Croatia’s game against Turkey during the UEFA European Championship was the first time I cheered at a televised sporting event, EVER. It was 6 June 2008 (see I even remember the date). Croatia scored and before I knew what I was doing, I was up, off the couch, yelling as loud as I could. And then I was hit by a thought, so... this is football.
And no it’s not soccer. Soccer is something we play in America as kids. It’s what you play on the playground when there is nothing else to play. It’s what you play until you’re old enough to play American football and baseball, or tall enough for basketball. It took living in Croatia for me to understand the magic of FOOTBALL!
An international experience
As an American you can never really understand football until you experience it outside of the US. Americans have no event or team that everyone in the country supports. During the World Series or the Super Bowl there are fans rooting for one team against the other, and there are also the people that just don’t care because American football is slow, and baseball is boring (to watch). And no, the whole country doesn’t get behind any single Olympic sport. Swimming? Yeah, right.
But in Croatia when the national team is playing, literally the whole country is watching, OR like my punica, purposefully not watching because she ‘just can’t take it’ at her age. During these games I’ve seen the most mild-mannered Croat, the most unpatriotic person on the planet turn into a super fan, screaming with Hulk-like intensity when Croatia scores: HRVAAAATSKAAAAA!
So much drama
Football is the world's most dramatic sport. It’s a fast paced, low scoring roller-coaster of emotions, near misses, close calls, a 90 minute story that builds the tension better than any movie ever could. And during something like last night’s game (Croatia v Russia) that tension, the collective fear, hope, dread, and love gripping the entire populace, is palpably in the air. You can feel its electricity in the spaces between the empty streets and the humming, brimming cafes.
Watching football, cheering in chorus with the whole country is a great way to feel as if you belong, but I feel even more Croatian because my whole love affair with football has only been in Croatia (and Croatian). I have no vocabulary for watching football in English. I don’t know the terms and I have no tradition of yelling or cheering in English. Instead, I watch the game IN Croatian, I yell at the players, our opponents, and the refs IN Croatian. I cheer and curse IN Croatian.
The only thing I don’t quite get is honking your horn incessantly for two hours after the game has ended. Or singing songs off key well into the wee hours of the AM. But, if we win on Wednesday, I might just overcome these inhibitions, honk and sing with the rest of the country.
And now we are heading into the semi-finals. Croatia is now one of the world’s top four teams. Look at the other three! They are countries that everyone knows, former world powers, empires! And then there is us, tiny Croatia, the country that is hemorrhaging people (300,000 in five years), the country most people can’t even find on a map, and here we are, the little country that could have a shot at the world championship. There is a feeling as if we all had something to do with it. Which is ridiculous because it’s not like the team can hear us screaming through the television. Or can they? The magic of football makes you believe in ridiculous things.
Some friends have mentioned that Croatia’s success in the World Cup is a nice distraction from all the country’s problems (especially for our politicians). This is probably true, but our success is also an example of how I see the country’s story. Croatia is a place that often surpasses your expectations, a place that can do more with less, and a place that can surprise even the biggest skeptics (who are mostly Croatian).
No matter what happens in the coming matches, I’ll still cheer for Croatia. When it comes to football I know we believe we have a chance. And when it comes to everything else, I honestly think we are better than most of us believe.