Lord knows I’m no aficionado of “the beautiful game,” also known in this country as soccer. I do my fair share of making fun of it, and have been known to joke that if the statue “Venus de Milo” were to come to life, she could be a standout soccer player. You can’t use your arms and hands if you don’t have any.
But every four years, the game takes center stage around the globe as nations large and small vie for the World Cup. Then, soccer becomes like college basketball, only instead of people trying to figure out NCAA office pools and asking “where’s Gonzaga?” they’re asking “where’s Croatia?”
It’s not that I think the entire world is ignorant of the Balkan peninsula. And I’m pretty sure that most people who are even marginally aware know that in the 1990s, what was once Yugoslavia was broken up and that the original nations that made up the land of Slavs re-emerged. But I’m sure many, if they saw the new boundaries drawn on a map, without having the individual nations identified, would be hard-pressed to pick out Croatia. I’ll admit that even I had to look it up to know for sure.
But here we are, heading toward Sunday’s World Cup final, and, by golly, Croatia has elbowed its way to the front of the line in a major way, by dispatching England Wednesday and reaching Sunday’s final against France. And curiously enough, Croatia has been my dog in this hunt.
Now, I don’t have an ounce of Croatian blood in me. There may be several ethnic components to my ancestry, but Croatian is not one of them. However, last October, my wife and I went on a cruise, and the staff on the Royal Caribbean “Serenade of the Seas” was a veritable League of Nations. One of them was Tony, who — among other things — played Alex Trebek to a room full of passengers in the daily trivia contests. Among the questions was “where am I from?” We had to guess what nationality he was.
It turns out Tony was from Croatia (as you might suspect, out of a large room full of people, not one person guessed correctly), and was extremely proud of it. He was also proud of his nation’s futbol team.
There were a fair share of sports questions in those trivia contests, and after 11 or 12 days of seeing the same people, you develop a rapport with some of them. And the staff makes it its business to schmooze with the clients as much as it can.
So it was that one day, after — once again — I’d demonstrated knowledge in some arcane sports trivia, Tony caught up with me and asked how I knew some of these answers. I told him I was a sports editor for my local newspaper.
It took him about six seconds to bring up his nation’s soccer team and how “we’re going to shock the world next year.”
Sure. Whatever you say. I knew places like Brazil, Argentina, Spain, France, Germany, Italy and England were powerhouses. But Croatia?
To that point, about the only sport I associated with Croatia was basketball. There have been quite a few Croatians in the NBA, including Dino Radja on the Celtics. I also vaguely recall hearing about a feud between Vlade Divac of the L.A. Lakers, who is from Serbia, and some Croatian players because of the animosity — even among friends — caused by the Balkanization of the Balkans.
But thanks to Tony, I now know that they play the beautiful game in Croatia too, and that Venus De Milo is alive and well there.
And I also figure that if the months of June and July are given over to this game, which I still cannot fully understand and appreciate the way I do football or baseball, having a team to root for makes it more fun.
Isn’t that the case with everything though? I can’t understand people who can sit down and watch a football game without rooting for someone, for whatever ridiculous reason. You like their uniforms better. You like the way the quarterback throws the ball. You hate the way that wide receiver pranced around the end zone as if he was Baryshnikov, so you’re rooting for the other team. Whatever.
So it is that very early in these proceedings, I kept an eye out for Croatia. And when a friend posted on Facebook that she and her husband were in Croatia, I asked her how crazy it was there. She said “very,” and that “it’s a blast watching Croatia win while you’re in Croatia.”
Even more reinforcement.
Wednesday, I was monitoring the game via computer at work and got called into a meeting just as the extra time began. By the time I got out, Croatia had scored and the game was over. I even watched the rebroadcast Wednesday night!
Come to find out that not only is Croatia the second-smallest nation (in terms of population) ever to make a World Cup final, but the country of Yugoslavia never got that far either. So, as one who loves to see the woebegone rise up to great heights, that’s another reason to know I’m in the right corner.
This doesn’t mean I hate France. I have nothing at all against the French. But I’d like to see this Cinderella story have a happy ending.
And to Tony, wherever you are, I shouldn’t have doubted you.