Russian Qualification Makes Croats Heroes

When a national football team qualifies for a major tournament, they are typically greeted as heroes back home. But when Russia last week qualified for the European Championships, it was Moscow's small Croatian community -- not Russian footballers -- who were overwhelmed by gratitude from relieved fans.

While only a small crowd of fans met the Russian team returning from Andorra following a 1-0 victory over the home side, hundreds of fans have heaped thanks on local Croatians, whose national team beat England 3-2 at Wembley Stadium on Wednesday.

Thanks to Croatia's win, Russia finished second in its group and will play in next year's tournament in Austria and Switzerland.

Less than 30 minutes after Croatia's win, dozens of Russian fans made a pilgrimage to the Croatian embassy on Korobeinikov Pereulok in central Moscow, and flowers soon covered the steps of the entrance. Visitors and messages of support -- by phone, fax and e-mail -- poured in all day Thursday and on Friday.

"Mostly it is flowers," Croatian embassy official Sanjin Soldatic said Friday. "One person brought a bottle of vodka and a jar of red caviar."

The embassy has set aside a separate room to display the flowers and presents -- including a teddy bear more than 50 centimeters tall -- and opened a book that well-wishers can sign.

"Fans say thank-you as if we played and not the footballers," said Zeljko Blazincic, one of the owners of Moscow restaurant Dorian Gray, a favorite haunt of Croatian national team goalkeeper and, before this year, striker Ivica Olic.

Pletikosa plays for Spartak Moscow, and Olic, now playing in Hamburg, was with CSKA Moscow from 2003 to 2007.

The Croatian National Tourist Office in Moscow has received hundreds of thank-you messages and more than a dozen bouquets of flowers and cake, said manager Yulia Yevstigeyeva, who conceded that she had not thought Croatia would win. Fans call to say "Thank you!" and that they will definitely go to Croatia for vacation, Yevstigeyeva said.

The day after the match, Sovietsky Sport splashed across its front page the headline "Hvala Vam, Hrvatska," or "Thank You, Croatia" in the Balkan country's language.

Pletikosa's photograph was on the front page of national daily Komsomolskaya Pravda on Friday, while a photo of bespectacled Croatian ambassador Bozo Kovacevic was shown on the front page of the Friday edition of Moskovsky Komsomolets clutching flowers given by grateful fans.

LUKoil vice-president Leonid Fedun has promised four new Mercedes to Croatian players, and one Russian company has offered free advertisements for vacations to Croatia, Kovacevic told MK.

The Croatian Football Federation turned down the Mercedes offer from Fedun. "Let him give it to his dad," federation head Vlatko Markovic said, RIA-Novosti reported.

In a reader's poll in Komsomolskaya Pravda on Friday, 43 percent said they would support Russia at the European championship. But a remarkable 26 percent said they would support Croatia.

"The fans all understand who did the most to get us there," Boris Bogdanov, a football editor at the Sport-Express daily, said Friday.

And so do the players. "Croatia saved our ass," Lokomotiv striker Dmitry Sychyov said after the match, national media reported.

"The last two days have been special," the Croatian embassy's Soldatic said, adding that fans were coming and giving Croats a hug. "It is very good to be a Croat in Moscow these days."

Newspapers played up the fact that both Russians and Croatians are both Slavic peoples, though their countries have not always been so closely aligned.

During the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Russia was a strong supporter of the Serbs, who share the Orthodox faith with Russia. Croats are primarily Catholics.

The lovefest continued in the national media over the weekend, with Komsomolskaya Pravda publishing a ready-made thank-you card in its Saturday edition that readers can cut out and send to the Croatian Football Federation in Zagreb. The daily also printed a cutout badge reading "Thank you, Croatia" for fans to wear.