What are you talking about?

First, the ‘soft power’ aspects. Croatia’s dream run at FIFA 2018 proved inspirational for football fans worldwide, particularly after the elimination of the fancied South American teams and Germany.

And although the Croats lost in the final to France, their President, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, became something of a celebrated soccer diva, proving more popular than some of the Croat players.

Because of those WhatsApp images of her in a bikini?

Those were fake pictures, but the “world’s hottest President” (as she came to be known) did win popular acclaim on social media platforms for other reasons.

What might they be?

Grabar-Kitarovic won great appreciation for her enthusiastic support for her national team, unhindered by considerations of protocol, and her general sporting spirit. Wearing the national red-and-white chequered football shirt, she turned up in Russia for every one of the Croats’ matches (except for the semi-final, when she had to attend a NATO summit). A video of her visiting the team’s locker room before the match with Russia, and embracing every member of the team, went viral.

Yeah, I saw that.

And, of course, at the prize ceremony after the final, she stood in the pouring rain alongside French President Emmanuel Macron, and embraced every member of the French and Croat teams, consoling her compatriots. It was a very sporting gesture, which was well-received by commentators on social media platforms.

Yes, I can’t see many Presidents doing that.

Of course. Both the Croats’ soccer success and their comely President’s public display of sportsmanship served to project the country’s soft power. The more so after it was made public that Grabar-Kitarovic had travelled to Russia, economy class, at her own expense, and had not drawn any pay for the days she spent cheering her national team!

But you say there’s a dark side to all this?

You bet. In Croatia, sport is a highly politicised form of national expression, as researcher Dario Brentin at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies notes in a 2015 research paper ‘Ready for the homeland? Ritual, remembrance and political extremism in Croatian football’. Croatia’s first President Franjo Tudjman famously said: “After war, sport is the first thing you can distinguish nations by.” Croats consider any critique of the national football team as an attack on the entire nation because, Brentin notes, the national team is a “sacred institution of nationness.”

Sounds like a bit of an exaggeration.

Not at all. At football stadiums, Croat fans frequently channel far-right sentiments that date back to the fascist Ustase movement, which was active in the years leading up to the Second World War. They have been fined for chants of ‘ Za dom spremi ’, the Ustase salute. And the team has been penalised in the European championship after a swastika was painted on a football field.

Those are just soccer hooligans, surely.

Perhaps, but as Catherine Baker, a scholar on nationalism and ethnic conflict, notes in Prospect magazine, Grabar-Kitarovic’s World Cup appearances are “fully on-brand as part of a celebrity political persona that is based on entering conventionally masculine spaces of nationhood and embodying leadership.”

Whoa, so much symbolism riding on a sport.

That’s the tragedy. Croat soccer stars played their hearts out, but it’s impossible to separate the sport from the nationalist, far-right sentiments it is used to channel by politicians, even glamorous ones like Grabar-Kitarovic.

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