It may shock many of my friends that over the last few weeks I have been glued to the World Cup football matches. Especially, as it was probably 50 years ago or so since the last time I saw a football match. My father would drag me to matches played at Randall’s Stadium in New York. To be honest, I enjoyed the hot dogs more.
Early one morning, weeks ago, our telephone rang. Calling were French friends I’ve known since the last time I watched a football match. Remember, that was about 50 years ago.
Henri asked me whether I was related to Ante Rebić, a member of Croatia’s national team in the world cup. Suddenly, I realised a member of the team was probably a very, very distant relative as my understanding is that my branch of the family may be from Imotski before they moved on to Vrlika.
Football was becoming interesting!
So, it was with a broad smile on my face when I realised, reading Croatian news web sites, that the whole country is suddenly gripped with football!
Because, I, too, was “gripped”! I literally had “la grippe” (the “flu” in French). I was hooked. Soon, I knew all the players and Jeffrey, my partner, was hooked too!
Suddenly friends from all parts of my life began to call and email us.
“Did you see the “match?” “Yes, I did,” I could reply. I had the flu, I was feverish! Maybe I, too, have a “srce vatreno”
When Croatia beat England, I interrupted a committee meeting which Jeffrey was attending at the local historic society and I, breathlessly running in, blurted out “CROATIA WON!!!!”
Astonished at my sudden appearance, my partner Jeffrey said: “Could you believe that gay men would be talking about sport results?”
All the committee members burst out laughing. I was conflicted. Now it was Croatia vs. France. Not unlike asking me whether I would prefer my mother over my wife or my wife over my mistress.
Sunday, for the finals, Jeffrey and I were going up to the Adirondacks for a short vacation. We woke up early to get on the road to make sure we could watch the game. We arrived about 45 minutes late. Our hosts had already tuned to the match. We said a perfunctory “hello” and sat in front of the television.
More emails from long-lost friends were coming in: “Are you watching???” “Yes,” I replied on the small keyboard as I tried to follow on the very small TV. The results were disappointing.
I tried not to be in a funk all day. But, it was good to understand you could lose but have dignity, self-respect and be proud you competed! Croatia won the silver, not the gold, but still it is the smallest nation, after Uruguay in 1930, to ever get this far! The next day I told myself “Cheer up! They were incredible. And I learned something new: winning also involves losing!”
I watched a “live stream” of the “Fiery Hearts: Pride of Croatia” arriving in Zagreb. Over 550,000 people welcomed the team. The team’s trip from the airport to the capital city, usually a 45-minute taxi ride took the “Fiery Hearts” six hours as people literally poured onto the highways and streets.
The web stream of the team’s progress from the airport to the city was incredible. The main square of Zagreb was packed. Jeffrey was watching with me. “Where are they?” he would ask, trying to remember the locations in Zagreb we visited a year ago.
I would comment: “See that church I think is on Frankopanska ulica, they just passed the opera house!” Jeff became more excited…as they turned on to Ilica… “See, that is NAMA, they are about to enter the main square!” – I explained. More incredible, was when I saw this hand-made sign raised in the main square.
It reads: “Rebić, marry me!”
Well, it was NOT meant for me. But I did learn something. And, it was the second marriage proposal from a woman I received in my life. The previous, was just a few days before, after she found out I was Croatian, and she is a famous American actress. Football this summer taught me a lot of things: Sometimes, we need try new things and do things we normally would not do. Sometimes, the smallest things can connect us with others, we should find more things to connect us and less to divide us. Sometimes, we won’t win but we will never win if we are not willing to take the chance of losing. Sometimes, we have friends everywhere; even those who are long-lost but still remember us.
I thank all my friends and colleagues for having taught me a lesson I would never have understood.
So, the next day after Croatia’s loss of the gold, I’m sitting in an Italian restaurant in the Adirondacks.
Our hostess asks me whether I can recognise the restaurant owner’s accent. I reply that it sounded Croatian to me. Some of the staff was indeed from Croatia. They told me my Croatian was excellent, as I made grammatical mistake, after grammatical mistake.
Thankfully, we paid in cash. Had I paid by credit card with my last name on the card, I would have probably received a third marriage proposal!
So, I’ve learned important lessons this summer…and my non-Croatian friends did to. Most importantly, they now know where Croatia is. In elementary school, when I said Croatia was directly across from Italy, I was actually asked: “Is your family from Africa?” …But, that was a long, long time ago…
Text by Michael P. Rebic