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Supporting players, not a federation: On being a Croatia football fan

When it comes to international football in Europe, I support Croatia. But after the incidents during Friday’s Euro 2016 match, it’s been something I’ve thought a lot about.

Mario Mandzukic of Croatia helps remove flares from the ptich during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D match between Czech Republic and Croatia at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on June 17, 2016 in Saint-Etienne, France.
Mario Mandzukic of Croatia helps remove flares from the ptich during the UEFA EURO 2016 Group D match between Czech Republic and Croatia at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on June 17, 2016 in Saint-Etienne, France.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

I’ve written about it a little before, but American soccer fandom can be a bit of an interesting thing. And like how we often go abroad to find our favourite clubs — see me and the rest of the 7500 American contingent — a lot of us have international allegiances other than ours to the United States.

Just look at Giuseppe Rossi, who was born in and spent most of his childhood in New Jersey. Rossi, as you may remember, represents Italy on the international level, not his birth country of the United States. His parents were Italian immigrants, and for him, the tie to the Azzurri was always greater than the one to the Stars and Stripes.

For plenty of Americans, they dig to ancestral ties — be them recent or distant — to dictate "secondary" international allegiances, and for me, that puts the focus squarely on Croatia and Slovakia. My grandfather was the son of Croatian immigrants, with my grandmother coming from a Slovak family. So when you see my Twitter feed littered with the #SVK and #CRO hashflags throughout these European Championships, now you know why.

Of course, that means I’m a Croatian football fan, which hasn’t necessarily been the most enjoyable thing over the past couple days. While the Vatreni have one of our best sides in ages — that’s most certainly been on display during this tournament — the off-pitch (which turned into on-pitch) antics of Croatian supporters has served as a stark reminder of the sad state of the game in my ancestors’ homeland.

Flares that delay matches, as we saw in Friday’s 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic, aren’t uncommon sights at Croatian national team contests these days — a Euro qualifier was played behind closed doors because of them this cycle (that was the match where the swastika showed up on the pitch, mind you) — but unlike the Russian hooliganism that’s marred the tournament, there’s an explanation behind what we’ve seen from a few Croat fans.

The man at the center of the actions is Zdravko Mamić, the vice president of the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) and the former head of Dinamo Zagreb, Croatia’s most successful club. While Davor Šuker is the president, most think he’s simply a puppet for Mamić, a man who’s currently under investigation for embezzlement and tax evasion.

If you want a longer read on the subject, I highly recommend anything Aleksandar Holiga writes on Croat football fandom — including his piece at The Guardian yesterday — and I’d do the same for Gabriele Marcotti’s explainer at ESPN, but the gist of the story is that the HNS is extremely corrupt, and there’s a segment of the fandom that will do whatever it takes to make the federation look bad. I’ve seen people suggest throwing Croatia out of the tournament, but that’s a catch-22 for Uefa, as it’s exactly what the protesters want.

And while I don’t agree with the decisions made by the supporters — flares on the pitch are never a good idea, no matter your aim — it’s hard to act as if they’re without merit, given the knowledge of the situation.

It’s made me think through my stance, and while I don’t back those who threw the flares, I can’t side with the HNS on this issue or blame anyone who’s given up on Croatian football under the current, corrupt regime. So here’s how I think about it: I support Croatia, as a wider entity, and the players on the pitch putting on the chequered kit — because I love those guys. Between Ivan Perišić and Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić and Mario Mandžukić and the rest of the squad, this is a really fun Croatian team to support.