Football (soccer) has been the most popular sport since the first footballs were brought from England and Prague at around the same time. It was given a fresh impulse when Croatia won third place in the World Championships of 1998, with D. Šuker and Z. Boban as the main trademarks, the real climax being the 3:0 triumph over Germany. On the other hand, don’t expect too much from the national championships: the best players are promptly exported.
The Croats are traditionally always in the upper world echelons in handball, water polo and bowling.
Basketball has never recovered from the national team winning a silver medal in the 1992 Olympics when Croatia played the American dream team in the finals. Tragically, the charismatic captain of the team, D. Petrović, the first European to jump over the wall of American scepticism towards European players and prove himself on NBA turf, died in a car accident.
Short of good skiing areas of their own, Croatians often go to neighbouring Slovenia and Austria. However, skiing remains more a popular leisure time activity and a kind of social status symbol rather than a competitive sport By the way, visitors from Croatia make up a large proportion of the total number of tourists visiting Austria.
Yet, by some paradox, Janica Kostelić has succeeded in piling up an enviable collection of championships and medals, including several of them in different alpine disciplines in the Winter Olympic Games and curtailing the Austrian domination in women skiing. Small wonder that to her admirers she is the one and only Snow Queen.
In the meantime, Blanka Vlašić, the world high jump champion, and the fooball player Ivica Olić is the newest nation's favourites.
Almost equally paradoxical is the situation in boxing: almost non-existent in terms of organized competition, Croatia has produced several world and European amateur and professional boxing champions.
A long tradition of tennis and rowing almost regularly secures if not the highest titles and medals, at least a steady supply of news for the sports media, the peak reached with Goran Ivanišević, who conquered Wimbledon in 2000 and the Croatian team winning the Davis Cup in 2005.
Fishing, in the waters of the Danube, Drava, Sava, Neretva or their tributaries, or in the prime trout waters of Gacka and Dobra, is a favourite pastime. And fishing in the Adriatic commands a special respect, and the prestige enjoyed by the masters makes them part of an elite.
Hiking is very popular in the North-West. People often go on weekend excursions to the nearby mountains (hills, if the truth be known!): to Kapela, Velebit and Biokovo for more demanding hikes, organized by several local amateur associations.
Sailing is a favourite with the very rich, mainly high-class sportspeople, who earned their money playing abroad (and never seriously pressed by the local tax authorities) and foreigners. Connoisseurs swear that sailing conditions in the Adriatic are absolutely superior to any other place on earth. Of course, surfing sails can also be seen everywhere.
With valiant support from the media, those with a more modest income and those who are health conscious successfully popularize less exclusive activities such as jogging and cycling. Group jogging for a good cause, for example, at the Jarun lake in Zagreb, now attracts tens of thousands of runners of all ages, something virtually unheard of only a few years ago.