25 Nov 2005 - David Law
Davis Cup as nation-builder: Croatia
With coastal beaches that stretch for as far as the eye can see, clear blue waters set against spectacular mountain backdrops, and an array of beautiful towns and cities, Croatia has plenty to feel good about.
But ask the majority of its inhabitants to name something or someone from their country that they are proud of, and they will probably mention one of their nation’s favourite sporting stars.
When Goran Ivanisevic won the Wimbledon final in 2001, the nation came to a virtual standstill – every man, woman and child seemed to be glued to a television screen. When Goran sailed victoriously into the harbour of his home town Split, he was greeted by 150,000 of his countryfolk. Some, it is said, drove their cars into the sea to meet him. If Croatia wins the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas final, expect something similar.
Ivanisevic is one in a long list of sporting stars that have made a splash on the world scene since Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
Skier Janica Kostelic is an Olympic gold medallist, the nation boasts a number of players that have infiltrated the ranks of the top American basketball league, the NBA, but perhaps closest to Croatian hearts is the achievement of their football team at the 1998 World Cup. While media attention focused on others, Croatia quietly moved into the quarterfinals, and then pulled off the shock of the tournament by beating Germany. They ultimately finished third.
After the horrors of the Balkan wars – a series of conflicts that took place between 1991 and 1995 following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia – Croatia needed something positive to grasp on to as it struggled to assert its identity as a newly self-governing nation.
During and immediately following the wars of the early 1990s, a country once renowned for its natural beauty and celebrated for its hospitality became feared and tainted by the disturbing images that appeared on television screens around the world.
Neighbouring Bosnia, where Ivan Ljubicic grew up, had been much worse affected, but even for someone like Mario Ancic, who grew up in Split (some 200 km away) it was impossible to ignore. “There was no bombing in Split, but it’s always tough when you see your people fighting and only a couple of hundred kilometres from you there are terrible things going on,” he said.
Sporting success helped to change the focus, and, ten years on, the recovery is complete. Croatia has recently been rediscovered as a destination for tourism, and heavily promoted on television channels such as CNN and Eurosport. “The Mediterranean as it used to be”, claim the commercials, and with some justification. While other holiday locations have become over-developed, Croatia has maintained its intrinsic charm, and its people are very welcoming.
A stretch of land shaped like a boomerang, Croatia runs parallel to Italy, indeed they share the Adriatic Sea. It has something that would appeal to every visitor. Split, and the rest of the Dalmatian coast, is a holiday destination for anyone wanting to slow down and relax. Dubrovnik, classified as a cultural monument by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), drips with beauty, history and culture. Zagreb – the capital city – is set in the north of the country, and is a metropolis for business and night life.
Then there are the islands – 1,185 in total, only 66 of which are inhabited. One of them, Brac, can lay claim to Croatia’s most observed but least known export. The island is famous for its white stone, the stone that was used in the construction of the White House in Washington DC.
And wherever you go in Croatia between 2 and 4 December, as the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas final unfolds, you can bet that this sports-mad nation will be watching