Sport in Croatia has significant role in Croatian culture, and many local sports clubs as well as the Croatian national squads enjoy strong followings in the country.
The most enduring sport by far in Croatia is football, and is played on amateur and professional levels amongst all age groups across the entire country. Several other major team sports are handball, basketball and water polo, with clubs in all parts of Croatia. Ice hockey is another popular team sport, namely in the Croatian interior. The most popular individual sports in Croatia are tennis, alpine skiing, and swimming, and to some extent table tennis and chess. Various amateur sport games are popular in Croatia, notably picigin.
Football is the most popular sport in Croatia, and is governed by the Croatian Football Federation. The Prva HNL is the top division of the country’s football league system, and operates on a system of promotion and relegation with the Druga HNL. Dinamo Zagreb is the country’s most successful football club and the 2011 champion, with 13 total championships, followed by Hajduk Split with 6 championships (last one in 2005). The rivalry between these two clubs is known as the Eternal Derby in Croatia, with the two clubs combining to win all but one of the 20 championships ever contested in the league’s history. The Prva HNL is ranked 19th league in Europe by UEFA, and Dinamo Zagreb is the highest-ranked Croatian club in Europe, occupying the 76th spot.
The Croatian Cup is the main knock-out tournament in Croatian football, and has also been dominated by Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split. The Croatian Supercup is contested between the champions of the Prva HNL and the Croatian Cup.
No Croatian Club has ever won the UEFA Champions League, however Hajduk Split, at the time Croatia’s premier club, made it to the quarterfinals of the 1994-95 league, losing on aggregate to eventual champion Ajax.
The Croatian national football team won a bronze medal in the 1998 FIFA World Cup and Davor Šuker won the Golden Boot as the top goal scorer. The national football team has also played in the quarter-finals of the 1996 European Championships and the 2008 European Championships. The team is currently ranked 11th in the FIFA World Rankings (as of October 2012). Today, Croatia’s most popular footballers are Luka Modrić, Mario Mandžukić, Ivica Olić, Darijo Srna, Ivan Perišić, Ivan Klasnić, Niko Kranjčar and Vedran Ćorluka, as well as foreign-born Joe Šimunić, Eduardo da Silva and Sammir. In August 2012, Luka Modrić was acquired by Spanish giants and 31-time La Liga champions Real Madrid for a deal totalling over £33 million, and he made his debut as a substitute in Real’s 2-1 victory over Catalan rivals FC Barcelona.
Historically, Croatia has been a prolific nation in handball, both in the success of its club handball, as well as with the achievements of the Croatian national squad.
At the start of the 2nd half of the 20th century, RK Bjelovar dominated Croatian handball, and in the 1970s won five Yugoslavian league championships. In 1972, RK Bjelovar won the EHF Champions League, Europe’s greatest handball competition, and reached the final the following year. A smaller city, Bjelovar’s reign of successes can be likened to that of the storied Vince Lombardi–era Green Bay Packers of the National Football League, as the town of Green Bay, Wisconsin, the smallest NFL market in the United States, brought home five league championships in the 1960s.
Since Croatian independence, RK Zagreb has been the nation’s premier handball club. It has won every Croatian First Handball League championship that has been contested, 20 in all. The club has reached the EHF Champions League finals six times, winning consecutively in 1992 and 1993. In 2008 the club acquired Croatian star Ivano Balić, considered the best handballer of all time.
The Croatia national handball team is currently ranked 10th in the world by the International Handball Federation. At the 1996 and 2004 Summer Olympics, Croatia won gold medals in men’s handball. The squad won the 2003 World Men’s Handball Championship, and came in 2nd at the 1995 and 2005 championships, as well as at the 2009 Championship as hosts, losing in the final to France. Croatia also came in 3rd at the 1994 European Men’s Handball Championship and 2nd at the 2008 and 2010 championships.
The Croatian national basketball team won a silver medal at the 1992 Olympic basketball tournament, bronze medal at the 1994 FIBA World Championship and bronze medals at EuroBasket 1993 and EuroBasket 1995. Croatian basketball clubs were Euroleague champions 5 times: KK Split three times (in 1989, 1990 and 1991) and KK Cibona in 1985 and 1986. Croatian basketball players such as Dražen Petrović, Krešimir Ćosić and Toni Kukoč were amongst the first foreign players to succeed in the NBA in the United States.
The Croatia national water polo team won a gold medal at the 2007 FINA World Championships and bronze medals in 2009 and 2011. The team also won gold at the 2012 Olympic water polo games and silver at the 1996 Olympic games, as well as gold at the 2010 European Championship and silvers in the 1999 and 2003 European Championships. Croatian water polo clubs were 13 times LEN Euroleague champions. HAVK Mladost from Zagreb was a seven time European Champion (in 1968, 1969, 1970, 1972, 1990, 1991 and 1996) and was awarded the title Best Club of the 20th Century by the LEN. VK Jug from Dubrovnik and VK Jadran from Split were both three time European champions.
Introduced at the start of the 20th century, ice hockey became one of Croatia’s first organized and federated sports, with Franjo Bučar’s founding of the Association for Skating and Ice Hockey, the precursor to the modern Croatian Ice Hockey Federation. From the late 1930s until Croatia’s independence, Croatian ice hockey clubs competed in the Yugoslav Hockey League, with Croatia’s most successful club KHL Medveščak Zagreb winning the championship three consecutive times from 1988 to 1990.
Ice hockey is particularly popular in the interior regions of Croatia’s Pannonia, Slavonia, Zagreb and Zagorje, where winters are as cold as in more prolific hockey nations such as the Slovak and Czech Republics. Today, KHL Medveščak competes in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League or KHL, the top-tier Russian tournament and the 2nd highest-ranking ice hockey league in the world. Before joining KHL, Medveščak played in an Austrian league names EBEL, Medveščak debuted in EBEL in the 2009 season and it has qualified for the playoffs every year.
Medveščak joined the continental KHL league in the 2013–14 season.
Croatia women’s national volleyball team won silver medals three times at European Volleyball Championship in 1995, 1997 and 1999.
Janica Kostelić is the most successful female alpine ski racer in the history of the Winter Olympic Games. She is the only woman to win four gold medals in alpine skiing at the Winter Olympics Alpine skiing events (in 2002 and 2006), and the only woman to win three alpine skiing gold medals in one Olympics (2002). She also won two silver medals in 2006. Janica was the World Cup overall champion in 2001, 2003, and 2006. On February 5, 2006 Janica became only the second female skier to win all five disciplines in one season. She also holds the record for the highest number of points in one World Cup season. In 2006 she won Laureus World Sports Award for Sportswoman of the Year. Her elder brother Ivica Kostelić was the 2003 World Champion in slalom and the Men’s Overall Champion at the 2011 Alpine Skiing World Cup, and as of 14 February 2014 is a four-time Winter Olympic silver medalist himself.
Blanka Vlašić is the best-known Croatian track and field athlete; she specialises in the high jump. She is 2007 and 2009 World Champion. Blanka is also 2008 World Indoor Champion and 2008 Olympic silver medalist. Her personal best is 2.08 m (6 ft 9.89 in) (which is only 1 cm less than the world record) set in Zagreb at August 31, 2009.
Ana Konjuh, a young tennis player, new superstar to some.
Janica Kostelić, considered to be one of the greatest female skiers of all time.
Marin Čilić, rising tennis player
Croatian athletes have had considerable success in individual sports as well, where they represented Croatia in international competitions at the highest level. These sports include:
Alpine skiing: Janica Kostelić, Ivica Kostelić, Natko Zrnčić-Dim, Ana Jelušić, Nika Fleiss, Sofija Novoselić
Athletics: Blanka Vlašić, Branko Zorko, Sandra Perković, Ana Šimić, Ivan Horvat, Lisa Stublić, Alena Hrušoci (upcomming star)
Biathlon: Jakov Fak (now competes for Slovenia)
Boxing: Željko Mavrović, Stipe Drviš, Mate Parlov
Canoeing: Matija Ljubek
Figure skating: Sanda Dubravčić, Idora Hegel
Kickboxing: Branko Cikatić, Mirko Filipović
Mixed martial arts: Mirko Filipović
Rowing: Nikša Skelin, Siniša Skelin, Martin Sinković, Valent Sinković, David Šain, Damir Martin
Sailing: Šime Fantela, Igor Marenić, Tonči Stipanović, Tina Mihelić, Enia Ninčević, Romana Župan, Pavle Kostov, Petar Cupać, Ivan Kljaković-Gašpić
Shooting: Giovanni Cernogoraz, Snježana Pejčić
Swimming: Miloš Milošević, Duje Draganja, Gordan Kožulj, Sanja Jovanović, Đurđica Bjedov, Mihovil Španja, Mario Todorović, Saša Imprić
Table tennis: Zoran Primorac, Tamara Boroš, Dragutin Šurbek, Antun Stipančić, Sandra Paović, Cornelia Molnar, Tian Yuan
Taekwondo: Ana Zaninović, Lucija Zaninović, Martina Zubčić, Sandra Šarić, Filip Grgić
Tennis: Goran Ivanišević, Ivan Ljubičić, Marin Čilić, Mario Ančić, Iva Majoli, Karolina Šprem, Ivo Karlović, Lovro Zovko, Petra Martić, Mirjana Lučić, Donna Vekić, Silvija Talaja, Ana Vrljić, Jelena Kostanić Tošić, Ana Konjuh, Tereza Mrdeža