A chequered patriotism: inside the complex politics of Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović’s football nationalism

Grabar-Kitarović’s fascinated the international press with her enthusiasm at the World Cup final. But the story it tells at home is more complicated

July 17, 2018
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Wearing Croatia’s iconic red and white chequered football shirt in the VIP box, singing along with her country’s players in the locker room, and taking to the pitch in driving rain—Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovi has hardly missed a match of Croatia’s incredible World Cup run.

When NATO’s summit in Brussels clashed with the England–Croatia game, she arrived with named replica shirts for Donald Trump and Theresa May.

Grabar-Kitarovi’s viral images projected a down-to-earth, informal warmth that seemed to break the mould of what viewers expect from politicians watching international sport.

For most football fans, this World Cup has been their first taste of the social media presence of Croatia’s first female president, a career diplomat and former foreign minister who spent three years as a NATO assistant secretary-general for public diplomacy in 2011–14.

The politics of populism and corruption in Croatia throw some of Grabar-Kitarovi’s images from the World Cup into a different light.

Most viewers outside Croatia who saw her tearful, maternal embrace of Luka Modri after the final would not have known Modri is facing perjury charges after changing his testimony to favour Mami during a corruption trial last year: the pictures might rehabilitate him abroad but connect her closer to controversy at home.

A history of nationalism and football

Associating herself so closely with the men’s national team and their underdog story is part of the political persona Grabar-Kitarovi has crafted since being elected in January 2015.

Such acts of political (and sometimes musical) theatre have characterised Grabar-Kitarovi’s presidency ever since her victory speech, when campaign workers hearing her promise to fulfil the dreams of Croatia’s founding president Franjo Tuman broke into a football-fan-favourite patriotic song.

While the very structure of international tournaments ties football and nationalism together, Croatian politics has woven them especially tight.

Back in 1998, Croatia’s third place at the World Cup not only proved a country of 4 million people could play on equal terms with the world’s great sporting powers, but gave many foreigners their first impressions of Croatia outside the context of the 1990s wars.

Tuman himself had pressed for sports players to be representing a separate Croatian state as early as international governing bodies would allow them, wearing the chequerboard kit that made Croatia’s flag an international brand.

Tuman—whose Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party had won the first multi-party elections in April–May 1990—expected football to mobilise the public around his “state-building” ideology, which included elevating the war of independence (and Croatian troops’ heroism) into an unquestionable national myth.

Croatian forces had had to confront much stronger opponents, just like their sporting counterparts: football, Tuđman believed, served the same purpose as the military in mobilising the nation around his version of the national cause.

Today, political leaders like Grabar-Kitarovi operate in a media system where they represent their nations symbolically as well as literally: their choices about how to appear to the public, and where to visit, communicate messages about who they and their nations are.

Some political images become iconic, forging more lasting associations between a leader and what onlookers read the picture as representing.

Margaret Thatcher’s testing a Challenger tank in 1986 reinforced her persona as a female leader ready to use military force; Vladimir Putin’s shirtless photographs on horseback, with an Orthodox cross at his neck, embody an action-man machismo that his version of nationalism presents as an authentically traditional Russian masculinity, in contrast to the supposed effeminacy of the West.

Performances like these derive their meaning from ideas about gender as much as nation. The persona of a Thatcher, a Putin, a Grabar-Kitarovi or any other leader depends on how they match up to, or deviate from, norms about how men and women from their nation will behave and appear.

Playing against type

What makes Grabar-Kitarovi’s photo opportunities—including those she shares herself through Facebook and Instagram—so eye-catching is that they play on her position as a female leader in spaces that nationalism has reserved for men.

Many of Grabar-Kitarovi’s iconic images have seen her putting on military uniform to visit Croatian forces as commander-in-chief (Croatian picture libraries can illustrate articles about her with a choice of desert, woodland or naval camouflage) or visiting training ranges to aim rifles—providing the rare sight of a female president directly identifying herself with the conventionally masculine military through her poses and dress.

Other images, meanwhile, suggest glamour and a dominant, sexually-attractive femininity—including the tight scarlet dress that some ‘family photos’ from NATO’s 2017 Brussels summit showed her wearing next to Trump.

Political rivals and foreign journalists have capitalised on this side of Grabar-Kitarovi’s image to give her the sexist epithet of a “Croatian Barbie.” Search engine results for her name are still dogged by fake pictures of Grabar-Kitarovi wearing a bikini that an unknown internet user mocked up in 2015.

Grabar-Kitarovi is already known for enthusiastic support of the national football team, and for singing along at national military ceremonies with the same populist patriotic music that the football association and some of its players have taken to heart. This World Cup was certainly not her first time in a Croatian football shirt.

But performing such a close association with the national football team in 2018 ties Grabar-Kitarovi more directly than might be comfortable to the most contentious aspects of Croatian football.

The ex-Dinamo Zagreb director involved in an ongoing corruption scandal, Zdravko Mami, is or was her friend; the Croatian football association is happy for its main musical representative to be the patriotic singer and war veteran Marko Perkovi Thompson, who still begins performances of his first wartime hit with the same salute—used by the Ustaše in World War II—that Josip Simuni received a FIFA ban for shouting on the pitch after a match in 2013.

Celebrity politics

By making the World Cup the latest stop on her endless tour, with presidential election campaigns set to start next year, Grabar-Kitarovi might hope to focus fans’ pride and passion for their team’s incredible success towards how voters perceive her leadership—even though many fans consider the players reached the final despite, not because of, Croatia’s football business and its political patrons.

But her World Cup performances are fully on-brand as part of a celebrity political persona that is based on entering conventionally masculine spaces of nationhood and embodying leadership, a symbolic daughter to the father of the nation, ready to complete the dreams he left behind.