When I bought my flight to Croatia last fall, I had no idea I’d end up there at the height of the World Cup Finals.
By Taylor McIntyre
I booked my tickets for Croatia last November. I didn’t even know the World Cup was going on at the time, and yet I managed to end up in France for a layover at the end of the trip, when it was France versus Croatia in the final. I was in the airport at the time, but the mood there was super tense. Because it was a small flight, the gate agent even asked us if anyone had connecting flights they needed to make, or if we were fine delaying the flight. And everyone wanted to stay in the terminal and watch the final game.
It was surreal to experience the game from both sides like that — to be cheering with the Croats and then mingling with the France fans as their team proceeded to victory.
It was surreal to experience the game from both sides like that — to be cheering with the Croats and then mingling with the France fans as their team proceeded to victory. The two vibes couldn’t have been more different. France was definitely more Westernized. It was like being at a Yankees game with a bunch of drunk people. I felt more of a connection with Croatia because there was this underdog sense of being the little country that finally had a shot at winning.
Even though Croatia lost by a lot, they still celebrated as though they had won. It was such a huge accomplishment to even make it that far — and to have the rest of the world talking about their country.
Americans, many of whom could probably barely identify Croatia on a map, were buying their merchandise. My uncle called me from the U.S. and asked me to bring back jerseys for him.
Truthfully, my friends and I were mostly there to sail around the coast of Croatia. But when we first arrived late in the small town of Split, we went to the nearest diner for dinner, and there were a bunch of little kids running around, and they had a giant sheet up they were projecting a Croatia game onto. Even though I had no idea what anyone was saying, you could tell that they were cheering. It was kind of a surreal feeling to be in this little village immediately after we’d all bought our Croatia jerseys. They clearly knew we were Americans when we walked in, but because we had their jerseys on, they welcomed us in like we were their own and gave us free drinks and food.
Some of them were refugees who were picked from a camp, and they basically led the soccer team to the finals.
We came in the middle of the game, and we were sitting next to a guy who spoke English. He told us about the Croatian soccer team, which had a lot of leading players who were immigrants or refugees. Some of them were refugees who were picked from a camp, and they basically led the soccer team to the finals.
I don’t follow soccer, but this felt like a big thing to take in because right now in Europe and the United States, we have this huge refugee crisis, and people have really strong opinions about it. But for once, people were simply rooting for a team and finding common ground in that — kind of like we were as total foreigners.
I was there when they were in the quarter-finals, semi-finals, and then ultimately the finals. It was really cool to see how soccer could bring together an entire town. They were blasting red fireworks, and little kids were celebrating and dancing. The whole world was watching. It’s very rare for people to even know where Croatia is, and yet it was packed with people from all over the world.
At night, the streets would fill up. There were people standing on each other’s shoulders watching outside of bars, and the bars there are not like sports bars in the U.S. where you have giant flatscreen TVs on every wall. It’s literally just an old-fashioned VHS TV sitting in the middle of the room, and there are a thousand people huddled in front of it and cheering.
Croatians are big into sailing, so there were a lot of people that lived on their boats with their families, and they, too, were following the game through their radio sets. It was cool to see everyone so connected and in touch with each other.
Croatians generally tend to stick to themselves. Many of their towns are small and old-fashioned. You couldn’t use your credit card anywhere. When you ordered food, you got what you got. There was no “I’m vegan” or “can I have a side of this?” Nope. Ham, eggs. That’s it. If you wanted an iced coffee, you got a plain black drip coffee with a side of sugar and maybe some milk.
The only thing that counted was our shared excitement.
Of course, they’re not generally big fans of loud Americans or Brits. But when we rooted for their soccer team and made a genuine effort to learn about their culture and history, they were more than welcoming. One time we didn’t have any cash on us, so we were just wandering around wondering what we were going to do. And the people working at a little deli shop nearby encouraged us to come in and gave us free food.
Their hospitality was not an anomaly either. The Uber driver who picked me up from the airport offered me a bite of his cake. I said “no thank you,” and he pulled over at a gas station to get some napkins and water bottles. It looked like he didn’t even pay for anything. He walked in, talked to this guy, got a water bottle, and offered it to me.
I also didn’t see many people my age. Everyone was either really old or really, really young; there was no in-between. It was interesting. Young people either move away, or they are in the city. They also don’t have a strong social media culture there. If they were on their phone, it was to call someone. There’s no Snapchatting. Of course, it’s second nature to me because it’s literally my job, but when I took out my phone, people were like, “What are you doing? Only the tourists are filming this.”
And in a way, being around people who weren’t looking at their phones gave me permission to exist directly in the moment. The documentation didn’t matter. The language barrier didn’t matter. Our different backgrounds and nationalities didn’t matter. Our reasons for being there didn’t matter. The only thing that counted was our shared excitement.
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Oh, and if you’re kind of a language nerd, we recently published something on our magazine about the Serbo-Croatian language.