- Official language: Croatian
- Interesting facts: South Slavic family, similar to Bosnian and Serbian
Since Croatia declared independence in 1991, the language of football in the country has been marked by a need to define and express national identity.
In the stands and around the game, this has sometimes taken the form of Fascist chanting as football has become a vehicle for far-right tendencies (for more on this, Aleksandar Holiga is very much your man). More moderately, a strain of linguistic nationalism has sought to encourage the use of Croatian terms in place of international alternatives.
For example, the phrase promašiti ceo fudbal, which literally means “to miss the ball entirely” (as in a fresh-air shot) is sometimes used when a player misses a chance. It’s also more widely employed when someone doesn’t ‘get’ or understand something. Ceo fudbal (the whole football) is Serbian – the standard Croatian phrase would be cijela nogometna lopta.
Since independence, linguists have been trying to intervene to make the language more ‘Croatian’ and move away from Serbian. The Croatian word zaleđe – instead of the international ofsajd (“offside”) – is another example of this linguistic nationalism. As we’ve seen elsewhere though, it’s hard to control everyday language and, common use will invariably win out.
When a shot finds it way right into the top corner, the scorer is said to have “taken down the cobweb” (skinuo paučinu). We’ve seen that one pop up elsewhere, in Turkish for example.
And when someone misses a sitter, you can say that they “missed their dinner” (promašio večeru) which, to be fair, is always pretty gutting.
The phrase poslao ga po ćevape (“go for ćevapi”) literally means to send someone for a kebab, and is used to describe a decoy move or dummy. Ćevapi are a kind of meat kebab which are particularly good in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the idea is that the dummy was so good that the opponent went in the other direction, as if they’d been sent to pick up some ćevapi.
Finally, a choice phrase for the top league is “the swamp” (močvara). The idea here being that swampwater is unpleasant, far from transparent, and tricky to wade through, let alone play football in. Corruption is a very real problem in Croatian football, and močvara is a reference to the clientelism which leaves many with a raw deal, and a few of the very rich calling the shots.
Using the word “swamp” for the upper echelons of the game is also an interesting contrast to talking about the “relegation mire” in English. This is a decent indication of how fed up Croatians are with the corruption tainting their game.
- Ivan Rakitić: Raketa (Rocket)
- Darijo Srna: Bambi (Srna means “doe”)
- Luka Modrić: known in Spain as El pajaro (“the bird”, presumably because of his size, nose and the size of his nose) and David Guetta.
Mario Mandžukić is a touchy chap, so be careful what you call him. His old nickname was Đilkoš (pronounced “jeel-kosh”), and was given to him by Ćiro Blažević. This is the same Blažević who led Croatia to third place at the 1998 World Cup, and so draws a lot of water round there.
The word Đilkoš originates in Hungarian, where it means “killer”, although it assumed a different meaning in local slang: in Croatian, a đilkoš is someone who is brash, presumptuous and generally unsophisticated. Blažević meant to be cheeky and endearing , but Mandžukić cares for it not one jot, complaining that it was disrespectful and asking the media not to use it. So now you know.
Serbia, obviously, is a huge one, and any nicknames would be far too blue to mention. Germany and Italy are the other teams to beat, although it’s accepted that this beef is largely one-directional.
Italy are known as either Žabari (Froggies, as they supposedly eat a lot of frogs legs) or Digići (from the Italian word ‘dico’, meaning ‘I say’). The Germans, who Croatia defeated at World Cup 1998 and in the 2008 Euros, are called Švabe (Swabians), stemming from the Donauschwaben, a significant German-speaking population in Croatia.
Who speaks what
There are three basic forms of Croatian: Kajkavski, čakavski and štokavski. Their names come from the most common word for “what” in each dialect: kaj, ča and što respectively.
- Štokavski is spoken in Eastern Croatia as well as areas such as Dubrovnik and Lika, and is spoken by Mandžukić and Vida. This is close to the standard, meaning clearer speech, fewer stereotypes and less room for mockery.
- Kajkavski – spoken by the likes of Brozović, Pjaca and Kramarić – is associated either with the old-school urbane of Zagreb, or something altogether more rural
- Finally, the čakavski of Perišić and Pašalić is the language of the handsome Adriatic layabout, they say, and mutual intelligibility with štokavski is varied.
With thanks to Andrew Hodges and Ozren Biti at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research in Zagreb, Tea Sindbæk Andersen and Aleksandar Holiga.