Šahovnica is the Croatian noun for the chessboard, one of the most recognizable historical symbols of the country. Its use dates back to 1500, in reference to the Kingdom of Croatia (925-1102) of the Middle Ages, although there is no certainty on the actual origin of the white and red colors to compose the chessboard.
According to a legend handed down in the nineteenth century, the Croatian king Držislav - previously taken prisoner during a battle over Dalmatia - would regain his freedom by defeating the Venetian Doge Pietro Orseolo in a three-chess game contest. To commemorate the circumstance, the sovereign would choose to put the šahovnica in his personal coat of arms and, later, above the national flag. The foundations were laid for the advent of one of the most recognizable details of a flag, certainly the most iconic as regards Croatia, as well as a symbol of a nationalism that made its first appearance in the nineteenth century in response to the Magyarization of the Croatian territories under the Hungarian domain. The idea was to recreate a state based on continuity with the medieval Croatian one and on the identity associated with the Slavs.

 

From Nationalism to Sportswear

Since the country's independence from the Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991, the sentiment has become even more pronounced in a nationalism that can be defined as "healthy", along with the lines of the American one, whose goal is to keep patriotism at high rank to aim at ever greater frenzy growth of the country. After all, Croatia became the last nation to join the European Union in 2013 and all its efforts from that date have been oriented towards the establishment of new institutions, the reconstruction of the economy and the definition of national objectives.

Chess Elegance Croatia and the charm of nationalistic pattern | Image 1
Chess Elegance Croatia and the charm of nationalistic pattern | Image 0

Within this phase of transition and reappropriation of their symbols after decades of belonging to the Yugoslav State, the chessboard has become a must-have in the sportswear: there is no selection that has not worn at least once a uniform with the white and red square fantasy. But it is in football that this pattern has reached its pinnacle, putting itself as one of the most alluring, recognizable and successful designs in a shirt design. That of the Croatian national is historically one of the most appreciated and celebrated thanks to an unparalleled visual impact, quite different from the vertical and horizontal stripes or the monochromatic look that distinguish most of the uniforms.

The modern šahovnica was designed by Miroslav Šutej, an avant-garde painter who passed away in 2005, and appeared for the first time more than twenty years ago, receiving large consents already at Euro '96. At the end of a tournament in the limelight for the extravagant kits shown off by the sides – result of the strong experimentation of the sportswear of the time (England's goalie jersey is the most striking example) – Croatia was the only team to keep unchanged a simple but incredibly photogenic design: white-red chess to cover the entire shirt, decorations with the colors of the flag (white, red and blue) on sleeves and collar and the emblem of the Federation at heart level.

Chess Elegance Croatia and the charm of nationalistic pattern | Image 0

 

EURO 96, France '98 and The Gold Generation

The audacity of that pattern was perfectly matched with the style of play of a national team that, throughout the nineties, was able to churn out an impressive number of talents called "the golden generation of Croatian football". Despite being a newly born team and therefore not yet accustomed to certain stages, his players were full of euphoria and self-confidence – perfectly captured in the lob by Davor Šuker to Danish Peter Schmeichel, at the time one of the best goalkeepers of the world.

The journey, ended in the quarterfinals against the future champions of Germany, marked the definitive entry of Croatia into the international stage, guaranteeing their feature in almost all the World Cup and European Championships played in the coming years - with the exception of Belgium-Holland 2000 and South Africa 2010. The only common denominator: the chessboard, a fixed presence placed at the center of all the uniforms. Then came the debut at the World Championships in France '98 and the definitive consecration of a kit (both home and away) entered the collective imagination as the most beautiful ever worn by Croatia. Designed by Lotto, in the home kit the chess are stretched mainly on the right side, expressing an idea of dynamism through the three-dimensionality of their shapes, while the tricolor friezes on the collar and edges of the sleeves conferred that touch of elegance and solemnity. The away shirt, on the other hand, was predominantly blue and featured a checkered pattern on the hips and sleeves, embellished with an elaborate polo collar decorated with the Croatian tricolor.

Chess Elegance Croatia and the charm of nationalistic pattern | Image 1

As already happened two years before in England, the performances on the pitch kicked in to create the myth around a so cool and particular jersey, a crossover between a clean and minimal style of design and the audacity in looking for chromatic contrasts and shapes never tested before. Croatia achieved its best overall result at the World Cup by finishing third and boasting in its ranks the best scorer of the tournament, that Davor Suker able to score 6 goals in 7 games - two more than Ronaldo, then at the height of his career.

 

The most charming non-winning team

After the successful experience of France '98, Croatia has returned to embrace a simpler and more traditional look, allowing more creative freedom only with the away kits. The sponsor has become Nike and the home kit has resumed tracing the pattern seen at Euro '96, sometimes with the addition of blue stripes along the sides and around the neck as on the occasion of the Japan-Korean World Cup in 2002. Since this is a National team that has always and only presented a set-based design on the jersey, so all-encompassing that any form of experimentation was kept to a minimum, the only modification of the Swoosh charts concerned the interpretation of the chessboard. After the wavy one for Euro 2016, the white and red squares for Russia 2018 are larger than the previous versions, the edges are serrated and the whole uniform seems to convey a sense of greatness. It is as if it were the allegory of a proud and jealous nation of its history and of šahovnica, which is about to begin the World Championship with a high level of ambition and expectations. For many players Russia 2018 will be the last call to get something good: the roster is one of the strongest ever seen, formed by players belonging to that golden generation that, however, is likely to be remembered more for its inconclusive than for the talent.

Chess Elegance Croatia and the charm of nationalistic pattern | Image 1
Chess Elegance Croatia and the charm of nationalistic pattern | Image 0
Chess Elegance Croatia and the charm of nationalistic pattern | Image 2

Croatia has got results well below its potential. With the exception of 1998, the National team has no longer passed through the group stages, collecting outcomes not very exciting even to the Europeans: the best placing was the quarter-finals in 2008, while two years ago they were knocked out by France in the last sixteen.

Despite being one of the smallest nations that are going to join the World Cup – with just over 4 million inhabitants – Croatia is at the same time one of those around which always hover a kinda hype, consequence of the fascination that the Balkan football school continues to collect. Part of the merit lies in the considerable importance attached to sport, compulsory in the curriculum of all levels of education. Croatian children are familiar with sporting activity from an early age, often taking part in extracurricular initiatives seen as a way of life in recreational terms.

Chess Elegance Croatia and the charm of nationalistic pattern | Image 0
Chess Elegance Croatia and the charm of nationalistic pattern | Image 1

The checkered fantasy has certainly contributed to make the National one of the most visible and attractive and to create an identity such as to count it among the best at European rank despite the small size and the modest resources available.

 

In the era of graphic distortions, the chessboard was erected as the last bulwark of that brand design able to innovate without ever distorting itself, giving every year to sportswear fans one more reason to look at the Croatian shirt with increasing allure and awe.