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!

What people can learn from an underrated Zurich hockey team

The allegedly impossible happened a week ago: Tuesday evening, April 17th, 2012. Steve McCarthy, defender of the ZSC Lions took the decisive shot for a goal that would make his team the Swiss hockey champion two seconds before the end of the regular game time and the logical announcement of a subsequent overtime. He scored. The game was over. The Lions from Zurich were declared champions in Europe’s largest hockey arena, home of their competitors SC Bern. Why is the happening worth mentioning? Because it is one of the most fascinating and impressive stories in the history of Swiss hockey. And because it offers a simple recipe of life.
Looking back at the regular season, the Lions had been struggling hard for long periods. Not only didn’t they find any effective ways to compete against formally stronger teams, but they also indulged themselves in too many mistakes against real underdogs. Throughout the year, they collected 77 points out of 50 games, which put them at risk of not even qualifying for the playoffs, the crucial knock-out stage where several teams play for the actual championship title. Nobody would have been surprised if the Lions dropped out at that point, but they managed to qualify just barely. The playoffs began. And this is when the underdog from Zurich started to shock their opponents one by one.

After eliminating the reigning champion (Davos) in the first round and the winner of the regular season (Zug) in the second round, they had to face Bern in the finals. Experts were in agreement that the Bears from the capital city had the league’s best roster at their disposal, which became evident once the two teams started to play against each other. The first team with four victories would win the championship. Bern led with 3-1. At that point of the series, nobody would have even put one penny on the Lions. Too many factors suggested an easy win by their mighty and forceful opponent. But everything came out differently. Zurich managed to turn the tables and decide the series with a strong morale, an iron will, continuous persistence, and three consecutive victories. Such a rise, from an abortive season to the most unexpected champion in decades, wasn’t even expected by some of the most optimistic and enthusiastic Lions supporters.

Here is what Bob Hartley, the winning trainer, had to say after the already mentioned final game: “That’s the image of our season. We win it in the last two seconds. What a crazy team, but that’s who we were. They battled hard all year and they believed that we could do it. And I challenged them that we would shock the Swiss hockey world, and we did. I’m very proud of my boys. The ones who believed were in our organization and that’s where it matters. Hopefully we showed people a great lesson of life: do never quit, do always persevere. And you know what, two point some seconds left, that’s unreal.”

The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary. The young team from Zurich understood the performance culture Bob Hartley has been known for in a long time. A friend of mine told me recently that some of the best things are found from tempered persistence and level-headed practicality. The Lions demonstrated this thought in an impressive way. I have never been an enthusiast for idealistic quotes and overdoses of optimism, but this example shows that Winston Churchill used to share a good amount of truth with the world:  “The positive thinker sees the invisible, feels the intangible and achieves the impossible.” He can’t be too wrong about that.