Thoughts during the EURO and Happy Birthday to Croatia

One of my friends was more than right when she advised me to keep enjoying the city in the first few weeks of my arrival: “Because once you start working, you won’t have much time.” How true. It feels as somebody has been shortening the hours within a day since I decided to contribute to the gross domestic product of the United States of America. The last time I contributed to this “blog” was over a month ago. And this is not attributable to laziness. New York City is a demanding host.

The past weeks have been characterized to a large extent by the Euro 2012. It did not take me by surprise that Americans, and even many foreigners who have been living in the States for several years, do not care about soccer in general, not to mention the European Championships in particular. There has never been a serious chance to outstrip traditional U.S. media sports, such as baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. Interestingly enough, all these sports offer significantly better advertising environments by nature, which big media corporations have not been shy of leveraging. 45 minutes of uninterrupted live content must be a major inconvenience from their perspective. Anyway, this is a separate topic. There have been plenty options to watch the games.

Major international soccer tournaments (i.e. World Cup and Euro) have been an essential part of my life ever since Sweden 1992. At the age of five and a half, I followed the event that ended in one of the biggest surprises in sports history. Former Yugoslavia was disqualified with good reason and got replaced by Denmark, the underdog that finally won the title. Ever since, soccer has been among the very top personal highlights within all even-numbered years – and will continue to be so.

For Croatian people, the national team has always been more than just an assembly of players running after a ball in order to win games. It played a crucial role in the establishment of Croatia’s independence and served as a symbol of unity between Croatian people all over the world. Today, the country is celebrating its 21st birthday. Those who are a few years older than me remember the early nineties even more clearly and know everything about the dramatic circumstances under which the independence was proclaimed. It took guts to do it. There were hardly any military resources around, while the powerful aggressor had everything. Croatia had to go through the most miserable years since its people arrived to the territory back in the seventh century. But in the end, there was justice and the war was won. Croatia’s first president, Dr. Franjo Tudjman, once said that soccer shapes the national identity just as much as wars do. It might be a radical comparison, but I am sure that most Croatian natives can comprehend it to some extent.

I have always found it difficult to understand those who are completely indifferent to their country of origin. In discussions with people from all over the world it becomes clear that many young men and women see themselves as cosmopolitans with no specific emotional bond with their homeland. In such situations, I am never sure whether to empathize with them or to feel sorry. Maybe it all depends on current affairs during specific periods within one’s personal development. Maybe it depends on other factors as well. However, it is certainly not a personal decision, but a natural sentiment. Patriotism can neither be learned nor given up.

The Euro 2012 has been tough to watch from this point of view. Even objectively, Croatia’s elimination in the group stage was not deserved. With a big heart and a strong desire they proved that there should have been a place for them in the quarter-finals (not to mention the disastrous referee failures throughout the match against oh-so-almighty Spain). They had all the chances, but in the end, they did not take any of them. And still, there is good reason to be proud of the team, because they demonstrated real unity, iron will, and an excellent playing ability.

This weekend, four countries celebrated their advancement to the semi-finals: Portugal, Germany, Spain, and Italy. Congratulations! Croatia missed their brilliant opportunities to make it there, but instead, the nation is celebrating its independence today. It is a day when we proudly think of the heroes who enabled the Croatian people freedom and democracy. Sretan rodjendan, zivjela vjecno!