Meet the First Ladies of Croatian Soccer

Iva Olivari and Ivancica Sudac have served Croatia’s federation since before it joined FIFA. They have had, in different ways, the job of a lifetime.

Iva Olivari has spent more time on Croatia’s bench than Manager Zlatko Dalic, right, and most of his assistants.
Credit...Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

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SPLIT, Croatia — The way the international soccer calendar is set up, Luka Modric is usually with his second family on his birthday in September. And it is always the same: A cake is made at Croatia’s training base and Modric, in his typically bashful style, blows out the candles as his teammates serenade him.

This year the team gathered earlier, in June, for a series of end-of-season games. But there was still cake. Iva Olivari, the team’s manager, had decided that Modric should be celebrated for winning a fifth European Cup, a rare feat he achieved with Real Madrid only a few weeks earlier.

Olivari began with a short speech she had prepared, telling Modric, the team’s captain, that it was unlikely any future team manager would have the same privilege she had enjoyed, that it was unlikely any Croatian would secure as many titles as he had. And then she choked up.

Olivari explained later that her head had filled with a swirl of memories as she delivered her words. She has known Modric, 37, since he was a teenager, only a few years after he was forced out of his hometown and made a refugee by war. She remembered how the slight and willowy Modric had worked his way up through Croatia’s age-group teams; how he had left Croatia to make his name in the biggest leagues in Europe; how he had led tiny Croatia in an improbable run to the World Cup final and helped propel mighty Real Madrid to trophy after trophy.

“You watch him grow, you watch him become a man,” Olivari said as Modric, now a father of three playing in his final World Cup, signed an autograph nearby on the terrace of the team’s hotel. “It’s a journey. It’s a journey that we went through.”

It is not just Modric who Olivari has seen grow. He was only 7 when Olivari joined the nascent Croatian soccer federation, the year it was recognized by FIFA and well before it qualified for its first tournament. That was before an earlier generation of heroes that included Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban and Robert Prosinecki led the country to its first World Cup semifinal, and before the national team’s red-and-white-checkered jerseys became not just a calling card but also one of the most recognizable symbols of Croatian identity.

Yet Olivari is not the longest-serving official, or even the longest-serving woman, at Croatia’s federation: That distinction is held by her colleague Ivancica Sudac, now one of the most senior women in European soccer. Sudac joined the federation in 1991, a few months earlier than Olivari, when the two women were barely in their 20s.

“We are like two dinosaurs,” Olivari, 51, said.

Olivari laughs as she delivers the line. She knows, as does Sudac, how significant their contributions have been.

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Credit...Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

Sudac was a law student with little interest in soccer when she got the call to join the Croatian federation about a year before it was officially recognized by FIFA. As it campaigned for membership amid war and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Croatia wanted to speak to the world. Sudac could do so in several languages, including French and English.

Olivari came aboard soon afterward. She had recently returned home from the United States, after giving up her dream of a tennis career, when she responded to an ad placed in a newspaper. She and Sudac were effectively founding members of the Croatian soccer federation’s new international department.

The women worked long hours together in those early days, first translating thousands of pages of international sports regulations into Croatian and then writing letters to overseas federations to convey the requests of top officials. They worked on a typewriter for the first couple of years before being presented with a primitive word processor that they would share by turning the screen toward one another every few hours. “Getting a computer with a delete key was like they gave us a space shuttle,” Olivari said.

Both saw their jobs, in those hard days, not so much as work but as a patriotic duty. “I was always dreaming of doing something important,” Sudac said, “and I think what I was doing was important.”

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Credit...Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

Sudac was part of Croatia’s delegation after it qualified for the first tournament it was eligible to reach, the 1996 European Championship. She was there, in the tunnel, just before the players emerged for their first game against Turkey in Nottingham, England.

“When they were marching out, the tunnel was vibrating,” Sudac said. “When they entered the field, I had a feeling that my heart would jump out of my body. So much pride, so much energy they brought to England. They were deeply aware how important their presence there was.”

The team surprised many by reaching the quarterfinals. It later confirmed its international standing by qualifying for the 1998 World Cup. “That was unbelievably important because there’s no bigger diplomacy than sport,” Sudac said. “One hundred ambassadors cannot do the job that two or three athletes can do.”

Boban, now a top official at European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, recalled those efforts Sudac and Olivari made in those early days, the tireless hours they put in behind the scenes, helping to lay the platform for Boban and his teammates to put Croatian soccer on the map.

“Just total service for everything players might need,” Boban said. “It’s not about ladies and men. They are just good at what they’re doing. And they’re serving the federation like family. For them, we were like brothers.”

Nothing was ever too much. “They did everything for us,” he said, also noting the contribution of Rujiza Biric, another longtime employee who is now retired. “It was some kind of total life commitment to us. It was what we felt every time we were with the national team.”

The Croatian team’s relevance to the nation’s sense of self cannot be overstated, Sudac said. She recalled how once, in the early 2000s, executives from Nike proposed replacing Croatia’s famous checkered shirts with a different design. The sportswear brand argued that customers who had been buying the jerseys for years needed a new design. Sudac said she and other federation officials flatly rejected the idea.

“We were so stubborn,” she said. No, she and the other officials told Nike, “‘It must be plain red-and-white checks to be recognizable.’”

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Credit...Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

Sudac credits some of her longevity to her ability to set aside the occasional bouts of chauvinism she has faced throughout her career. Olivari said she endured moments of exasperation, too. She recalled attending meetings in her first decade at the federation where she was never invited to speak.

“I was young, good-looking, so they liked to have me around,” she said. “I would do the work, but if there was a presentation, it wouldn’t be me but some old guy.”

Slowly, though, things began to change. By 2012, Sudac had become one of the most senior women in European soccer’s governing body, UEFA. For Olivari, who assumed a role working more directly with Croatia’s national teams in 2002, a major development came when the former striker Davor Suker became federation president.

In 2016, after consulting the former captain Darijo Srna and Ante Cacic, the national team’s coach at the time, Suker made what Olivari describes as “a courageous decision” and awarded her a place on the bench as team manager, a first for a woman in Croatia — and one that remains so rare for a woman in men’s soccer that she is often overlooked in plain sight.

“Just before the match, the referee would come, and then they would say, ‘We need to give this to somebody,’” Olivari said. “They never thought it could be me.”

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Olivari’s relationships with generations of Croatian players have shifted with her age, she said. For the players in that glorious first generation in the mid-1990s, she was like a sister. For the current group headed to Qatar, Olivari, 51, considers herself in some ways a maternal figure, one who has helped younger men navigate the highs and lows not only of their soccer careers, but also of their lives: children, marriage, legal troubles and divorce.

Olivari said that her gender has, at times, helped forge a closer bond.

“Most of them are from small villages all around Croatia and had to leave homes very early,” she said. “It meant leaving their mothers very early. I’m not saying I’m their second mother, but they know I’m somebody they can trust.”

Neither Olivari nor Sudac, after more than 30 years at the federation, has any intention of stepping aside anytime soon. Sudac, who is now also a senior member of a governance committee at soccer’s governing body, FIFA, says there is nothing else she could imagine doing. Olivari says she still feels that same surge of adrenaline whenever she walks out onto the field and takes her place on the bench. Each says their roles still carry that same sense of mission their work did during those early days as sporting representatives of a newly independent nation.

The screen saver on Olivari’s laptop captures this: It shows Olivari dressed in a blue suit, her heels tossed away, sprinting barefoot toward Croatia at one end of the field after beating England to seal its place in the 2018 World Cup final.

“That,” she said, “is the photo of my life.”

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Credit...Pete Kiehart for The New York Times