I watched it on a small TV at a friend’s house in rural Alaska. Outside my window scruffy spruce trees and rugged mountains overlooked a cool June day; on the television, a hot European summer and an old stadium in Berlin filled with fans—yellow and green versus red and white. The walls of that Olympic Stadium must have shaken with the swelling sound of the crazed supporters for the opposing teams. It came over the airwaves to me, and I chuckled—I was watching this scene in a place where soccer is barely recognized as a sport. It’s not hockey, after all.
It was the ultimate David and Goliath football match, Croatia against Brazil. Sure, they’d made it to the World Cup again, but no one expected much from Croatia, especially playing against Brazil. There are reasons why Brazil leads the world in football. They are truly great. But, alone in the wilderness of Alaska, I was rooting for Croatia.
* * *
My love affair with Croatia began ten years earlier than that game, on a bright June day in 1996, when I landed in the Zagreb airport and headed out across the country to my friend’s home. It was less than a year since the last battle in the four-year war for independence that had left its mark on the countryside. The beautiful landscape, once a draw for tourists from around the world, was ravaged by bombs and landmines. The fragile economy was taking its first tentative steps toward a free-market system. A proud race of people looked at their devastated countryside and found it hard to muster confidence for the future. Buildings bombed at the beginning of the war were overgrown with vegetation, while the ruins of more recent battles were still charred rubble.
We passed the shell of a hospital and spa complex, once premiere in the region, which had been bombed by Serbian troops. I wondered at the hatred that led to that kind of destruction. We stopped outside a little town named Lipik, at the ruins of a Lipizzaner horse farm. It seemed to fit that Croatia, home to a strong and proud people, would also be home for the tall, beautiful show horses. On a tour of the farm, I learned that the Serbs had positioned themselves on the ridge, bombed the stables with napalm, and then stolen the horses that weren’t killed. At one time, Croatia had the largest population of Lipizzaner horses in the world, but the man showing us around told us with tears in his eyes that they had all been taken away. The war was not simply about land and sovereignty; it was the age-old story of brother fighting against brother—each knowing just how to strike the rawest nerve and cripple his enemy’s pride. Walking through the stable, my toe touched a half-burned name plate and I bent down to read it: Vida, “life.”
* * *
It is said that it was a soccer match that triggered Croatia’s war for independence. In 1990, violence broke out between Croatian fans and Serbian fans at a match between a Zagreb team and a Belgrade team. No one knows who threw the first stone, but the police force, mostly Serbian, allowed the Serb fans to continue and beat the Croatian fans. One Croatian player got involved and karate-kicked a Serbian policeman. It was known as “the kick which started the war.” Within the month, a Croatian parliament held its first session and war began.
War in the Balkans is always a complicated matter: religion, ethnicity, and political affiliations divide people who in reality are very similar. But brutal fighting has torn the region for over a thousand years. In the Croatian war for independence, over ten thousand people were killed. At the end of it, a place that had once been a favorite stop for tourists became known as a war zone. A country that hoped to prove its potential to the world was relegated to the status of “former Yugoslavic republic.”
* * *
I have a photographic image in my mind of watching the 1998 World Cup final in France—a crowd of people gathered in the rain around one television set, covered with a raincoat in an outdoor café—but it is the third-place game a day earlier that plays itself out on live video in my memory. The great Oranje of the Netherlands against the unexpected Croatian team—this team, from a country that had not even existed seven years earlier, was up against one of the best teams in Europe. I watched the game in a French bistrot, surrounded by drunk Dutchmen garbed orange . . . and I rooted for Croatia.
I’ve been on the streets of a European city when their team is the underdog in a major match. Traffic stills; the bustle of an ordinary day quiets. In cafés and on street corners, men huddle around television sets intent upon the action. No matter where you go—from hotel lobbies to police stations, cafés to grocery stores—you can find a place to watch. I’m sure that the streets of Zagreb were quiet that day. They may have even set up large television sets in public places so that people who didn’t have them could watch. When Croatia scored, I bet you could hear the roar of the crowds echo through the cobblestone streets, all sharing the euphoric experience of joy.
In the little French bistrot, I was the only one rooting for the checkered red and white team, and, for fear of inciting the drunken, orange mob surrounding me, my outward celebration at their win was subdued. But internally I thrilled with joy. I knew I was joining thousands celebrating in a little country on the shore of the Adriatic Sea. I imagined the silent streets of Zagreb flooding with citizens as the match ended, singing and celebrating all night long in the city’s square. Only three years after the end of a terrible war, a young and struggling nation had made a name for itself on a world stage. I remember seeing photographs of grown men weeping, and a country celebrating together as if it had again declared its independence.
* * *
Eight years later Croatia returned to the World Cup for an encore performance. The team’s play was not as impressive as their first turn, and early match-ups against Titan teams didn’t bode well for the little country’s success. But the Croats had not forgotten what it meant to be there, to be playing—even if they were the long shot.
The old stadium in Berlin was overrun with Croatian fans, whose voices never hushed throughout ninety minutes of play. I watched, alone, on the other side of the world, kneeling on the floor in front of the television—rising up when the play grew intense, leaning back in the few quiet moments. For the entire game Brazil out-played Croatia. And for the entire game Croatia hung in there. They only allowed one goal.
The final ten minutes of that match were electrifying. Watching on a small television thousands of miles away, I was engulfed by the sound that filled the stadium. Everything I thought and felt was displayed in full color and noise. The commentators could barely be heard over the din, but one of them said, “And remember, this is for the team that’s losing!” The entire Olympic stadium swayed with the sound and fury of the Croatian fans, who never gave up, even as their team lost.
* * *
The Olympic Stadium in Berlin was built at Hitler’s orders. He moved the games to Berlin from Poland in 1936 with the intention of showing the world the superiority of the Aryan race, but an American black man named Jesse Owens won four gold medals.
As I watched a soccer match in that stadium on a June day seventy years later, a little part of me wondered what those walls—built for the glory of Hitler—thought about that crowd. A group of people whose land had been wracked by genocide and war, playing their hearts out on the field, singing their hearts out in the stands, forgetting for a moment the horror they had lived—the killing and being killed—in the glory of knowing that they had made it through and were once again players on a world stage.