- For the first instalment in this great series by Joey Smith, see here. Credit to Filip Benkovic for help on some of the Croatia research.
It is well-known now that top level football is essentially meaningless, but there have been times when the game has transcended sport and taken on a higher level of meaning.
As someone who grew up in Ireland, I can say that the Euro ’88 victory over England, for example, which was Ireland’s first game at a major tournament, certainly seems like something more emotional than just a sport being played when considering the historical and political context of the time. Another game like this occurred two years later when Croatia took on the USA in Zagreb on October 17, 1990.
The ever increasing pull of fragmentation in Yugoslavia would form the backdrop to the match.
While still a semi-autonomous republic within Yugoslavia, the Croatian government of that year’s first multi-party elections had already taken steps towards independence. This Croatian team was, of course, unrecognised by FIFA (and hence this game is not an official friendly, but really who cares what FIFA say) and Croatians would go on representing Yugoslavia until the following year when they would officially break away, but the game is considered the birth of the modern national team.
A Croatian side had last taken to the field in another unofficial game against Indonesia in 1956. Prior to this, actual FIFA membership was briefly held during the World War 2 ‘Independent State of Croatia’ era, until the Republic of Yugoslavia was formed in 1945.
More importantly, though, it was in 1940 that the first Croatian football shirt would appear. While at this stage still a part of the old Kingdom of Yugoslavia (previously known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes – just wanted to throw that in because it’s great), the ‘Banovina of Croatia’ would take on Switzerland and wear a red jersey with a traditional “chessboard” coat of arms as crest. While sometimes attributed to a 18th century king winning the land of Dalmatia through chess games, the checkered design actually dates back to at least the 15th century, possibly as far back as the 9th.
By the time of the independent state, the crest was moved to the centre of the shirt and was now updated to reflect the coat of arms of the new Axis-aligned regime, which included the ‘U’ of the infamous Ustasa, and was worn against the likes of Germany, Italy and Slovakia.
It is probably safe to assume that something similar to these 1940s shirts was also used for the Indonesia game, but perhaps with updated insignia to reflect the new regime (certainly without the ‘U’).
Fast-forward in time and at a friendly played on June 3, 1990 in Zagreb between Yugoslavia and the Netherlands, local Croatian supporters booed both the Yugoslav anthem and Serb-born players, while cheering on the Dutch. There would be a totally different atmosphere when 30,000 Croatians filled the Maksimir Stadium in October to support their countrymen against the Americans.
The game had come about when a Croatian businessman had personally paid to extend a European tour the US had been on to include a trip to Zagreb and the political significance of an ‘international’ game with a nation technically still part of a crumbling communist state was surely not lost on the visitors.
Further ties between football and the soon-to-be-new state were seen through the creation of Croatian shirt to be used, which was designed by the same man responsible for designing the new Croatian bank notes and coat of arms, the artist Miroslav Šutej.
A newspaper article from the time shows an original concept drawing of the kit. The captions read, “We’re representing you. Football, red, white, blue.”
And so, six years before the concept would become famous at Euro 96, Croatia took to the field for the first time wearing the chessboard design, albeit in a smaller format than would be seen in later years, resulting in a blending of the red and white from a distance.
Other features included a red collar, chessboard shield with border, a solid red back with blue numbers, and red sleeves with white and blue trim. The minimal look and lack of manufacturer’s logo nearly make the shirts seem decades out of the date in terms of style, but the checkered design was certainly unique at this level and suited the experimental nature of shirts at the time. It also created a sort of mind-warping dizzy effect if starred at for a few seconds which is always a good parameter to judge jerseys by.
While this game isn’t really about them (although in pure speculation the whole event is dripping in ‘black ops’), it is worth mentioning that the Americans were not wearing their World Cup ’90 shirt but had reverted to what was presumably a cold-weather version, which had seen use earlier in the year before the tournament.
Differences on this shirt included a turn-over collar rather than a v-neck, the crest being positioned on the left instead of the centre, one blue band at the sleeves instead of one above and below and, needless to say, long sleeves instead of short.
With smoke lingering in the air (the result of pyrotechnics from the famously passionate Croatian supporters), the emotion was palpable when Aljoša Asanović scored on 29 minutes and the realisation set in around the ground that a Croatian had scored while actually representing the Croatian people for the first time in decades.
While it is true that football is only a game, taking to the field to compete as equal to the other countries of the world can be seen as a hugely symbolic moment, and in this case a bright light for a hopeful, reborn nation before the inevitable dark days of war to come.
But what really matters here is the football shirts and in contrast to the minimal style of the outfield shirts (if you can call checkers minimal), and the plain red used by sub goalkeeper Tonći Gabrić – reminiscent of the 1940s kit – we can be thankful that somebody had also made the decision to give starting goalkeeper Dražen Ladić a classic Uhlsport multi-coloured top that is as 1990s as they come.