Back in 2006, I ambled over to a Berlin hotel to watch a World Cup game on their outdoor patio.
Sitting beside me were two men with professional camera gear making a great show of being casual. Every once in a while, one would turn and make himself big, so that the other could sneak around him and take a picture of someone sitting inside the hotel lobby.
Curious, I got up and wandered inside. Alongside the concierge desk, spilling over couches, was the entire Croatian national football team.
They have always been an object of deep fascination, bordering on obsession, in their own country. The national sports-only newspaper is 95 per cent football, and five per cent female volleyball players in indelicate poses.
Suddenly, in Brazil, they are an object of global curiosity.
They made many friends in the tournament’s opener, after they were jobbed out of a draw by the fidgety ref and an egregious penalty call.
Then, they were involved in an odd paparazzi hit at the team hotel. Several of the squad’s most famous players – and they’re all bigger than Elvis back home – were photographed skinny dipping in the pool area. The shooters were camouflaged amongst the shrubbery.
The team has since refused to co-operate with the press, which won’t hurt the print journos all that much. Much of Croatia’s media is of the News of the World variety. They’ll just make stuff up. The reputable outlets can fall back on opining.
Despite what athletes may think, boilerplate quotes about giving it your all are the least valuable coin of the newspaper realm. I do pity the TV guys. They had nothing to do with this, and there are only so many stand-ups on Copacabana beach the public will bear.
Clamming up was, of course, a terrible idea. This story is not going away. In this case, silence is oxygen for a media brush fire that’s spreading.
In announcing the self-imposed gag order, team manager Niko Kovac – an icy former player who fairly defines the Croatian ideal of manhood – scolded the press for their invasion of privacy.
Privacy is one thing, but it’s not difficult to see the problematic sub-text.
Forged in a recent war, modern Croatian culture is deeply macho. Fair or not, a great many Croatians will be wondering why a group of men decided to take all their clothes off and get into a hot tub together.
That’s the issue that cannot be spoken aloud. By keeping quiet, the team allows it to be discussed in whispers.
Their next match is against Cameroon on Wednesday, a team they should beat easily (especially considering the fact that their best forward, Mario Mandzukic, is returning from suspension). A victory will allow them to speak again.
If they win, I guarantee you, the second question is about the ‘controversy’ they should’ve put to bed as soon as it popped up.
If they lose, it’s the first, second, third, et al, and it will not go away for years.