Grabar-Kitarović’s fascinated the international press with her enthusiasm at the World Cup final. But the story it tells at home is more complicatedby Catherine Baker / July 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
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-Kitarović 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-Kitarović’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-Kitarović’s images from the World Cup into a different light.
Most viewers outside Croatia who saw her tearful, maternal embrace of Luka Modrić after the final would not have known Modrić is facing perjury charges after changing his testimony to favour Mamić 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-Kitarović has crafted since being elected in January 2015.
Such acts of political (and sometimes musical) theatre have characterised Grabar-Kitarović’s presidency ever since her victory speech, when campaign workers hearing her promise to fulfil the dreams of Croatia’s founding president Franjo Tuđman 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.
Tuđman 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.