Why the Croatian president’s appearance at the World Cup mattered so much

Standing apart, and scrutinized.
Standing apart, and scrutinized.
Image: Reuters/Damir Sagolj
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Croatia’s second-place finish at the 2018 FIFA World Cup brought global attention to the Balkan nation and its president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. The world’s media (Quartz included) was taken with the image of a leader cheering her team’s successes from the cheap seats and consoling them in the rain after a heartbreaking loss.

But as analysts of the region have pointed out, behind the photos of Grabar-Kitarović celebrating in the team’s distinctive red-and-white-checked jersey is a far more intricate story of gender and power that might ring familiar to many high-ranking women in traditionally male-dominated spaces.

Politicians in Croatia have latched onto football as a unifying symbol since the nation’s independence in 1991, and especially since its third-place finish at the 1998 World Cup. With elections looming next year, the president’s embrace of a winning national team is the kind of standard, voter-friendly move that few politicians would pass up.

But as the nation’s first female head of state (the head of government is prime minister Andrej Plenković) her public appearances typically prompt an additional layer of scrutiny, and the World Cup was no exception.

Catherine Baker, a historian specializing in post-Cold War history at the University of Hull, untangled some of the power and gender politics behind Grabar-Kitarović’s boosterism in a Twitter thread and in Prospect magazine.

Since the dawn of mass media, most political leaders have curated a public image as part of the business of statecraft. “That’s not new,” Baker wrote on Twitter. “But how Grabar-Kitarović builds *her* image comes at a very specific moment for gender in world politics, where traditionally masculine [political and military institutions] have wanted to look like they’re opening up to gender equality.”

This puts Grabar-Kitarović—a former Fulbright scholar, ambassador to the US, and assistant secretary to NATO—in a position familiar to many women leaders in fields previously dominated by men. She must appear at once powerful and nurturing, to exert authority in a way that neither threatens men nor undermines herself, to change the way power looks while staying close enough to social norms to keep people comfortable.

This means at times taking the visual cues of her different roles to an extreme. The president has been photographed handling weapons in military uniform as head of the armed forces, and in bright, flattering dresses at state events. And no choice comes without criticism tinged with sexism. Her tours of military have led to cartoons where she’s dressed in medieval armor. A routine Google search of her name instantly surfaces doctored images of her head Photoshopped onto the body of a woman in a skimpy bikini.

Meanwhile, observers of Balkan politics looked at her World Cup appearances and saw them in a different context. Team captain Luka Modric, whom Grabar-Kitarović embraced after the game, is entangled in a complicated corruption scandal involving the country’s top soccer officials. Those officials include Zdravko Mamic, an influential and polarizing figure in Croatian soccer, and one of Grabar-Kitarović’s financial backers. He was found guilty of corruption charges last month and fled the country.

Croatia’s politics are divisive, and no public display of patriotism by a political leader is free of politics—especially as an election approaches. For a female leader, however, the scrutiny is all the more intense.