It all started with the national basketball team, which was always among the top three in the years after independence – whether at the World Cup, the European Championships, or the Olympic Games. By 1998 at the latest, the sporting world began to hear about Croatia when the legendary eleven players of the “coach of the century,” Miroslav Ćiro Blažević, won a bronze medal at the World Cup in France. Not everyone could have named Croatia’s capital, but the whole world knew its best player Davor Šuker.
Then came the handball players, who have been on the podium almost every year out of the last two decades. And then the skiing siblings Janica and Ivica Kostelić, who have managed to become two of the world’s best ski racers, even though the country has hardly any mountains. Nor should Goran Ivanišević’s victory as a qualifier at Wimbledon 2001 be forgotten either. And then in 2018, a true football fairytale happened, when Croatia became runners-up in the World Cup. That year, Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modrić was named the best player of the World.
But the history of Austrian sport too has been written by some top athletes of Croatian origin. Integrated through sport, they and thousands of other children who came to Austria with their parents during the war, became part of Austrian society.
Of these, the two best known athletes are Mirna Jukić-Berger and Ivica Vastić.
Swimmer and multiple European champion
Now part of the Federal Ministry of Arts, Culture, Public Service and Sport
Austria is not traditionally a great swimming nation, yet Mirna Jukić-Berger decided to move to Vienna to pursue a great career. Starting to swim at the age of seven, the Vukovar native had to leave her home club Borovo because of the war and move to Zagreb.
At a competition in Vienna, the president of the swimming club Austria Wien contacted her and, after hearing her parents’ story, he suggested they come to Vienna and find their fortune there. Now 13, Mirna knew she wanted to get to the Olympics at some point: The options were Austria, Australia or South Africa. The Alpine Republic won because it wasn’t so far from home.
After that, as they say, it was history: Jukić-Berger became European champion several times (the 100 and 200 meter breast stroke and on the short course over 200 meters). The highlight of her extraordinary career was a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. In total, she holds twelve Austrian swimming records; she received the Golden Decoration of Merit of the Republic of Austria in 2003 and was Sportswoman of the Year three times (2002, 2008 and 2009).
After her career, she supported many integration projects. “I personally think that sport is the easiest way to integrate. No one asks you what your name is or where you come from,” says Jukić-Berger, now 35. Since 2020, she has been working at the Federal Ministry of Sport (BMKÖS), in the Department of Sport Strategy, Sport and Society and Sport Report, focusing on sustainability and integration.
She thinks Austrian sport can also learn from the Croatian: “Cohesion, joy and the euphoria among athletes in all sports is something that Austrians can learn from us,” she says. “Sport in Croatia has a much higher status. In Austria, we as a society still have potential to work on that.” You can read her story in detail in her book Under Water, Over Life.
The former swimmer sees herself as both Austrian and Croatian and is at home in both countries: “I am proud that it is like that,” she confirms. She goes to Croatia several times a year, especially in the summer, as her whole family is there. In Vienna, she reports being well connected with the Croatian community and wants only to get more and more involved.
Former football player
Today: Coach of the under-18 team FK Austria Vienna
At 38 years and 257 days, Ivica Vastić is to this day the oldest goal scorer at a European Championship. And back in Austria, Vastić is an idol of countless boys with a migration background who dream of celebrating their own success one day.
Vastić was born and raised in the Croatian city of Split, where he learned the craft of shipbuilding. But what he wanted to do was to play football and began his career with RNK Split just before the outbreak of the Yugoslav war. Through family contacts he left for Vienna and played there – first for the legendary club First Vienna. A year later, he scored 18 goals for VSE St. Pölten, which is why Admira Wacker, a top club at the time, lured him to join.
In 1994 he joined Sturm Graz, where he enjoyed great success over the next eight years. Under Bosnian coach Ivica Osim, he became captain, playmaker and goal-scorer, but also twice champion and three times cup and Super Cup winner each. He was Austria’s Footballer of the Year several times and was the league’s top scorer in 1996 and 2000.
In 1996, Vastić was granted Austrian citizenship and was able to make his debut against Switzerland in March. At the 1998 World Cup, he scored against Chile to make it 1-1 in the second preliminary round match. After that he was a regular in the national team until 2002. After an episode in Japan, he came back to Austria in 2003 and played two seasons with FK Austria Wien, winning the cup in 2005.
After the cup win, he moved to LASK Linz in the second division and led the team to second place in the table with 19 goals. A year later he became top scorer again with 23 goals and shot them into the 1st Bundesliga. In 2008, he was called up to the national team squad again, this time for the European Championship at home. In the match against Poland (1:1) he scored the only Austrian goal and became the oldest European Championship goal scorer ever at almost 39 years of age.
In May 2009, Ivo ended his professional career after 286 goals in 662 games. He had won the Austrian league twice and the Cup four times and was four times Footballer of the Year.
Only a few months after his professional retirement, he began his coaching career with a regional league club. His greatest success came in 2015 in the second division, when he was promoted with SV Mattersburg. Since 2018, he has been a coach in the youth section of FK Austria Wien.
Still, one of his strangest hours in football was a goal against Croatia in Vienna in 2000. Closely followed by a game against his other home country at the 2008 European Championship, which left him “quite queasy.”
Who was he, in the end? Who is any of us?