France won the World Cup, but the day after the final nobody in Croatia remembered having lost. It was a holiday in private businesses and public institutions, there was free public transport and 550thousand people flocked into Zagreb to salute the return of the “Vatreni” (as Croatian footballers are called) accompanying them from the airport to the city centre. A huge welcome party received them as world champions. “Also Saint John Paul II was second and not first”, said with a smile Fr Domagoj Matosevic, dean of Marija Bistrica, the most known Croatian shrine. He travelled to Russia on two occasions to see “The Fiery.” But for the Croatian priest, former professional handball player, football is more than a passion. Fr Matosevic plays in the national priest team and follows the Croatian national football team all over the world.
“This World Cup – Fr Matosevic said – was amazing, I travelled to Russia on two occasions, first to Kaliningrad by car to see the match Croatia-Nigeria. I often follow the European championship, I was in Portugal (2004), Poland (2012) and France (2016). I travel to these places for the match but the journey always turns into a beautiful experience to share with friends to be together and pray. I remember in Portugal I was celebrating Mass in Fatima and the Croatian fans arrived wearing the team’s shirts. Also this year, along the road to Russia we made a stopover in Poland, in the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa.”
The second time you went to Moscow…
In fact I went with a visually impaired friend for the semi-final, Croatia won this very important match against England, the atmosphere was beautiful. I congratulate the organizers, the Russians gave a beautiful welcome to all the supporters, there were no hooligans, and the Croatians even sung along with the Brits.
You followed many championships, but this time it was different. Croatia entered into history.
Nobody thought that Croatia would make it to the finals, it’s an exceptional result. For the final we gathered in the square outside our Shrine of Saint Mary of Marija Bistrica, there were many people there with us. We cried at the first goal, we rejoiced when the Croatians scored their goal and when we realized we couldn’t win we stood in silence, but not for long. In the end we cheered and sang.
To us Croatia is the winner. The story circulating over the past days is that also Saint John Paul II came second.
What does this exceptional representation of the national team mean for Croatia in social and cultural terms?
We are a small Country, with a thorny past. We went through a war and many difficulties. That’s why the victory of our players is the personal victory of every Croatian who identifies with the national team. Also in Croatia there are political divisions, separations between the rich and the poor, and so on. But the achievements of the “Vatreni” made us live in unity for 53 days. We realized that if we are united as they are, we can achieve great things… On July 16 Zagreb staged a beautiful party to welcome the footballers, 550thousand people arrived from all over the Country. Just imagine that the overall population numbers approximately 4 million. It was a holiday for everyone, an incredible situation.
In sport it’s important to win, but it’s equally important to be good losers. You are familiar with this logic, is it also a lesson for life?
The most important thing in sport, and not only in sport, is to give the best of ourselves, always and on every occasion. And that’s what our players have done. The ideology of always winning, at all costs, prevails in the world. But it’s a misconstruction, for it’s impossible to always come first. We need to accept also our defeats, in sport we need to accept other players, in life other people. Even if we didn’t come first but we did our best, it’s our personal victory. That’s what counts.
Luka Modric is the World Cup’s best player. Newspapers told the story of his life as a refugee, the war, and the difficulties he went through. Did this heritage of the Croatian people shape greater footballers?
Many people in Croatia can identify with Luka Modric: they experienced many hardships, but like Luka they did not surrender, they became better persons. Luka is not like other football stars, he is a simple young man, He is a family man, he has three children and prefers to spend his time with them than go to bars as perhaps other football players do. That’s why everyone loves him.
The World Cup is over, it’s time for vacations. You are the dean of the most important shrine in Croatia. What is your message to those who intend to visit a holy site during the summer?
Once again I will take an image related to football: some of the parents of the national football players came to Maria Bistrica to pray for their sons. Shrines are special places where people entrust their suffering, for usually these are places that are visited in difficult moments in life. But those are also the moments when we feel that God is near us and we rediscover gratitude, silence and peace in the holy sites.