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Croatian sports are part of the national religion. Croatia has a rich history of sporting success on the global stage. Learn more about its main sports.

Croatian sports – the tiny country which dared to dream

It was the tiny country of just 4 million which dared to dream, going all the way to the World Cup Final in Moscow in July 2018.

More than half a million people lined the streets of Zagreb to welcome home their heroes. But while Croatia’s unexpected World Cup success was arguably the finest hour for Croatian sports, it was by no means an isolated case of success.

Mention Croatia in the fields of tennis, water polo, handball, basketball, rowing, MMA or athletics, and the reaction will be the same. Ah Croatia, that tiny county with a history of fantastic sporting achievement.

12 Croatian moments of global sporting success

As 2018 comes to an end, Croatian sports is in a good position. Runners up in the World Cup, with captain Luka Modric officially the best player in the world. Davis Cup champions for the second time in the world of tennis. Croatian teams and individuals are continuing a rich tradition of sporting success.

But what were the top moments in Croatian sporting history? From Goran Ivanisevic’s epic triumph at Wimbledon to the Vatreni heroics in Moscow, here are our top 12 magical moments for Croatian sports.

Are there some special ingredients which go into producing such consistent sporting achievement? Perhaps – let’s take a look.

Top 10 Croatian sports personalities of all time

With such an array of success on the field, it goes without saying that there are many sporting legends in Croatia, but who are the top ten of all time? Obviously one would not expect this Brit to be qualified to answer. But here is the general consensus of several sports-mad Croatian friends. It is quite a list.

1. Luka Modric

There are fewer more famous sportsmen on the planet right now, and 2018 has been quite a year for Luka Modric.

In addition to leading Croatia to the World Cup Final and scoring in the World Club Final for Real Madrid, Modric picked up just about every award that was out there for best player in the world, including the coveted Ballon d’Or.

2. Drazen Petrovic

A star on multiple stages, Petrovic earned two silver medals and one bronze in Olympic basketball, a gold and a bronze in the FIBA World Cup, a gold and a bronze in the FIBA EuroBasket, and two EuroLeague titles. He represented Yugoslavia’s national team and, later, Croatia’s national team. In 1985, he received the Golden Badge award for best athlete of Yugoslavia.

Seeking a bigger arena after his career start in Europe, Petrovic joined the NBA in 1989, as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers. After playing mostly off the bench that year, Petrovic experienced a breakthrough following a trade to the New Jersey Nets. While starting for the Nets, he became one of the league’s best shooting guards. Tragically, he died in a car accident aged just 28.

3. Goran Ivanisevic

One of the great tennis stories of all-time, and certainly one of the most emotional. Wildcard Goran Ivanisevic finally triumphed on the hallowed Wimbledon lawn after a thrilling and mammoth final with Pat Rafter in 2001. Relive the emotion in the video below.

4. Janica Kostelic

Croatia may not be blessed with the world’s best ski slopes (although there is skiing here), but somebody obviously forgot to tell Janica Kostelic.

Janica became the most succesful female Olympic skier in history, with an impressive four Olympic golds and two silvers.

5. Marin Cilic

In case you thought that Goran Ivanisevic was a one-off in the Croatian tennis world, along came another champion. And a Davis Cup champion at that! Cilic has won an impressive 18 ATP titles, including one Grand Slam – the 2014 US Open.

6. Sandra Perkovic

Can a sport be so dominated by a single individual? Sandra Perkovic simply is female discus throwing. By 28, Perkovic achieved an impressive 2 Olympic, 2 World Championship, and 5 European Championship Gold Medals in her trophy cabinet.

7. Blanka Vlasic

Croatia’s best female high-jumper, Blanka Vlasic has an impressive medal tally, this despite undergoing injury problems throughout her illustrious career. In total, Vlasic has accumulated 5 Golds, 4 Silvers and 2 Bronzes in the Olympic Games, World, European, and World Indoor Championships. The champion high jumper retired in February 2021.

8. Ivano Balic

Ivano Balic is THE face of Croatian handball. The immensely likeable man from Split is both a World and Olympic champion. He was also voted the most valuable player in international competitions 5 years in a row, won the IHF World Player of the Year in 2003 and 2006, and was voted the best handball player in history in an online poll by the Internatonal Handball Federation.

9. Toni Kukoc

Drazen Petrovic was not the only Croat to make an impression on the NBA. Toni Kukoc also shone in the States after a highly successful career in the European leagues. Together with Vassilis Spanoulis, he is the only player in history to achieve the EuroLeague Final Four MVP honour on three occasions. He was elected to the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2017.

10. Sinkovic brothers

Valent and Martin Sinkovic are the modern face of rowing in Croatia, as well as the rest or the world. Olympic Gold winners in Rio and Silver in London, the Sinkovic brothers have a plethora of World Championship and European Championship golds as well, in both the quadruple skulls and coxless pairs.

A Croatian city with the most Olympic success per capita in the world

When it comes to the subject of Croatian sports, there is one city which always crops up in the discussions – the Dalmatian capital of Split.

For it is said that Split has the most Olympic medals per capita of any city in the world. While I am not going to confirm this as a hard fact, I do invite anyone to contact us with a city which has a better claim. See the astonishing list of Olympic achievers from the city of Split.

Football

Ever since the recently independent Croatia burst onto the world football scene with its fabulous display in the 1998 World Cup in France, people have taken note of this small but extremely successful footballing nation.

Croatia came home with a bronze from Paris, but anyone who was surprised at the success clearly had not been following the talent to be found in Croatia. Here is a list of the top 10 Croatian players to play in the Premier League, for example.

Similarly, while many were surprised by Croatia’s success in Russia in 2018, a quick look at the clubs the players were playing for showed that there was real quality. Modric for Real Madrid, Rakitic for Barcelona, Mandzukic for Juventus, Lovren for Liverpool – the list goes on.

Sadly, the quality of the Croatian National League does not reflect the international quality on show. The Croatian domestic league is poorly attended and the subject of alleged corruption.

Another major difference between now and the past is that there used to be a rule in Yugoslav times where players could only be transferred at the age of 28. This meant that the best players spent much of their careers at home, whereas these days, cash-strapped clubs are looking to cash in at the earliest opportunity.

Follow the official Croatian National League here. You can catch the latest on the national team on the Croatian Football Federation website.

Handball

While football may be the king of Croatian sports, it is certainly not the only one which can excite the nation. Handball is another sport where Croatia reigns supreme.

The ‘Cowboys’ have a history of international success. This includes two Olympic Golds (Atlanta in 1996, Athens in 2004), as well as a Bronze in London in 2012. Add to that a World Championship Gold in Portugal, as well as three Silvers and a Bronze, and the most recent Silver at the 2020 Euros, and Croatia’s handball credentials are well established. Follow Croatia’s fortunes with the Croatian Handball Federation.

Basketball

Basketball is another huge sport in Croatia, and while Olympic Gold has so far eluded Croatia (there was a 1992 Silver in Barcelona), Croatia is regularly among the medals in international competition. More information on this sport from the Croatian Basketball Federation.

Water Polo

Water polo is another sport where Croatia has tasted Olympic Gold. That was back in 2012 in London, and that medal accompanied similar golds in the World Championship in Melbourne in 2017, and once more in Budapest in 2017.

For the very best water polo coverage in Croatia and beyond, do check out Total Waterpolo, which is run by Croatians.

Tennis

Goran Ivanisevic, Marin Cilic, Borna Coric, double-champ Mate Pavic, and Davis Cup champions, twice. Need I say more. And that is just on the men’s side. Croatian tennis is in a very healthy state. Follow the full story with the Croatian Tennis Association.

Rowing

The Sinkovic brothers may be the kings of rowing, but did you know that one of the most unusual things about Croatian rowing involves the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race?

For that sporting city of Split is the only place in the world where the famous British university rowing teams compete against each other other than their annual meet in The Thames.

The Gusar Rowing Club in Split has more than 100 years of tradition, as well as quite a collection of Olympic medals. Each year in May, they race against Oxford and Cambridge, including a race of legends, where Olympic medal winners of yesteryear turn out for their club. TCN has been a regular visitor for several years now.

Athletics

Athletics is another area where Croatia has done very well on the world sporting stage. Almost guaranteed golds from the likes of Sandra Perkovic with the discus have been accompanied by youthful surprises such as Sara Kolak who took Rio Olympic Gold in 2016, aged just 21. Learn more about Croatian athletics from the official federation website.

MMA

When it comes to the world of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), there is only one Croatian name you need to know: Cro Cop. Otherwise known as Mirko Filipovic, Cro Cop is one of the most successful MMA sportsmen in history. Find out more on his official website.

Volleyball

Volleyball is also a very popular sport in Croatia, and you can follow the official federation website here. Croatia has been successful in both men’s and women’s volleyball on the international stage. The ladies have been the more successful, collecting no less than 3 Silvers in the European Championship and two Golds in the Mediterranean Games.

Sailing

Croatia is one of the top sailing destinations in Europe, and there are many regattas held throughout the year. For the latest information, why not follow our sister Total Croatia Sailing website? The Croatian Sailing Federation is the official sailing body.

Meet some rather unusual Croatian sports

And now for something completely different…

After all those stories of Olympic success, a journey back to authentic Croatia. For while Croatia plays international sports on the global stage rather well, it does have some rather unusual indigenous sports of its own. Here are five Croatian sports you may well not find anywhere else. But if you do, you can guarantee that there will be a Croat competing for a medal.

Croatia, the “biggest sports nation in the world”. You might have heard this saying a few times before, and it’s not without reason – Croatia’s success in sports is genuinely fascinating given the small size of the country, so today, we look at Croatia’s celebrated sports history. 

While this topic may be a bit overdone, considering the attention Croatia received after the success at the World Cup in Russia this summer, Croatians and their pride aren’t the only ones to blame. Recall, the renowned German Bild, also inspired by the magnificent success of Croatian football in Russia, concluded that Croatia, as a sporting nation with only four million people, achieved incredible results in almost all sports.

Croatian Sports: Top 12 Moments in History

2018 was undoubtedly the most successful year of Croatian sport. Our footballers are the World Cup finalists, the Sinković brothers are World Champions in rowing, Dino Rađa became a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, and our tennis heroes won the Davis Cup title for the second time. And these are just some of the highest achievements.

The Germans were right when they wrote with enthusiasm about the success of Croatian sport, and while it is nearly impossible to choose the best, here are 12 of the most grandiose moments in Croatian sports history. 

1) Croatia becomes World Cup finalists 

Croatians spent an entire month this summer dreaming with their eyes open. The whole country took each breath in unison with the national team. Zlatko Dalić and his players managed to unite the divided country – those who lean left and right – and those around the world who feel Croatia in their soul. Though Croatia did not win the gold thanks to an impeccable French side, the team showed they had the hearts of champions in Russia, giving the entire world reason to fall in love with the small but mighty country. 

France, an economic giant of almost 70 million people, and Croatia, a state of only 4.5 million people who, besides sport, care about almost nothing else, played in the World Cup final. Croatia, a country without a proper stadium, and with an unstable economy, played against a national team whose players are worth more than a billion euro. In the World Cup. In football!

2) Three Olympic gold medals and one silver for Janica Kostelić in Salt Lake City

Janica Kostelić, perhaps the most prominent Croatian female athlete of all time and probably the most significant female skier in history achieved one of the most beautiful sports stories ever told in 2002 at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Janica claimed four Olympic medals – three gold and one silver.

3) Goran Ivanišević wins Wimbledon 

Every Croatian knows precisely where they were and what they were doing on Monday, July 9, 2001, when Goran Ivanišević used his fourth match point in the Wimbledon final against Patrick Rafter.

4) Croatia basketball wins the Olympic silver in 1992

While war broke out in Croatia, Croatian basketball players achieved the greatest success in the history of Croatian basketball at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Croatia played in the final of the Olympics against the USA. Croatia’s ‘Dream Team’, which included Dražen Petrović, Toni Kukoč, and Dino Rađa, rivaled against Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and other iconic international basketball stars. Before the final, not many people knew about Croatia, though that quickly changed.

5) Croatia wins World Cup bronze medal in 1998

The summer of 1998 was the summer of pride and glory. Croatian footballers were international sensations and became the third best nation in the world. Ćiro Blažević became the coach of all coaches, Davor Šuker won the ‘Golden Boot’ of the World Cup, and the ‘Vatreni’ became the model for future generations of Croatian footballers.

8) Croatia’s Davis Cup win in 2005

After the World Cup final in football, France and Croatia met again in the Davis Cup finals. France, a country that won the Davis Cup ten times and played in the finals a total of eight times, was the logical choice to win. But Croatia, away in Lille, was the one to win the Davis Cup for the second time in history. 

7) 2004 Olympic gold for Croatian handball in Athens 

Handball is a symbol of Croatian sports and the most celebrated collective sport in Croatia. The handball players of Zagreb were the European champions, and the national team has won everything they could. Two Olympic gold medals, one World Championship gold medal, and countless other medals have been won. While we could have opted for the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta in 1996, as it was the first Croatian Olympic gold medal in general, 2004 was far more exciting. In only a year, the Croatia handball team went from the worst in Europe (2002), to the best in the world (2003), before going on to win the gold in Athens in 2004.

8) Croatia’s Davis Cup win in 2005

Ivan Ljubičić and Mario Ančić wrote some of the most beautiful pages of Croatian tennis and Croatian sports history when they won the 2005 Davis Cup in Bratislava.

9) Croatia wins 2012 Olympic gold in water polo 

The Olympic gold in London was the crown to what coach Ratko Rudić achieved. The second most accomplished coach in the history of the sport first won the World Championships, then the European, and finally the Olympic gold in 2012.

10) Sandra Perković wins Olympic gold in Rio 

In the history of athletics, it is difficult to name someone as dominant in their discipline as Sandra Perković. The best discus thrower of all time has for years had no real competition, and winning the gold in Rio was the crown on the marvelous career of this Croatian sports heroine.

11) Mirko Filipović wins the PRIDE belt in 2006

Mirko Filipović achieved his biggest career success on his 32nd birthday in 2006, when he won the PRIDE Champion belt. It was the first MMA belt of his career, which he won after knocking out the legendary Wanderlei Silva and defeating Josh Barnett in the third round. For the past decade, PRIDE has been one of the most popular and most powerful MMA organizations in the world, featuring the greatest stars of martial arts.

12) Iva Majoli wins Roland Garros in 1997

Croatia is a country of tennis, with a tradition even before the Second World War when Josip Palada, Franjo Punčec, and Dragutin Mitić were the great names of the tennis world. Later, it was Nikola Pilić and Željko Franulović, followed by Goran Ivanišević, Ivan Ljubičić, Marin Čilić, and Borna Ćorić. Croatian tennis players have won the Grand Slam and the Davis Cup, but only once has one of Croatia’s best female stars reached the top. In a move that shocked the tennis world, Iva Majoli won Roland Garros in 1997. 

To catch the very latest in Croatian sports, follow the dedicated TCN sports section, which is updated several times daily.