If you are to believe posts on Facebook — and whether you do or not is entirely your choice nowadays — Croatia’s president has the figure to enhance a skimpy bikini.

Niño Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

Sorry to disappoint, but those widely shared images are actually NOT of Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, but a swimsuit model from Austin, Texas.

But all that attention doesn’t detract from the fact that Grabar-Kitarovic won fans’ hearts from around the world as she watched her national football team finish runners-up to France in the football World Cup final in Moscow last Sunday. Madame President has been seen at most games Croatia played on their way to the final, wearing the red-and-white chequered football jersey and cheering every goal. And as France celebrated its 4-2 win over Croatia in the final, the rain-soaked Grabar-Kitarovic smiled in defeat and hugged every player from both teams as the winners were given their medals.

By the end of the day, it was the Croatian president who had emerged as her country’s star of the tournament. Mediatoolkit, a Zagreb-based analytics company, found 25 per cent more focus on her in news stories about the final than any of the players on the pitch, including the Golden Ball award winner, Luka Modric, as well as Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic. More than 80 per cent of the stories were positive, Mediatoolkit said, for a woman who travelled to Russia at her own expense in economy class and often watched from the non-VIP stands — missing only the semifinal against England because it clashed with the Nato summit.

Boris Dezulovic, a journalist and political commentator, said: “Her presence at the World Cup could definitely be described as an extended pre-election video. She has used this to reinforce her PR strategy of being the people’s president. This is something she has been doing in Croatia for a while now. Instead of being limited to the Croatian public, this campaign video of sorts was seen by billions of people all over the world.”

Grabar-Kitarovic was elected President in 2015, presented as the new “polished” face of the conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). The party faced a slew of corruption charges over the years, the most noteworthy being those involving the former prime minister Ivo Sanader, who is involved in five overlapping corruption trials.

Grabar-Kitarovic, largely an HDZ bureaucrat until the 2015 election campaign, embraced the party’s legacy as the representative of the conservative and patriotic Right, joining the lengthy protests and sit-ins of Croatian war veterans that coincided with the pre-electoral campaign. The nation she leads only became independent in 1991, following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, and struggled through several years of conflict with foes in the former Soviet-bloc satellite.

However, with her foreign education, excellent command of English and previous high-ranking position in Nato [she was assistant secretary general for Public Diplomacy from 2011-2014] , Grabar-Kitarovic stood in stark contrast to the former generals and brutish local mayors usually associated with the HDZ. Her performance in the World Cup is perhaps the clearest indicator of her role in the HDZ and Croatia’s political sphere, where the president is head of state and the country’s chief representative at home and abroad.

Croatia itself is the most recent member of the European Union, joining the economic, social and political bloc on July 1, 2013. While the Prime Minister, Andrej Plenkovic, is tasked with negotiating with the head of Russia’s Sberbank, the largest single creditor of Croatia’s biggest and most troubled conglomerate, Grabar-Kitarovic exchanged jerseys with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Executive and operational powers reside with Plenkovic’s government. Grabar-Kitarovic is focused on promoting the values that a large part of the Croatian electorate holds dear — love of country and church — and for the president, another term.

Grabar-Kitarovic’s Facebook page is a mix of photos and videos of her sporting Croatia jerseys, celebrating in the team’s locker room at the games in Russia and performing her duties as the country’s president. Forbes Magazine says Grabar-Kitarovic has continued to make a name for herself on the international stage by working with United States President Donald Trump and the US to build an American liquefied natural gas import facility on Croatia’s Krk Island in the Mediterranean, which would deliver up to two billion cubic metres of gas a year to be distributed to Western Europe and nearby Baltic nations. That should help ease Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. A former minister of foreign affairs and ambassador to the US, she has also visited Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to talk about strengthening diplomatic relations.

She is the mother of two children, and Forbes lists her as the 39th most influential woman on the global stage.

Her curriculum vitae details that her parents, Dubravka and Branko Grabar, owned a butcher shop and a farm. She is described as being a bright student and was selected for a student exchange programme when she was 17. She moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, subsequently graduating from Los Alamos High School in 1986. After high school, she enrolled at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb, from where she graduated in 1992 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Spanish languages and literature — and a passion for football.

— With inputs from the Guardian