It was a pure coincidence that I happened to be in Zagreb during the final of the world cup – which, to the surprise of everyone, France was going to play against Croatia. Even the Croatians themselves hadn’t expected to reach the finals (for the first time in history) and so the preparations were spontaneous, almost hesitant. Only on the morning of the big game did the main square get transformed. The balconies were wrapped in flags and the big statue of Ban Josip Jelačić on his horse got dressed with a huge flag around his shoulders.
We had to change our initial plan of watching the game at the main square Ban Josip Jelačić as it was already packed with people a couple of hours before the start of the game. Nobody wanted to miss this event, not even those who couldn’t care less for football. The city was full of people in Croatian shirts, from the grandma to the new-born.
Many people were wearing red and white ties – not because they wanted to be formal, but because Croatia actually claims to have invented the tie. Ironically, during the Napoleonic wars it was the French who became intrigued by the unusual, picturesque scarves distinctively knotted at the Croats’ necks and adopted it. The word “cravate” in French is apparently a corrupt French pronunciation of the word Croate. And of course, on this particular weekend not only locals were dressed like this, but also Asians and other tourists – the euphoria was contagious.
Even though the colours of the two teams were the same, it was obvious that only Croatian supporters were here thanks to the emblematic red and white checkerboard, which you can also find on the middle of the flag. “I really hope Croatia wins today, it would be so much more than just a victory for the football team but also a victory for the whole country, a sign of unity and hope for the future”, said Kristina, a 29 year old Croatian.
“We are a very young country and with our difficult past and the challenging current economic situation, a victory would bring us more together.” Croatia indeed has had a difficult past, having seen a change of regime many times in the last years, from being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Socialist Yugoslavia and finally becoming independent in 1991. Kristina’s words made us hope for a Croatian victory even more.
Ćevapi, pivo and football
Having realised there was no chance to watch the game from the main square, we bought the typical Ćevapčići (minced meet with bread and onions) and a few Ožujsko beers (Croatia’s most popular beer) and went to Zrinjevac park instead, one of the big parks in the heart of Zagreb. We found a spot where we could see more than two thirds of the screen – not too bad.
I had expected to be able to tell the course of the game just by watching the fans – which turned out to be a wrong assumption. Even though the two goals for Croatia provoked loud screaming, lightning colourful fires and starting chants, to my big surprise I almost didn’t notice the first goal for France. Sad faces, for sure, but no boos or angry shouts as I’ve seen in other countries. The fans seemed very fair, even though with every following goal of Les Bleus, the hope of the Croatians faded noticeably.
Therefore, the surprise at the end of the game was even bigger: only a few minutes later, the Croatians were smiling again and started singing and shouting. “We are still proud of what we achieved”, a Croatian told me. The streets were packed, in every corner there seemed to be a party. We joined happily and couldn’t stop smiling as we watched fireworks being lit in the middle of the street, people waving enormous flags, and passing cars being shaken by the crowd. Even two police officers couldn’t hide their emotions, so people ended up taking selfies with them to the amusement of everyone.
The next day, we walked around in the city, and even though it was Monday and not the weekend anymore, there were way more people in the streets than I’ve seen on Saturday. It was a day of celebration and if we hadn’t known better, we would have believed that Croatia won the world cup. At 2pm the national team would come back home from Russia, so everybody wanted to welcome them.
I wanted to head South instead and took the bus at 4pm to Zadar – a huge mistake. After only ten minutes of driving, we had to stop. The crossing in front of us was blocked, thousands of people were standing there and the whole traffic stood still. We waited and waited. After one hour, I lost hope and started thinking whether I would have to stay another night in Zagreb.
Two hours later, a police helicopter arrived, flying close above us. Many people left the bus to go and have a look, and since the bus couldn’t go anywhere anyway, I did the same and approached the crowd. Just in time! The bus with the national team just passed, the guys standing on the roof, waving flags and celebrating. Our long wait got compensated! It was a fun experience to be part of this and I didn’t mind that we arrived 2,5 hours late in Zadar.
The owner of the sunset hostel I’m staying at in Zadar, Marina, told me that she’s been watching the game at the hostel and that many of the guests were actually from France! So she ended up wearing a French t-shirt while a French guy wore the Croatian t-shirt. “It was such a great night – full of joy and mutual respect!”, she told me. “We are so happy we became second – and to be honest, it’s much better that France won, because they would have been very sax if they’d have lost. Like this, everybody is happy!”