The first time I visited Croatia, I attended a Thompson concert with my husband. It was smaller than expected, like many things in this country of 4.5 million people, but it was otherwise everything that you would expect when attending the concert of a much-loved singer / songwriter: the loud speakers, the flashing stage lights, the call for one more song. But what I didn’t expect to see was something I’ve yet to see in the States: the depth of their loyalty and brotherhood, their patriotism, which was spurred on by Thompson’s songs about national pride, love, and of course, loss and war.
It’s easy for us to forget, from our stance in this country, that a war brewed, boiled, and took over former-Yugoslavia. It’s even easier for us to forget, perhaps, that those who lived through it — now residing in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, and sprinkled across the globe — are still healing. Their children are being born into a piece of what was once a larger country, torn over religious affiliations and artificial calendar dates, and some of that country is still physically full of bullet-holes, broken relationships, and lost businesses. But what I saw at that concert wasn’t a reflection of hate or division: it was love and connection in spite of a decade-long war. Perhaps even because of it.
All around me was a swirl of people either singing along with Thompson on that stage, or chanting one phrase from the song over and over — and above the crowd was a man.
Boosted up on a friend’s shoulders, he held a Croatian flag up over his head, over the audience’s outstretched hands. But this wasn’t just any printed flag; it was the Bosnian rendition, including only the Croatian crest without its provinces, a common sighting during the war, meant to represent those who had fled across their country’s border in search of refuge. It’s an ongoing symbol of being without a country, but not without a home; to this day, it represents sanctuary and peace. The man held this flag high during a fight song about loyalty, brotherhood, and nationalism, and from where I was, I swear I could see tears running down his face, the wetness on his cheeks reflecting all of the neon lights from the stage, making him glow red below that billowing flag.
I don’t mention this to compare Croatia’s national pride with the States’; I mention it instead as a cornerstone of the country that I had walked into. Their pride, loyalty, and faith in their country as a body is representative of who they are as a people; but even more so, their willingness and even insistence in connecting with other people, with loving them and providing them a home and raising them up, is paramount. More than any other state, any other country, that I have been, Croatia insists on bringing you home, on making you one of their own, and being really proud of what they’ve done once they’ve successfully taken you in.
I mention this, because I’ve been a dedicated follower of the FIFA World Cup Series since I was a teenager, and never have I felt the depth of pride for a team, winning or losing, than the last two World Cups when I was able to cheer alongside my husband (and our family in Croatia via online messengers), while rooting for our home team.
It’s Wednesday night after the FIFA World Cup 2018 finals in Russia, so I hardly need to tell you what the results of that final game were between Croatia and France. Surely by now you’ve seen the scores, read an article, watched the game, or heard from a friend. In short, both teams played with a lot of heart, displaying excellent skill, and France walked away in a 4–2 win with three scores and a successful penalty shot. But that’s not the end of the story.
I went into that game on Sunday praying. During Croatia’s play against Denmark, and again during their play against Russia, I knew somewhere deep down that they would win. On a very realistic level, I could see it in how they played on the field, versus the other teams. Luka Modrić, captain of the Croatian soccer team, set the standard for inevitably a future record this year, for the number of miles run on the field by a single player cumulatively throughout their games, and this is not something to shrug off. It’s reflective of the team’s consistent movement and coverage of the field, the goals, and the ball. Where I often saw both Denmark and Russia fan out among their defending ranks, hanging back from the active game play, I would see a cluster of dark blue Croatian jerseys (and one pair of bright orange cleats) working the ball down the field. While I avidly admired the skills of Denmark’s goalie, and can admit that Russia’s opening goal on Croatia was one of my favorites of the year (it was a beautiful shot!), these attributes of the opposing teams were not enough to convince me that Croatia would not move on to the next round.
After the game against France was over, though, I was drained, but I wasn’t disappointed the way I expected to be if we didn’t win. I was able to recognize the hard work and heart that both teams put into their plays and decisions on the field throughout their competition. I still stand by Croatia’s strong footwork and coverage of the field, and how effectively they used those strengths throughout the season. But sitting next to my husband, who seemed to be equally (though surely more) dazed, disappointed, and gratified as I was in how far Croatia had come, I realized that the end-game of this season wasn’t 100% about seeing Croatia bring home the gold. It was about support and love of the team, the weird karma of going up against France again, and enjoying the chance to watch Croatia play for as long as we could. And as it turned out, those feelings didn’t stop with us.
Throughout the evening, we watched the closing commentary and the news as Croatia blew up in celebration: music in the streets, celebrations on practically every corner, (contained) fires on rooftops, the familiar red-checkered Croatian jerseys and hats as far as the eye could see… My husband and I joked about what would have happened to the country had the team actually brought home the gold, because this was not the behavior of a losing country, or even one who placed second in the tournament. Where there would usually be hung heads and somber crowds, Croatia held its collective head high and praised all the powers that be for their team’s job well done, and maybe even more so, their journey home.
I mention the team’s homecoming, because the next day, Monday, was where the story really came to a head for the country that placed second in World Cup 2018. A little geographical background: Croatia is a small country. In fact, if you were to roll it up by its length Fruit Roll-Up–style, it would be smaller than the state I live in. So there’s really no surprise that the distance between Croatia’s airport and its capital city center is only forty-five minutes. But this Monday, Croatia’s soccer team departed from the airport at 1:00 PM, and they did not arrive to the City Center until 9:00 PM that night. The streets were so packed with fans that the bus they were standing on and waving from could hardly move; they even picked up some passers-by along the way and carried them to the Center with them. Countless media rooms have already covered this event, including ABC News and Washington Post: the team’s homecoming, the music, the smoke from all the celebratory fires, the over-500 thousand people in attendance in the Square and throughout the streets, the resulting concert.
The size of the event was impressive, but what got to me more than anything else was the overwhelming feeling (even from afar while watching news coverage and live-streams on our phones) of love and gratitude throughout the nation. The country took their “loss” with grace. While it may have been gratifying to win against France after Croatia placed third against them back in the 1998 World Cup, this game (and every other game) is about more than beating France or bringing home a gold trophy. It’s about representing a larger country that fell and a smaller one that stands proud, united, and strong in its place. There’s still healing to do, in every sense of the word, but this country of 4.5 million accepts blessings where it can find them, and offers grace and gratefulness in return. Whether it’s one man boosted above the crowd, reminding the rest of the unity across borders, or an eighth of all of Croatia’s population showing up in the city center Square to welcome and and celebrate their representing team home, Croatia is always reminding its people of where it’s been, its faith in where it’s going, and all the love it has for the people who are taking the journey with it. Croatia’s silver cup runneth over, but their love and pride just keeps pouring in… Because, as Croatians say, “Malo nas je al’ smo tu.” (“There’s not many of us, but we’re here.”)
McKenzie Lynn Tozan lives and writes in Northern Chicago with her family and two cats. She creates high-converting copy, content for client websites and socials, and assists writers in creating and publishing their best-selling books. She also loves telling stories, writing poetry, and reviewing books. Her essays, poems, and book reviews have been published by The Rumpus, Book Page, Green Mountains Review, Rogue Agent, Thank You for Swallowing, and many others. For more, you can check out her website, or find her on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook.