As many of you know, I am an obnoxious sports fan for the sports I watch. When the World Cup comes up, both men's and women's, I typically watch the U.S. play - but that is about all of the soccer I watch.
This year the U.S. did not make it, but my host country Croatia did. I admit I did not watch any of the group phase games. But when Croatia won those games and advanced to the knockout phase, I was in.
For Croatia's first knockout game against Denmark, the hubs and I joined a group from the Embassy in the main square to watch the game on the big screen. It. Was. Insane! Not only was the atmosphere electric, but the shootout at the end made for a dramatic ending! Croatia won, and the city was on a high until the next game against Russia arrived.
All types of Croatian gear was being worn every day of the week, and it was getting tough to find jerseys to buy. I managed to nab some scarves for the hubs and I, but I feared I may have jinxed the team... You know now that I did not need to fear.
People were getting INTO the World Cup. Our Ambassador, who is a huge sports fan, had a friendly back and forth with the Russian Ambassador to Croatia on Twitter before the game against Russia.
Bret and I decided sitting was better for this match, so we staked out some tables at History on Tkalciceva for our large group to cheer on the Croatian team. Another game, another tense ending. Croatia comes from behind, ties it up, game goes into a shootout and Croatia again comes out ahead.
The city went wild! Celebrations went late into the night (luckily a Saturday this time), and the Embassy was buzzing all week leading up to the semi-finals against England.
Since the semi-final was on a Wednesday, the hubs and I decided to cheer on Croatia from home. The funny thing about streaming games at home is that there is a little delay. So every time Croatia scored, I actually heard fireworks before I saw the goal on my laptop. Luckily I heard more fireworks than I saw English goals, so Croatia moved on to the Finals!
I had no idea what crazy fandom looked like until the week before the Final against France. In the U.S. people rally around a sports team or tune into a Super Bowl, but to see an entire country enthusiastically cheering for ONE team - it was unreal. I was in Lawrence when the University of Kansas won the 2008 National Championship (ROCK CHALK!), and that was incredible. Take that excitement and energy, and multiply it by 1,000. THAT was Zagreb for the Final.
What I mean by crazy is this. Hours before the game people pre-game with beer (not that different from the U.S., admittedly). But about every 1 in 5 cars has a red-and-white checkered hood cover, side mirror covers or flag on it. About 4 out of 5 people sported some kind of Croatian soccer apparel. Before the game flares are lit throughout the Center of the city and horns honk. After each Croatian goal, flares fire up and fireworks go off, creating a thick smoke you cannot see through (example below). At the same time people throw their beer in the air, creating a shower of Ozujsko. And this is done at every large square and park in the city. You are so excited that you do not even care (at that moment, anyways).
The game's energy even reached us at work. Employees were allowed to wear their casual Croatian apparel, and we took a photo for our social media pages to show our support.
The rhetoric I heard all week was: "We have already made history. If we win, it will be that much sweeter." People were so excited to make history at all, and the games leading up to the Final were enough to make people grateful for the experience at all. France had a young and fast team, and everyone knew this match would be tough. Yet people were excited, positive and making plans about where to watch the game.
For the final we were lucky to have a place to watch the game with friends from work, right above the main square. We could see the craziness without being right in it.
As many of you know, France ended up winning the game, 4-2. It was tough - Croatia was so close a number of times. But the craziest thing of all, I think, was seeing the reaction to this big loss. People lit flares and fireworks, same as they did with their wins. Cars still honked. People still partied. And there was still joy in the city.
On Monday, the day after the match, the soccer players were welcomed home as heroes. About 550,000 fans gathered along their route from the airport to the Center, which is half of the population of Zagreb. The route was so well attended that it took the team six hours to drive the route that would normally take 30 minutes. Local news channels continued to show footage of their warm welcome home.
Insane. The rest of the world has a lot to learn when it comes to handling a loss. The winner, France, was destroying its own cities while the loser, Croatia, was still celebrating the chance to compete at the highest level in their favorite sport.
I have already said this, but the experience of being in Croatia when they played in the World Cup Final was incredible. The hubs and I are now dying to get to an Olympic event to try and regain some of this energy and pride!
Now, on to Chiefs football. Then Kansas Basketball. Game on.
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