—all of them outdoors at the summerhouse—but never anything like this. (His sister Jasanka, who’s a chemist, happily swears at the TV even more than he does—in English.)

Croatia once made it to the semi-finals; that seemed about as good as it gets before richer countries with the most famous players—Messi, Zidane, Ronaldo—swooped in for the kill. This time, every win raised Croatia’s hopes; every advance to the next stage seemed impossible, until it wasn’t.

As Ned likes to point out, Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, doesn’t really have a proper soccer stadium, which makes the story of its success all the more meaningful. And all the more unlikely.

England's Harry Maguire and Croatia's Luka Modric

Their star player, Luka Modric, is a short guy—5 foot 6 inches or 1.72 meters—and now one of the big names in football, bigger if he can lead Croatia to a World Cup. He grew up as a refugee during Croatia’s war of independence. His father was a soldier, his grandfather was executed by Serb rebels; their house was burned to the ground. He dodged grenades, as the story goes, and found escape on the soccer field.

Other World Cups were exciting; this is giant-killer territory. The local Tommy supermarket—at the height of tourist season—is closing its doors at 4 pm so staff can go home and watch the game. (There won’t be anybody out shopping anyway!)   

And so on to France. Population 67 million. World Cup winners in 1998. Can little Croatia pull off another one, which would surely be the greatest upset ever witnessed on a soccer field—the greatest victory period!

At least according to my friend Ned.