World Cup

Croatia: The Little Country that Can

A rare mood of elation swept through Croatia after the national team’s victory over England on Wednesday. As I ran up the stairs of my Zagreb apartment, I encountered a group of white and red clad fans waiting for the elevator. I let out a whoop of triumph from the stairs only to be surrounded and hugged by the whole group. We proceeded to jumped up and down, arms wrapped around each other, chanting ‘CROATIA CROATIA’ until the elevator arrived. They went their way and I continued racing up to my floor, where I hoped to join in a similar ritual with my wife, kid and neighbors. As the national team advances to the World Cup final, it seems like there has never been a better time to live in Croatia.

If Croatia’s astounding World Cup run is the first time you’ve heard of the tiny nation, don’t feel bad. Before falling in love with a Croatian woman and moving here from Oklahoma, I thought Croatia had been, or maybe still was, a part of Russia. It wasn’t and isn’t. Croatia is a beautiful country right across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, and has some of the world’s most beautiful, pristine beaches. Once part of Socialist Yugoslavia, the country fought a war for independence in the 1990s, and joined the EU in 2013.

And though we are riding high on World Cup euphoria, the country is facing a host of problems. In the last five years an estimated 300,000 people have left, dropping Croatia’s population to just under 4 million. The owner of the country’s biggest and most successful soccer team, Dinamo Zagreb, recently fled to neighboring Bosnia and Hercegovina after being convicted on fraud charges. And over the last 27 years from 1989-2016 Croatia has experienced the lowest gains in GDP in all of Europe, a paltry 6.5 percent.

But for the last few weeks these problems, which once seemed as insurmountable as they were inevitable, suddenly seem manageable. It’s as if each goal and each advance in the World Cup by the national team is boosting Croatia’s national confidence. For once, the conversation isn’t about difficulties with the country’s corrupt bureaucracy or stories of young, promising graduates moving to Ireland or Germany. Instead, the city streets are filled with smiling faces.

It’s hard to explain the importance of football in Croatia to my American family. For each American championship there is always two US teams to cheer for. The nation is never united behind a single team, and any calls for unity might seem like a political trap. But in Croatia support for the team is organic and genuine. Everyone cheers for the national team, from three year-olds to my 76 year-old mother-in-law. Fandom here is so serious that when the national team plays the whole country comes to a standstill. During the match with England, malls and grocery stores closed early, masses in the Catholic Church were cut short. All so that everyone could get to a TV in time to watch the game. And if you think it’s over after the game, things are just getting started. The parks become filled with late night revelers singing songs until 2-3 am. The incessant honking of car horns fills the night until the wee hours of the morning. What might sound like a cacophony of racket, is actually the sound of victory.  

Over the seven years I’ve lived here, I’ve learned that Croatia is a country that often surpasses expectations. When family and friends visit, they can’t believe how beautiful the country’s beaches are. Nor can they believe how charming and pleasant its medieval towns and modern cities are. I mean who would’ve thought a once war-torn, socialist dictatorship would be so pleasant? Moreover, they can’t believe that a country with so many problems and so little resources can do so much. And that’s what Croatia’s advance to the finals is all about. Showing Croatians and the world that despite our problems, despite our size, and our limited resources, we’ve been able to outplay, outlast, and outshine some of the greatest teams on the planet. So, cheer for Croatia in the final game of the World Cup. And win or lose, come visit, you won’t regret it. 

The Magic of Football

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. 

I believe!

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.