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Wherever you look in the world, the impact of famous Croats over the centuries will be there to see. A look at the most famous Croatians in different sections of society over the years. It is quite a contribution…
- A tiny county with a huge global impact
- Famous Croatians on the global sporting stage
- A country of innovation
- Who are the most famous Croatians living today?
- Actors, entertainers and sculptors
- Famous Croatians and their contribution to science
- The world of literature, as written by famous Croatian writers
- Celebrities with surprising Croatian roots
The play on words of the official tourist board slogan perhaps sums it up best in the video above. Rather than Croatia, Full of Life, your life is full of Croatia. From lighting the world through the genius of Nikola Tesla, to contributing the cravat to global fashion, or the mechanical pen of Slavoljub Penkala, the Croatia Effect is everywhere. Now meet the most famous Croatians of all.
When Croatia stormed to the World Cup Final in Moscow in 2018, many were surprised. But this was only the latest in a series of stunning sporting successes from the tiny country which dared to dream. Croatia has an enviable list of global superstars. Among the most famous and successful are:
From herding goats, and playing football on Zadar’s streets as a child, to leading his county in a World Cup Final, winning the Ballon d’Or, as well as 17 trophies as the lynchpin of Real Madrid – 4 Champions Leagues, 4 Club World Cups, 3 European Super Cups, 2 LaLigas, 3 Spanish Super Cups and 1 Copa del Rey – Modric is one of the most recognised footballers on the planet.
The fiery giant from Split became a tennis legend in 2001 when he became the first wildcard entry to win Wimbledon. Ranked 125 at the time, and after three previous Wimbledon final losses, Ivanisevic saw off Pat Rafter in a 5-set thriller. In July 2021, he was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame.
One can only wonder what Drazen Petrovic might have gone on to achieve had he not been tragically killed in a car accident on June 7, 1993, aged just 28. He had already achieved legendary status by then, and he was voted the best European Basketball player in history, by players at the 2013 FIBA EuroBasket. Already under his belt were 3 Olympic medals, and a gold and a bronze at the FIBA World Cup. Having moved to the States, he starred for the New Jersey Nets as one of the league’s top shooting guards. He was named one of FIBA’s 50 Greatest Players in 1991.
Croatia does not have a marked skiing heritage, but try telling that to Janica Kostelic, who many regard as the greatest female skier of all time. And if her trophy cabinet is anything to go by, they have a point. In addition to the four Olympic golds and five World Championships golds, she won thirty individual races, three overall titles, three slalom titles, and four combined titles.
Sandra Perkovic has dominated the female discus for almost a decade. A two-time Olympic (2012 and 2016) and World (2013 and 2017) champion, Perkovic was also European champion five times from 2010 to 2018. And she remains the only individual to win 5 golds at the European Athletics Championship in one event.
Mirko Filipovic, aka Cro Cop is a professional mixed martial artist, kickboxer and amateur boxer, who many to consider to be among the greatest Heavyweight Kickboxers and MMA fighters of all time. As the 2006 Pride Open-Weight Grand Prix Champion, the 2012 K-1 World Grand Prix Champion and the 2016 Rizin Openweight Grand Prix Champion, he became only the second fighter in the world to win mixed martial arts and kickboxing championships and tournaments.
Marin Cilic won an impressive 19 ATP titles, including one Grand Slam (the US Open in 2014). Olympic glory also came in the form of a silver medal in the men’s doubles in an all-Croatian final at Tokyo 2020. His highest career ranking was at number 3.
One of the first established European stars to play in the NBA, Toni Kukoc was a versatile basketball legend who could play in all positions. Winner of the 1996 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award, along with Vassilis Spanoulis, he was the only player in history to achieve the EuroLeague Final Four MVP honour three times. In September 2021, he became an enshrined member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Brother of perhaps the greatest female skier of all time, Ivica Kostelic had a glittering career in his own right, with no less than 59 World Cup podium finishes. His success included World Championship gold medal in slalom in 2003, Olympic silver medal in slalom in 2010, Olympic silver medals in combined in 2006 (traditional combined), 2010 (super combined) and 2014, as well as the overall World Cup title in 2011.
Martin and Valent Sinkovic
Croatian sibling sporting success extends beyond the ski slopes to rowing. For this is a discipline in which the Sinkovic brothers, Martin and Valent, have excelled for years. Their Olympic dominance has spanned 3 Games, from silver at London 2012 in the quadruple skulls, gold at Rio 2016 in the doubles skulls, and gold once more at Tokyo 2020 in the coxless pairs.
For such a small country, the global impact of innovation coming out of Croatia has been immense. You can find a much more detailed look at Croatian innovation and discoveries in the dedicated TCN guide, but here are five famous Croatians who made an immense contribution:
A man who was “equally proud of his Serb origin and Croat homeland” needs no introduction. Tesla’s contribution to the world was immense, with over 300 international patents on his inventions, in addition to inventing the first alternating current (AC) motor, and developing AC generation and transmission technology. A museum in his birthplace in Smiljan is dedicated to the great man.
Also know as Fausto Veranzio, Vrancic was a polymath, inventor and bishop from Sibenik during the rule of the Republic of Venice. His most lasting legacy is being the first person to design and successfully test a parachute, having seen drawings by Leonardo di Vinci. Vrancic is buried on the island of Prvic, where there is a museum in his honour.
An 18th-century physicist, astronomer, mathematician, philosopher, diplomat, poet, theologian, Jesuit priest, and polymath, Boskovic produced a precursor of atomic theory, as well as immense contributions to astronomy. These included the first geometric procedure to determine the equator of a revolving planet. He also discovered the absence of atmosphere on the Moon.
Most famous for the development of the mechanical pen (1906) and the first solid ink fountain pen (1907), Penkala was a serial inventor with over 80 patents to his name. He also designed the first Croatian plane to ever fly, as well as the hot water bottle and a rail-car brake. He is buried at Mirogoj in Zagreb.
The man from Hvar has definitely made the world a safer place. Having emigrated to Argentina in 1882, Juan Vucetich did pioneering work in the field of dactyloscopy (that is fingerprinting to you and me), and managed to solve the world’s first crime due to fingerprint evidence in 1891, when a bloody fingerprint proved to be the key evidence in a grisly murder. The Argentinian police force adopted his methods, which quickly went global.
There are many famous Croatians who have made significant contributions in the past, but what about those still living? Here are five of the most famous:
A decade ago, he was tinkering in his garage, converting an old 1984 BMW 3 Series into an electric car, a car which went on to break several electric car world records. Just over 10 years later, Rimac has acquired the Bugatti brand, attracted investment and partnership from the likes of Porsche, and produced the fastest hypercar in the world. All in a country with no discernible car industry, something he is determined to change.
Already mentioned above in the famous sporting section, Modric has penetrated new corners of the planet for Brand Croatia through his exploits for both Real Madrid and the Croatian national team.
Born in Dalmatia before pursuing a winemaking career in California, Grgich rocked the ‘old world’ order in 1976 with the so-called Judgment of Paris. His 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay stunned the established order, beating all the famous Burgundies, a seismic moment for the Californian wine industry. Grgich was inducted to the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintner’s Hall of Fame in 2008.
A hero to many, a war criminal to others, General Ante Gotovina was easily the most high-profile soldier of the Homeland War. His role in Operation Storm helped bring an end to the war, but also earned him an international arrest warrant. After years on the run, he was arrested and tried in the Hague. His not guilty verdict was celebrated all over Croatia and he returned to a hero’s welcome. Shunning politics after his release, Gotovina today runs a successful tuna business.
Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic
Croatia’s first female president’s inclusion in this list has less to do with her political achievements, and rather more with her enthusiastic exploits following the Croatian team at the 2018 World Cup. Dressed in the famous read and while chequered national shirt, Grabar Kitarovic drew huge international attention for her emotional support of the team. The most famous images were at the final trophy presentation in the pouring rain, where she stood soaking next to President Putin, the only person dry under an umbrella. Google searches for ‘Croatian president’ went through the roof. Currently, she’s an International Olympic Committee member.
There is no doubting who is the most famous Croatian actor on the world stage. ER heartthrob, Dr Luka Kovac, was the famous character playing out on television screens all over the globe by Goran Visnjic. The man from Sibenik emigrated to the United States in the 1990s. He is also well-known for his role in another NBC series, Timeless, as Garcia Flynn.
Mira Furlan was a Croatian actress and singer. Internationally, she was best known for her roles as the Minbari Ambassador Delenn in the science fiction television series Babylon 5 (1993–1998), and as Danielle Rousseau in Lost (2004–2010). Born in Zagreb in 1955, she died in Los Angeles in 2021.
An actor, director and musician, Serbedzija is one of the most famous Yugoslav actors of the 1970s an 1980s. He also achieved international acclaim through supporting roles in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, X Men, First Class, The Saint, Mission Impossible 2, and 24. He has received Croatia’s highest acting honour, the Golden Arena for Best Actor, 4 times.
Two classically trained cellists, Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser, took the instrument to new levels as 2Cellos. Their unique instrumental arrangements of well-known pop and rock songs, as well as classical and film music won them global fame and audiences, as well as features on several American TV series, including Glee The Bachelor. They split in 2019, before reuniting on their 10th anniversary with a rendition of Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer.
The death of Dragojevic just a few days after the 2018 World Cup Final aroused arguably as much emotion in Croatia as the sporting exploits in Russia. Dragojevic was an icon in the region, with an illustrious singing career spanning 5 decades. His combination of klapa melodies of Dalmatia and jazz motifs wrapped up in a modern production defined his distinctive style. Well-loved far beyond Croatia’s borders, he is one of the few Croats to perform at the Royal Albert Hall and Sydney Opera House.
In addition to being one of the best-selling poets in former Yugoslavia, Arsen Dedic was a popular Croatian singer and songwriter, whose genre was chansons, in addition to writing and performing film music, after moving on from initial influences in Dalmatian folklore. Born in Sibenik in 1958, he remained a popular performer throughout the region until his death in 2015.
One of the world’s most influential sculptors of the 20th century, the fame of and work of Ivan Mestrovic quickly spread beyond his native Dalmatia. While tourists can enjoy his work at the Mestrovic Gallery in Split among others, his work is also on display all over the world, including the United States, where the editor of the New York Arts Magazine summed up his standing after a 1947 exhibition: “It is therefore singularly significant that he is almost unanimously revered by American sculptors of all schools as one of the greatest living sculptors.”
Mohorovicic is often considered one of the founders of modern seismology. The geophysicist was born in Opatija, educated in Rijeka and Prague, and worked as a teacher in Zagreb, Osijek and Bakar. His first scientific interest was meteorology, but after the deadly earthquake in Pokuplje in 1909, he dedicated himself to the studies of the composition and the forces in the Earth’s core. He discovered the discontinuity which separates the Earth’s crust from its mante, which is named after him: Mohorovičić discontinuity (often shortened to Moho).
Dragutin Gorjanovic Kramberger
The Zagreb-born palaeontologist, geologist and archaeologist is best known for his discovery of a very rich Neanderthal site on Hrušnjak Hill near Krapina. It was one of the key findings of the sub-species in Europe in the 19th century, and the monograph about his research, published in Weisbaden was the most comprehensive scientific publication on the palaeontology of humans written to date. Today, the Krapina Neanderthal Museum is one of the most popular museums in Croatia.
The first of the two Croatian-born chemists to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Ružička was born in Vukovar in 1887. Educated in chemistry in Germany, he moved to Switzerland where he was a lecturer at the ETH and the University of Zurich. His work on the natural organic compounds lead his group to start researching hormones, and he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1939 for his work on polymethylenes and higher terpenes, including the first chemical synthesis of male sex hormones.
The second of the Croatian chemists to have received the Nobel prize was born in Sarajevo in 1906, and moved to Zagreb as a child. His chemistry education mostly happened in Prague, but in 1935 he moved back to Zagreb to lecture at the University of Zagreb. During the World War II he moved to Switzerland, where he started his career in Ružička’s laboratory, and became the group leader after Ružička retired. His work was mostly focused on stereochemistry and alkaloids, so in 1975 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research into the stereochemistry of organic molecules and reactions.
Inventors of Azithromycin
The invention of azithromycin is one of the most significant achievements in the Croatian scientific history. The complicated chemical synthesis was first performed in the early 1980s, in the research institute of the pharmaceutical company PLIVA in Zagreb. The scientists working on the project are Slobodan Đokić, Gabrijela Kobrehel, Gorjana Lazarevski and Zrinka Tamburašev. After a long battle against the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, PLIVA was awarded worldwide patents for the compound and its production. After that, a series of licencing contracts were signed between PLIVA and Pfizer, with the American company obtaining the rights to sell the antibiotic worldwide, except in the former eastern bloc. The American Chemical Society awarded S. Đokić and G. Kobrehel with the title of “Heroes of Chemistry” in 2000, along with their Pfizer colleagues, for their discovery of azithromycin.
Claimed as a literary genius by Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, Ivo Andric won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. He beat a competitive field for the award, including Robert Frost, J.R. Tolkein, John Steinbeck, and E.M Forster. His best-known work was the Bosnian historical masterpiece, Bridge over the River Drina.
Ivana Brlic Mazuranic
Widely regarded as Croatia’s greatest children’s writer, Ivana Brlic Mazuranic is also known as the ‘Croatian Andersen.’ Nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature an impressive 4 times, her work has been widely translated. An animated film, Lapitch, the Little Shoemaker, became Croatia’s most successful theatrical release in 1997. Born in Ogulin, she committed suicide in 1938 at the age of 64.
Regarded by many as the greatest Croatian writer of the 20th century, Miroslav Krleza was a man of all genres. He excelled in poetry, theatre, short stories, novels, even an intimate diary. His main theme was bourgeois hypocrisy and conformism in Austro-Hungary and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
Marija Juric Zagorka
Known by her pen name, Zagorka, Marija Juric was a Croatian writer, author and women’s activist. She was the first female journalist in Croatia and remains one of the most-read Croatian authors. This, despite the fact that she died in 1957. In 2009, the city of Zagreb bought and converted her old home into the Memorial apartment of Marija Juric Zagorka. The Croatian Journalists’ Association has an annual Marija Juric Zagorka Award for excellence in written, radio, television, online and investigative journalism.
Born Augustin Josip Ujevic in 1891 in Vrgorac before adopting the name Tin, Ujevic is regarded as the greatest Croatian poet of the 20th century. Today, the Tin Ujevic Award is the most prestigious poetry award in Croatia. British poet Richard Berengarten translated many of his poems into English.
“Although Tin’s major achievement is as a lyricist, his oeuvre is much broader than lyric alone. He was a writer of profound and discerning intellect, broad and capacious interests, inquisitive appetite and eclectic range.”
With such a large diaspora all over the world, it is hardly surprising that many foreigners claim Croatian roots. A look at some famous names who you might not have expected to have a Croatian connection.
The Kiwi double Grammy Award winner, whose real name – Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor – indicates a Croatian connection, opened up about her Croatian family links in a 2017 interview:
“My mother is Croatian. There are 100,000, kind of Dalmatian, Croatian, Yugoslav people in New Zealand. There’s a lot of wine; Dalmatians drink a lot of wine down there. So yeah, I am Croatian, and I have Croatian citizenship.”
The Serbian tennis phenomenon is a popular figure – and frequent visitor – in Croatia. And in 2019, he revealed that he has family history in Croatia on his mother’s side.
“She was born in Belgrade, but her parents come from Croatia. My grandmother and grandfather are from Vinkovci, and actually, all of my grandmother’s family comes from there, and I still have relatives there.”
Croatia was not in the picture for chess world champion turned political activist Garry Kasparov, as he grew up in Azerbaijan in the Soviet Union. But circumstances – and his politics – meant that it became increasingly difficult to live in Russia. A member of Vukovar Chess Club, and homeowner in Makarska, Kasparov was granted Croatian citizenship in 2014.
One of the greatest footballers this century, Ibrahimovic has had an illustrious career with some of the best clubs in Europe and the MLS, as well as contributing many schools for Sweden at international level. Although his father is Bosnian, Ibrahimovic also has Croatian roots through his mother, as he explained in a 2019 speech praising Luka Modric:
“Me and my mother being from Croatia, he’s Croatian so I am happy. It’s part of the blood.” His mother emigrated to Sweden from the village of Prkos, not far from Zadar. So he and Modric could have been neighbours.
The Hollywood A-list actor and producer is a regular visitor to the country of his ancestors. Hvar and Opatija are among his favourite haunts, but his roots lie further inland. For it was from a village near Ozalj that Malkovich’s grandfather emigrated to the United States.
Was the Argentine football legend’s genius at least partly due to his Croatian genes? Maradona’s grandfather was allegedly Mateo Kariolic from Korcula, who named his older daughter Dalma, Diego’s mother, after Dalmatia. Maradona gave the same name to his daughter and once said that she was also named after Dalmatia
The closest a Croatian came to running The White House was in 2016 when Ohio governor John Kasich came third to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz for the Republican nomination (Kasich won the Ohio primary). His mother was Croatian and immigrated to the US, where she married his immigrant Czech father.
The most successful coach in NFL history is a proud Croat, often talking of his Croatian roots in interviews. His grandparents left Draganici for the US, where his grandfather worked as a gardener and butcher.
“Father was very close to the Croatian community in Pennsylvania, his first cousin visited many times the villages we came from. When he married my mother in the Immigrant Centre, they suggested to change his name to Belichick which he did,” said Bill and added: “I am very proud of our Croatian history. I had the opportunity to visit this beautiful land and am proud of my heritage.”
Krist Novoselic of Nirvana
One of the greatest bands of all time has its Croatian connection in the form of Krist Novoselic. The Nirvana bassist is the son of Croatian immigrants. His father, Kristo, is from the island of Iz. His mother is from Privlaka near Zadar. Novoselic lived in Croatia for a year in 1980 and was a frequent visitor during the Homeland War.
The greatest traveller of them all is often said to have been born in paradise – on the island of Korčula. The view across the water to Peljesac must have inspired a young Marco Polo. For he left his native island to embark on travels to the exotic east which became the stuff of legend. You can visit Marco Polo’s home on your next visit to Korcula Town.