The team asked me not to write about this at the time, but 16 years have passed and it remains one of my favorite World Cup moments
The morning after Croatia defeated Germany, the defending European Champion, 3–0 in the quarterfinals of the 1998 World Cup, I drove a rented Renault up to Vittel, where the victors would be based for the days leading up to the semifinal against France. Vittel is a genteel spa town, best known for the mineral water that is bottled under its name. Grand old hotels lined the perfectly maintained streets. The few people appeared oblivious to the presence of the team that had just pulled off the biggest upset of the tournament.
The Croatian team had been given the day off. Coach Miroslav Blazevic came from the old school of autocratic Eastern European coaches, but not even he was going to force his team to train the day after winning a game like that. There was no one for me to interview for Reuters and I had already filed the ritual follow-up story, so after a recuperative snooze I made my way to one of the few bars in town.
Like everything else in Vittel, the bar was a clean and sterile place, more like a German hospital cafe than a smoky French bistro. I ordered my Kronenbourg, unfolded L’Equipe, and pretended to understand the match report. By the time I was on the second pint, a few Croatian fans had come in. They were smoking cigarettes and having a conversation that was getting louder and louder. Over the next hour they settled in, seeming to make a home for themselves at the bar.
Fans like to think of themselves as an army, but in the case of Croatia in their first World Cup, the line between supporter and former soldier truly was thin. Among those celebrating the quarterfinal win over Germany inside the Stade de Gerland were surely some who, just three years earlier, had been fighting in the Balkan wars.
The Bad Blue Boys of Dinamo Zagreb—the club had hastily, mistakenly, and temporarily been renamed Croatia Zagreb after independence—had certainly seen plenty of action, taking part in clashes with Red Star Belgrade fans that made the antics of English hooligans in the 1980s look like playground skirmishes.
The creative midfielder Zvonimir Boban had a central role in the most famous of those incidents. He had kicked a policemen during a pitch invasion in a wild 1990 Dinamo-Red Star match in Zagreb that many now view as one of the first battles of the war that was to come. That attack cost him a place in the 1990 World Cup squad for Yugoslavia but turned him into a symbol of resistance.
The following morning I strolled down toward the bar again for some coffee and the next installment of L’Equipe. On my way there, I stopped to talk to two Croatian fans sitting on a wall in front of one of the manicured hotel lawns, eating an al fresco breakfast of two tins of sardines and half a baguette each.
“We hitchhiked from Lyon yesterday,” said Goran, who was back in Europe for the football, having left Croatia for the United States to attend college. Limited resources or not he was going to be present at Croatia’s first World Cup. Along with his friends from Croatia, he had bought a package deal from a Zagreb coach company that only covered the group stage of the tournament. “The bus went home, but we stayed,” he said, laughing.
He had planned to spend August vacationing in Croatia before heading back to the States. But Croatia had emerged from the group stage, had beaten Romania in the round of 16, and then there was that night in Lyon. Goran was going to Paris for the semifinal. Forget the family vacation; he had spent all his money following the team. Munching on that baguette, he explained that he was by no means the only Croatia fan who had run out of money. He was with a group of roughly 30 Croatians who had found their way to Vittel and who, unable to afford a hotel room, were sleeping in the park.
That night, Goran and most of his friends were in the bar, and I could tell from their disheveled appearance that they were sleeping on the street at night. I joined them for a beer or two and listened to their stories, not of the war—in my experience, people from the former Yugoslavia rarely share bravado stories of combat—but of the rivalries in Croatian football, between Dinamo and Hajduk Split, the history of the ultras, the legendary games with Red Star and Partizan from Belgrade.
At the corner of the bar was a small group of Croatian players, including Igor Stimac and Slaven Bilic, the tough central defensive pairing, and Boban himself, the quiet and intense leader, who was chatting with some of the fans.
“They are paying for the drinks tonight,” a fan told me. “They told us earlier, they were picking up the bill.”
My conversation with the English speakers was disrupted by news from the bar. A friend of Goran’s was particularly animated.
“Seems we won’t be sleeping in the park tonight,” the friend said with a grin.
Ten minutes later, the group started to leave the bar. I asked one of the fans what was going on.
“They have booked some hotel rooms for us,” he said. “We will be five or six in each room but the team has taken care of it.”
I approached the players to get something on the record. Yes, one of them confirmed, the rooms have been taken care of. But no, you can’t have a quote—and please don’t publish anything about it.
“It’s normal,” said Bilic. “Why do you want to write about this?”
Darko Tironi, the press officer for the Croatian team, was also reluctant to talk about the players’ generosity, but I pressed him, and he told me that this was indeed “normal” for the Croatian team.
“There is a very close connection between the players and the fans,” he said. “It is one of the reasons we have such a team spirit. They have been giving them money for rooms, yes. And for tickets, too.”
I reported a little of this episode at the time while honoring the request from the Croatian team not to talk about the bar or the players who had taken out their credit cards to help out with accommodation, in case there was some misunderstanding.
The dream ended at the Stade de France, as the hosts won 2–1, despite having Laurent Blanc sent off after an incident with Bilic. After Davor Suker had given Croatia the lead, two goals from defender Lilian Thuram, the only two goals he scored in 142 international appearances, put France into the final against Brazil.
Blazevic, who had managed to harness the special spirit of his team and combine it with tactical astuteness to deliver one of the World Cup’s most unexpected runs to the last four, has never quite gotten over that semifinal loss. “We could have won the whole thing,” the 79-year-old, who is still coaching in the Bosnian league, said in a television interview last year. “Brazil were weaker than they have ever been. Sure, everyone in the country was very proud. Hardly anyone had expected us to finish in third place. But to be honest, I was sad. I might have been old already but if, at that time, I had the experience I have now, then Croatia would have been champions of the world.”
Boban, though, has a different feeling about what he and his team achieved in the summer of 1998—and one that is closer to the spirit of that remarkable night in Lyon and the caring that was shown in Vittel.
“You have to remember that we were a young and, above all, small nation,” he said. “What happened in 1998 was incredible. And above all, it was a gift for our fans. They really deserved it.”