Hrvoje Polan/AFP/Getty ImagesA Croatian football fan sitting in front of an art installation showing a former Yugoslav National Army tank in collision with a small red car, commemorating an actual event regarded by many as marking the beginning of the 1991–1995 war, Osijek, eastern Croatia, 2012

This is the fifteenth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.

 

The summer of 1990, for those who lived in what was then Yugoslavia, was something like the summer of 1939 in Europe: warm and easy-going, spent mostly on the beach with a cold beer in hand, or—if you were far from any sea or lake—in the shade of a tree or a tall building, comfortably cooling your feet in a washbowl. No one expected the sudden break-up of that Balkan country, or at least not me, then an eleven-year-old boy.

I was busy playing soccer on my street in my hometown, Zagreb, where there was little traffic in the warmer months. In our games of four-a-side, the doors of the driveways of my house and the house across the street served as goal posts. I was the goalkeeper for the Street Team’s “Left Side,” imagining myself as Tomislav Ivković, a Croatian player who was the goalkeeper for both the Yugoslav national team and Dinamo Zagreb back in the 1980s. Ivković lingered in my mind whenever I leapt to catch the old leather ball, frayed from the same asphalt that scraped my knees and elbows when I had to defend penalty kicks taken by our neighbors opposite, after a foul or a hand-ball.

That summer, the Yugoslav team was beaten by Argentina in the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Italy, and Argentina was, in turn, beaten in the finals by the fearsome  German team led by Rudi Völler, Jürgen Klinsmann, and Lothar Matthäus. Just after Dragan Stojković, that Yugoslavia team’s great Serbian midfielder, missed his penalty, Ivković saved Maradona’s shot and became the hero of our street. The disciplined and cool-headed Croatian goalkeeper had saved the honor of a country soon to be no more by repelling a penalty by the god of football himself.

Many years later, I sat on our sofa in Zagreb with my son, now the same age as I was back in 1990, to watch Croatia play Argentina in our second match in the World Cup in Russia. Twenty-eight years have passed since the summer that’s stuck in my mind, ever after, as the end of my innocence and my country’s. But suddenly, I was taking part in a remake of that long-gone experience, made up of familiar actors: Maradona was there, in the VIP section of the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, an eleven-year-old boy was sitting next to me, and I was watching the screen in disbelief: “How on earth is Croatia going to pull this off?”

My son was perplexed. “What makes you say that?” he asked with genuine curiosity, not aware of the fears that have accumulated inside me over the past three decades, and which meant that, from the moment Argentina’s Ángel Di María kicked off the match, this question echoed in my head. I tried to tell myself that, in fact, there was every reason for Croatia to pull this off—we had a fantastic team, led by some of Europe’s best players, and entirely capable of reaching the very end of the championship. It wasn’t until the second half, though, that events began to persuade me of the truth of this.

Ante Rebić, our indefatigable young winger, took advantage of an error by the Argentinian goalkeeper Willy Caballero to score a beautiful goal. Then Luka Modrić, Croatia’s superb captain, struck an unstoppable shot from twenty-five yards that also ended up in Caballero’s goal. Now it was possible, I felt, that the mystique of great Argentina could be broken. When Ivan Rakitić scored our third goal, this new realization was confirmed. Croatia was transformed, for many of us, from underdogs into favorites.

According to the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the war machine is a concept intrinsic to human society—a model for living first forged by nomadic tribes, as they sought to temporarily preserve territory or power, that many modern states, seeking absolute control of the governed, later turned into the raison d’être of nationhood and the core of politics. Even though Croatia’s players could probably not care less for Deleuze and Guattari, they might agree with this theory—especially because many of them lived through the war and postwar period in Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s.

They, too, felt the weight of social divisions wrought by the war—the creation of new classes, the territorial battles, the struggles for lawful and unlawful possession, the manipulation of the masses by propaganda. And many of them, like today’s leading players from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Kosovo, also experienced exile, being displaced from the villages, towns, and cities where they had lived in their early years.

The Croatian team has three exceptional players who became exiles as a direct result of the conflict. Luka Modrić, for six seasons now a leading midfielder at the world’s top club over that span, Real Madrid, fled with his family to the Croatian port town of Zadar during the heavy fighting in Dalmatia in 1991; there they stayed for the five years of the war’s duration, and that was where he began playing football. Dejan Lovren, who plays for Liverpool in England, was born in the Bosnian town of Zenica in 1989, but his family fled the war to settle in Bavaria, Germany, for seven years. Since his parents were not able to resolve their residency status there, they eventually had to move back to Croatia, where the young Lovren struggled at school for a time because his Croatian was poor. Vedran Ćorluka, who’s now with Lokomotiv Moscow, spent the first six years of his life in the Bosnian village of Modran, near Derventa, in the region of Bosanska Posavina, an area that suffered heavily during the Bosnian war; and then, from 1992, he lived with his family in Zagreb.

As kids, these players had no social advantages, only challenges and obstacles, yet they made it in the mean world of professional football, where only money, physical fitness, and Kairos, the ancient Greeks’ god of opportunity and luck, play decisive roles. One can’t help but suspect that it is the hardships of their youth that has enabled them to meet with such success now, and lead this Croatian team to the semi-finals against England. Lovren once said in an interview:

When I see the refugees from Syria and other countries today, my first reaction is that we have to give these people a chance. They deserve the kind of chance my parents and I received when we left Bosnia. They don’t want to be part of the war, which was caused by others, and the only thing they can do is to run away from it.

After Croatia’s tough win against Denmark in the round of sixteen, I traveled to Sarajevo for a literary festival co-organized by the Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon, who happened to be in the United States when the war in Bosnia broke out in 1992. Hemon, whose career bears a striking resemblance to the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz’s expatriate experience after 1939, has never returned to live in his home country. Following the official closing of the festival on Saturday evening, some of the writers and poets, Hemon among them, got together in a bar to watch Croatia’s quarter-final game against Russia. Despite the lingering burdens of war, still only two decades old, most of the bar’s regular customers joined my son, who came to the festival with me, in cheering for Croatia.

Together, we celebrated when our incredible goalie, Danijel Subašić, saved the decisive penalty, and Ivan Rakitić scored the winning goal. For a brief moment at least, to me and perhaps to all of us in the bar, it felt as though the war was finally over.