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Lessons to Learn From Croatia's Triumph

There's a secret we have to share. Our three man team consists of a Croatian and a Serbian, working together. Can you believe it? We can't either.

But our Serbian producer (Petar) is currently in Croatia visiting family, and last night, he joined ranks with the boisterous Croatians cheering on their national team at the World Cup qualifer against Iceland in Zagreb. Mixed emotions, controversial tifo, and racist chants filled his night. Here's his story....

Croatia vs Iceland for the Right to go to the World Cup.

In the middle of a crowd, it's easy to feel a part of something. Last night, I was a part of the Croatian crowd. All their nerves and excitement as they urged their national team on to qualify for the World Cup for the 4th time since they became a country in 1991, rubbed off on me. But my ethnicity and upbringing make me feel conflicted when those red and white checkers take the field.

Fans in full force

Why? I am a Serb. Not really, actually. I was born in Croatia, as my passport indicates. But, as a result of my Serbian ethnicity, my entire family had to flee for their lives when the Croatian army descended upon our homes during the Balkan War. Sadly, ours is not the only story like that. 

recent controversy in Vukovar, where the ultra nationalist political party in Croatia barred the country's president and prime minister of access to a memorial service for the victims of the Vukovar Massacre during the Balkan Wars shows that tensions still linger. The cause of the protest? Bilingual street signs. Yes, Croatian street signs with 'intolerable' Serbian translations, despite the village being more than 30% Serbian.

Last night, Croatian supporters at Maksimir Stadium showed their support for that same protest in Vukovar. They unfurled a banner with a Catholic cross as well as the state and national flags, a 'Never Forget' type tribute to the 264 people who died in 1991. 

Symbol supporting the Vokuvar anti-serbian initiative

But at kick off, the focus turned to the match. From the start, Croatia dominated play. Luka Modric ran the midfield with the precision and relentlessness of a metronome. 

Opportunities were forthcoming

The chances were very forthcoming for Croatia, and in the 27th minute, Mario Mandzukic scored to put the Vatreni in the lead. Not long after, he was shown a straight red for a studs up challenge on Johann Gudmundsson. Despite being on 10-men, Croatia ran Iceland off the park, and went 2-0 after a sneaky effort from captain Darijo Srna.

Two goals were good enough for a crowd yearning to see their team make it to the big dance. But like most Balkan stories of strong spirit, the night ended in controversy. It was an event marred by a racial statement just as silly as the protests in Vukovar. 

Defender Josip Simunic, famous for his three yellow card game in the 2006 World Cup, grabbed the microphone during the lap of honor and led the crowd in a virulent chant of gratitude and excitement. The issue: He was shouting the war cry of the pro-nazi, and very anti-Serbian, Croatian puppet regime from WWII which massacred countless Serbs (including my great-grandfather), Jews, and others in the 1940s. Croatia has been fined and banned by FIFA several times for this very chant. The eery throw back was magnified by the Nazi arm salute it accompanies.

Fans chant the chant

This is not me by the way, but in a what how it felt.

So there I stood, a Croatian-Serb, the enemy, in the midst of a blood curdling song to the football Gods. Was I offended?  In short, no, I wasn't. First and foremost, I belong to a generation that wants to put the sad and needless atrocities of the war behind us, and move forward as a modern European nation.  Second, if you translate the words, the chant just isn't that bad. 'For the homeland! Ready! Ready! For the homeland! Ready! Ready!'

Seeing Croatian fans young and old sing this song, I felt calm at their desire to express their joy at qualifying for the World Cup.  Simunic responded to the uproar with, 

“any political context of my statement which was driven solely by my love toward my people and my country, and not by hatred and destruction."

It's the stigma of the words which are at the root of the issue.  I don't want to minimize the undertones of the chant, or somehow be apologetic for blatant racism, but I do think there is something here for all football fans to learn from.

 

For so many, football fanaticism is a way to express both national anger and pride. In Latin countries, the poor and disenfranchised turn to violence at games or outside stadiums to show their discontent. During the Balkan Civil War, the primary recruiting grounds for soldiers were football clubs. But last night, the fans were expressing the love for their country, and their joy for qualifying. I am not so naive to think that there weren't racist undertones to those chants, and that many in the crowd believed in the racism behind those words. Yes, they should have something else to sing, but for many, they were expressing pure football joy.

Brazil was on everyone's mind

And that is the lesson to be learned. Leave the politics and the hate at the door.  Let the pride and passion flow freely. As the Unites States defines its own soccer identity, it has a chance to mirror the devotion and fervor those fans in Zagreb showed last night, and leave the rest behind. I'd hate to see an anti-Obamacare rant at a D.C. United match, or racist chants regarding increased border security at a Houston Dynamo match.

Removing all that will not only create a more pure fanaticism, but eliminate the potential for disunity within the multicultural fan base of the USMNT. The United States can grow into an inclusive and united soccer nation, rather than basing its passion on anger. No one supporting the U.S. should ever have to worry about their ethnic roots, or feel conflicted as I did, in the middle of the crowd. That way, all Americans can scream without fear of offense, U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!.