Imagine that the German national team had celebrated its World Cup win four years ago by inviting a Nazi singer to share the stage with the players. A singer who in the past had sung warmly about Auschwitz, the annihilation of Jews and the SS, whose song about beautiful Germany, including parts that were lost in World War II, became the team’s anthem.
In Zagreb last Monday, the Croatian national soccer team celebrated its second-place World Cup finish with a parade through the capital. Some 500,000 greeted them. People lining the streets.
Marko Perkovic — nicknamed Thompson, after the submachine gun — was invited to join the players on stage. Together they sang the team’s anthem, which mentions Croatian parts of Bosnia.
Thompson fought in the 1991-95 Croatian War of Independence before becoming a Balkan folk-rock patriotic singer. In the past, he sang much more-pointed songs — including one about the Jasenovac, a Croatian death camp in Slavonia where hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Roma and opponents of the Nazi-Croatian regime were murdered during World War II. “The Neretva River sweeps Serbs to the blue Adriatic,” goes the song, which praises Ante Pavelic, the leader of the Nazi-Croatian Ustase regime.
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Thompson begins his performances with the battle cry of the Ustase, and Nazi salutes can be seen in the audience, together with Ustase shirts and other paraphernalia. His performances have been outlawed in some European countries and even in Croatia attempts have been were made to prevent them. In the celebrations in Zagreb the blunter songs were not heard, but shout-outs in praise of the Ustase regime certainly were, and the fact that Thompson became the center of the celebrations sparked major debate in Croatia and in the Croatian diaspora.
A number of Internet sites put up polls like: “Thompson in the square in Zagreb — for or against,” which showed that Croatians are split on the issue. In the Croatian diaspora, especially the German-speaking part of it, sharply worded articles came out against the singer. “It’s like falling in love with a man and then finding out he has a swastika tattoo,” wrote Danijela Pilic in Suddeutsche Zeitung.
The invitation to Thompson was extended by the players, especially Luka Modric, who misread public sentiment. Perkovic himself denies that he is a Nazi-supporting fascist. “I am a patriot, not a fascist,” he said.
The Weisenthal Center’s Efraim Zuroff is not persuaded. In a statement, Zuroff said that Perkovic was a notorious supporter of the pro-Nazi regime, who sang songs that call for the murder of Serbs, and that inviting him to sing “gives his fascist views a legitimacy they do not deserve.”
The controversy reveals the unresolved attitude of Croatia to its dark past and tensions created after the War of Independence. As expected, the populist regime, headed by the camera- and hug-loving President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, turned the team and the celebrations into a loyalty test.
After Croatians united in their support for their team in the World Cup in Russia, and many people across the Balkans, including Serbs, openly rooted for it, the Croatians scored a resounding own goal.
“[W]ithin Croatia there’s some bitterness and disappointment, as there is the sense that some symbols have yet again been appropriated by a certain political color, as if others — those who disagree with what Thompson stands for — were ‘not Croatian enough’.” Tena Prelec, a researcher at the European Institute of the London School of Economics, told the Financial Times.
The Thompson affair is significant mainly because Croatia has to harness the success of its soccer team to rehabilitate the sport locally. The 2018 miracle happened despite the politicized Croatian sports federation, despite the Croatian league’s corruption and bias toward Dinamo Zagreb and despite the government, which did not do enough to change the situation. In Croatia there are not enough pitches or coaches and promising players have to sell their future to people like the former strongman of the football association and Dinamo Zagreb, Zdravko Mamic.
Part of a wider political struggle in Croatia
Instead, the team has become part of a political struggle that is tearing apart Croatia, which is now the throes of an economic crisis and emigration. In a country where veteran’s organizations dare to put up a memorial plaque in the Jasenovac death camp bearing a fascist slogan, and only a year later did the government move the plaque to a nearby town, inviting a man like Thompson is hugely significant.
Sports and soccer always served Croatian nationalism, after it won its independence. The first president, Franjo Tudjman, enlisted athletes for the young state and tried to turn Dinamo Zagreb into the country’s national team. He changed its name to Croatia Zagreb and the Croatian secret service was brought on board to ensure that the group would win championships. Reports from surveillance of referees, players and coaches, administrators and fans were prepared to blackmail officials on the way to the national team’s championships.
In favor of Dinamo’s fans, first and foremost the Bad Blue Boys, it must be said that they fought this trend. While there are places where fans are proud to be “the country’s team,” and enjoy the sweeping corruption, Dinamo’s fans did all they could to prevent it. They refused to recognize the name “Croatia Zagreb,” they set fire to Tudjman’s seat in the wretched Maksimir Stadium and finally, after Tudjman died, they got what they wanted, the traditional name Dinamo Zagreb was back.
The main square in Zagreb was cleaned up the next morning from the leftovers of the celebration. The shadow of Thompson, on the other hand, will continue to cast a pall over Croatian soccer for years to come.