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Leonid Bershidsky

Croatia’s World Cup Success Is No Fluke

The small country wins thanks to a unique combination of professionalism and warlike nationalist fervor.

This is war.

This is war.

Photographer: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Three of the four teams that reached the World Cup semifinals represent Western European societies struggling with immigration and integration. But the fourth and most surprising consists entirely of local boys from a tiny country. Croatia’s success has different origins than that of its rivals: In that country, soccer is more than a game. It’s fed a war, the nation-building that followed — and the post-victory comedown, which, perversely, may have led to its squad’s stunning achievement.

For a country with a population of 4.2 million, Croatia is spectacularly successful at sports. Besides soccer, it’s got top flight teams in handball, water polo and basketball, and Croatian tennis players are part of the global elite. In part, this probably has to do with genetics: Croats (and their neighbors from Serbia and Bosnia) are among the tallest people in the world, and many are naturally athletic. There are thousands of sports clubs, most of them left over from former Yugoslavia’s achievement-oriented sports project (although some locals worry that this infrastructure is dying off).