Croatian sensation

Hunter Davies leaves Britain behind for a far more civilised football experience

About 12 years ago I interviewed Igor Stimac, the Croatian international, then playing for Derby County. He’d just been to the club’s Xmas party, where they all began drinking at two. By four he’d given up and gone home, but the Brit players were still at it until the early hours.

“I don’t know how they do it. After a couple of glasses of a wine, a normal footballer in Europe on a night out will think: Now, where can I get a nice shag, or where should I go for a nice meal? In Britain, they just think: Where should we go to keep on drinking? It’s amazing.”

He amazed me by going with his wife and two children to London for the day to see the Tower and Big Ben, going on the Tube, and also practising his English by reading the Telegraph. Since then, I’ve followed Croatian football, quite enjoying them stuffing England, admiring the wonderfully weedy Luka Modric of Spurs.

Last week I found myself in Croatia, staying at a very smart new hotel, the Monte Mulini, in a stunning little town called Rovinj. It happened to be the first legs of the Euro games so, naturally, I stayed in my bedroom both nights.

There wasn’t a sports bar in town, as far as I could see, boasting Sky, Guinness, chips, Man United flags and Ingerland tattoos on Ingerland bellies.

Anyway, I don’t like sports bars, the noise, my dears, the people. I like to commune with televised football on my own.

Every football fan, all over the civilised world, knows all the players of Barca, Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal, so it was all perfectly easy to follow, even with commentary in Serbo-Croat. I should say Croatian. That’s what they now prefer to call their language. They don’t like the Serbs.

I was impressed by the commentator’s pronunciation and his insistence on always saying “Johnterry” as opposed to Terry, showing he knew the Christian names as well.

The only weird pronunciation was Carrick. It often came out as “Carick-uh”. In Croatian, they pronounce all letters.

He didn’t explain why, a long time before Tevez actually got on to the pitch, the Man United fans were chanting “Argentina”. That could have been an interesting point for Croatian fans – how English fans, who once hated all Argie players and had a manager who called them “animals”, now love them, in fact love any foreign player, if he does well for their club.

At half-time, we got the same commercials as we get in Britain, such as that rather good graphic one for MasterCard with the dancing balls, only in Croatian, but interspersed with local ones for things like double glazing and Depeche Mode, appearing that weekend in Croatia.

It’s always interesting to see local celebs in local commercials, sponsoring local products, when you don’t know who they are. Most are so unattractive that it’s impossible to guess their claim to fame, but I did recognise Slaven Bilic, the Croatian manager, doing something with a dog.

Back to the action, and the introductory Euro theme tune was the same, the one that sounds like LASAGNE!

At the end, there were two experts summing up, standing rather stiffly behind a rostrum. The baldie on the left looked familiar – and I realised it was Igor Stimac.

Today, so I was told later by a waiter, Stimac is some sort of official in the Croatian FA. He seemed very fluent and knowledgeable, as I would have expected.

I wondered what he was doing after the game . . .