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Croatians hope for World Cup image, economic boost

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

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Zagreb, Croatia (AFP) — Croatia may have fallen short in the World Cup final but the team's feats in the tournament has boosted the small Balkan nation's morale and many hope it could help its struggling economy and image abroad too.

During their run through the competition, captain Luka Modric and co wowed fans around the world with their attacking style and dramatic comeback wins.

“We have won the sympathy of the entire world,” said Miroslav Milosevic, legendary coach of the team which reached the semi-final of 1998.

This time round the team went a step further — their first ever World Cup final — only to lose against France on Sunday in an enthralling 4-2 battle.

The euphoria contrasts starkly with the sour rancour that has plagued Croatian football in recent years over scandals involving corruption, racism, and fan violence.

But the “Vatreni” (“Fiery Ones” in Croatian) may radically change perceptions of the country's image, according to Bozo Skoko, a public relations expert in Zagreb.

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, whose exuberant celebrations of the team's successes in Russia attracted widespread attention, said the World Cup can “start positive processes in Croatia”.

“We have to ride this wave of optimism,” she said before the final.

Although criticised by many at home – two thirds of one poll called her behaviour “vulgar and inappropriate” — Grabar-Kitarovic's enthusiasm was well-received by fans abroad on social media.

“The media attention and popularity of the team will surely reflect on tourism income, and will have an impact on the country's economy,” Skoko told AFP.

Struggling economy

Economic figures currently paint a bleak picture, however, which has led many Croatians to wonder if joining the EU in 2013 has improved people's lives.

Average wages have stagnated at around 830 euros per month, while unemployment is persistently more than 10 per cent.

Analysts point to deeply embedded clientelism and corruption, and lack of reforms, as underlying structural problems.

Croatia is also dogged by negative demographic trends in part caused by alarming levels of emigration.

An expert Stjepan Sterc has warned that Croatia's population could drop under three million if current trends continue.

Around 40,000 people left the country in 2017, according to official data, although some estimates put the figure at around double that figure.

Despite a booming tourism sector that makes up around 20 per cent of the country's GDP — more than 18 million tourists visited last year — droves of young people have opted to emigrate in recent years in search of a better life abroad.

But the World Cup exposure can draw even more tourists to the country's stunning island-studded coastline and crystal-clear waters, said Croatian tourism chief Kristjan Stanic in a statement Sunday.

After the semi-final win against England the national tourism board released a promotional clip “Croatia Full of Life” that featured Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic showcasing beauty spots like the Plitvice lakes and the ancient coastal city of Split.

“You must visit our national parks,” said a beaming Rakitic in one section.

On World Cup Final day the board said its online page views grew by 200 per cent, compared with the same day in 2017.

But locals complain that many tourist hotspots on the coast like the city of Dubrovnik are already saturated, while hopes of an economic bounce from the World Cup were dismissed as “no chance” by the academic Tregoures.

“The boost to morale could perhaps translate into a mini-boom for some months, but it won't stop young people from leaving, and as for tourism, it's already full house,” he said.

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