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World Cup: Croatia gripped by football fever

Thousands of Croatians gathered on Thursday on cafe terraces in towns across Croatia on Thursday to watch the national football team, known as the 'Fiery Ones' (Vatreni), play the opening World Cup match against hosts Brazil.

ZAGREB: Thousands of Croatians gathered on Thursday on cafe terraces in towns across Croatia on Thursday to watch the national football team, known as the 'Fiery Ones' (Vatreni), play the opening World Cup match against hosts Brazil.

A thunderstorm that hit the Croatian capital just before the match chased away many fans. But thousands of supporters still gathered at the Zagreb's main square.

Nearly all were dressed in Croatia's distinctive red and white squared shirts colours as the watched the match on a 52-square-meter screen above an improvised stage.

"The most important is that they are not afraid. Everything is in the head, they have to want to win and they will," 26-year-old Ivan Penic, who came with friends, told AFP.

Vladislav Horvat, sporting a Luka Modric jersey, admitted he would be happy with a draw in the Group A clash in which Brazil were overwhelming favourites.

Croatia's President Ivo Josipovic bravely predicted a 3-0 win for his country.

The Croatian papers labelled the clash the "biggest match in Croatia's history" and the whole country is gripped by World Cup fever.

Cafes have installed new TV screens on terraces and redecorated in red and white chequerboard pattern. There were live broadcasts in the main squares of big towns and cities.

Giant posters of the Croatian team stare out from shop windows in the capital Zagreb, especially Modric and striker Mario Manduzkic. Many shopkeepers also wore red-and-white jerseys.

"It will be a real drama," said Hrvoje Tokic, manager of the popular Maraschino bar in Zagreb, whose terrace is plastered in posters of the players and coach ahead of the match.

World Cup fuelled patriotism is expected to lead to a 30 percent boost in alcohol sales.

"We expect good business tonight. These games mean that one evening can be worth as much as a good weekend," said Tokic.

Croatia needs a boost. The economy is entering a sixth year of recession, with unemployment topping 22 percent.

Using the 2008 European Championships, Croatia's last appearance at a major football tournament, economists expect each match in Brazil to generate 50 million euros ($68 million).

That means the team's three opening group matches will add an estimated 0.35 percent to annual output -- and more if they progress into the later rounds.

The economic crisis means few Croatians have been able to make the pilgrimage to Brazil. Some 6,000 Croatian fans were at the opening match in Sao Paolo.

That has left authorities having to cater to huge crowds back home. In Zagreb's main square up to two million people are expected to pass through a giant "Fan Zone" to watch the games over the next month.

Many in the country of 4.2 million are just glad to have some distraction from day-to-day economic worries.

"For small nations such as ours, these sports events provide an opportunity to show ourselves off to the world. We still remember the famous 1998 tournament when we showed that we can win against a mighty country like Germany," said sociologist Suncica Bartoluci.

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