The Origins of the Croatian Sensation

Very few international kits are as individual and instantly recognisable as Croatia’s red and white chequered shirts.

The now iconic design made its major tournament debut at Euro ’96 and whilst they only wore the shirts twice that summer, Lotto’s kit became an instant classic.

“That Croatia kit,” to one man a chessboard and to another a tablecloth, caused a stir back in the 1990s, and gave the young nation a powerfully vivid visual identity through sport.

“HNS” stands for “Hrvatski športski savez” – the Croatian Football Federation

However, the story of how Croatia came to wear their emblematic chequy shirts spans more than 1000 years of history and legend.

Prior to independence from Yugoslavia and subsequent international recognition from FIFA and UEFA in 1993, Croatian representative sides had worn fairly plain, non-descript, red jerseys in friendly matches.

As a distinct national identity was taking shape, the acclaimed Croatian artist Miroslav Šutej, who had also designed the nation’s flag, coat of arms and banknotes; turned his hand to sketching out his vision for how the future national team should represent the country.

His design was based on the historic Croatian checkerboard (šahovnica) motif, which has been used to represent Croats since the Middle Ages.

Šutej’s vision of Croatia’s colours
credit@Museum of Jerseys & Pyro on the Pitch

Legend has it that when 10th century Croatian king Stephen Držislav was captured by the Venetians, he played a game of chess against his captors, with his freedom the prize for victory.

When Držislav won, he adopted the chequy design within his coat of arms, thus establishing one of Europe’s oldest national symbols.

Croatia’s “chessboard” has been an important symbol for more than 1000 years

Acceptance of the Kockasti – or the chequered ones – by the international footballing community came too late to enter qualification for USA ’94.

Yet with players of the undoubted international calibre of Davor Šuker, Robert Prosinečki and captain Zvonimir Boban, they made short work of qualifying for Euro’ 96, topping their group and forcing maritime neighbours Italy into second place.

Croatia were drawn into the European Championships’ Group D along with Portugal, Turkey and defending champions Denmark; all of whom prominently featuring red within their kits.

Therefore Croatia began the tournament in their change colours of white with chequered trim for their win over Turkey in Nottingham.

As Denmark also wore red shirts, Croatia again wore their away strip for the 3-0 win at Hillsborough when Davor Šuker memorably lobbed Peter Schmeichel.

They finally got their chance to play in their first choice kit for their defeat to a Luís Figo and João Pinto inspired Portugal.

Chessboard or tablecloth?

Croatia lost in the second round to eventual winners Germany in their red and white colours at Old Trafford, meaning that as vivid and memorable those shirts were, they actually featured in two defeats.

Yet, two years later at France 98, one of the great international designs made its bow on the global stage.

The Vatreni (Blazers) were the World Cup dark horses who won many, many admirers, finishing 3rd having surprised Germany 3-0 in the Quarter finals before bowing out to eventual winners France in the Semis.

Davor Šuker in the France ’98 shirt by Lotto

Exciting and fluid to watch, Croatia’s footballing image was further cemented by Lotto’s impressive shirts, wrapped in a fluttering chequered flag from the right shoulder down across the chest.

That France 98 shirt was probably the furthest departure from Miroslav Šutej’s imaginative design and Croatia have since stuck fairly rigidly to the blueprint, albeit etched into the cut of the Nike template of the day.

As wonderful as Croatia’s kits are, the issue with the shirt is that the two colours together presents plenty of chances for kit clashes with teams in red or white, meaning that Croatia often need to change to their away kit as regularly seen at Russia 2018 and against England in their opening match of Euro 2020.

Firmly established on the world stage with a history of more than 1000 years, Croatia’s iconic checkered kit will turn heads for many, many generations to come.

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