Thursday, June 10, 2010

Why England?

In case you didn't know, the World Cup starts tomorrow. Some delightful student painted the spirit rock before the end of the school year, and we're still enjoying it.
Added to that enjoyment, my boss brought in her Brasil flag and jersey to hang in her office. She's feeling homesick, a little. We went by the dollar store the other day to get streamers, and she decorated her ceiling with green, yellow, and blue tassels.

I, on the other hand, typically have a little dilemma when it comes to the World Cup. See, I have two favorite teams. Fortunately, if I'm just going for colors, I'm pretty safe - red and white cover both - but if I want a flag, well, then things get complicated.

However, this year, Croatia didn't make it to the Cup. And I'm sad about that, but relieved that I won't have to have torn loyalties again. Instead, I can focus my attention on my other favorite: England.
The other day, someone asked me, "Why England?" And it caught me a little by surprise. See, I can tell you the whole story of why I love Croatia. In fact, I'll include that story at the end of this post. But I don't quite remember why I like England.
Maybe it's the red and white. Since I went into sixth grade my school colors have included some form of red and white. Perhaps, subliminally, I'm drawn to the shades.
Maybe it's St. George's Cross. I've always loved the legend of St. George and the Dragon. I'm still waiting for my brother-in-law to have time to actually make the bronze miniature of the scene he once described hoping to make about 14 years ago.
Maybe it goes back to Beckham. I definitely became more aware of England when Beckham played for them, and I still argue that there's no one more enjoyable to watch on set plays than the man who can "bend a ball" like that.
But the school color concept could be shot full of holes, probably, if I tried. And St. George and the Dragon doesn't seem to really hold up as an argument for liking a soccer team. And Beckham's not playing this series, and there are other players who I've always liked as much or more than him.
So when I was asked, "Why England?" I had to dig a little deeper to find my answer. It struck me with surprising clarity when I finally came upon it. "I think it goes back to Hong Kong," I said. "I did live in a British Territory."
I often tell people that I'm Chinese on the inside. My time in Asia and my family's love of the continent has shaped who I am. But maybe a little part of my inside is English, too. It's the part that thinks "rubbish bin," or spells "favourite" and "behaviour" with a "u." And actually, it's the part that remembers pausing on the sidewalk to watch a rugby game or cricket match at the school down the street - and yes, the part that stood by fences watched a football match out on the pitch.
Yesterday, I was sent a link to an article on the idea that "Football is War," and it reminded me of some of the reasons I love Croatia. When I have a chance, I'll post my thoughts on that football team.

"Listening Walls"
I watched it on a small TV at a friend’s house in rural Alaska. Outside my window were scruffy spruce trees and rugged mountains on a cool spring June day, on the television was a hot European summer and an old stadium in Berlin filled with fans – some in yellow and green, some in red and white. The walls of that Olympic Stadium must have shaken with the swelling sound of the crazed supporters for the opposing teams. As it came over the airwaves to me, a part of me had to laugh – I was watching this scene in a place where soccer is barely recognized as a sport (it’s not hockey, after all). But for much of the planet, the World Cup is the greatest sporting event.

It was the ultimate underdog soccer match, Croatia against Brazil. They’d made it to the World Cup again, but no one expected much from Croatia, especially playing against Brazil. There are reasons why Brazil leads the world in football. They are truly great. But, alone in the wilderness of Alaska, I was rooting for Croatia.

My love affair with Croatia began ten years earlier than that game, on a hot June day in 1996, when I landed in the Zagreb airport and headed out across the country to my friend’s home. Forty years of communist rule followed by four years of war for independence had left its mark on the countryside. The beautiful landscape, once a draw for tourists from around the world, was ravaged by bombs and landmines. The fragile economy was taking its first tentative steps toward a market system. A proud race of people looked at their devastated countryside and found it hard to muster confidence for the future. Buildings bombed at the beginning of the war were overgrown with vegetation, while the ruins of more recent battles were still charred rubble.

There was a hospital that had once been premiere in the region, which had been bombed by Serbian troops. Passing the shell of the hospital complex, I wondered at the hatred that could lead to such atrocity. We stopped outside a little town named Lipik, at the ruins of a Lipizzaner horse farm. It seemed to fit that Croatia, home to a strong and proud people, would also be home for the tall, beautiful show horses. On a tour of the farm, I learned that the Serbs had positioned themselves on the ridge, bombed the stables with napalm, and then stolen the horses that weren’t killed. At one time, Croatia had the largest population of Lipizzaner horses in the world, but the man showing us around told us with tears in his eyes that they had all been taken away. The war was not simply about land and sovereignty; it was the age-old story of brother fighting against brother – each knowing just how to strike the rawest nerve and cripple the enemy’s pride. Walking through the stable, my toe touched a half-burned name plate and I bent down to read it: Vida, “life.”

It is said that it was a soccer match that triggered Croatia’s war for independence. In 1990, violence broke out between Croatian fans and Serbian fans at a match between a Zagreb team and a Belgrade team. No one knows who threw the first stone, but the police force, mostly Serbian, allowed the Serb fans to continue and beat the Croatian fans. One Croatian player got involved and karate kicked a Serbian policeman. It was known as “the kick which started the war.” Within the month, a Croatian parliament held its first session and war began.
War in the Balkans is always a complicated matter: religion, ethnicity, and political affiliations divide people who in reality are very similar. But brutal fighting has torn the region for over a thousand years. In the Croatian war for independence, over ten thousand people were killed. At the end of it, a place that had once been a favorite stop for tourists became known as a war zone. A country that hoped to prove its potential to the world was relegated to the status of “former Yugoslavic republic.”

The experience of watching the 1998 World Cup final in France is a still image forever imprinted on my memory – a crowd of people gathered in the rain around one television set, covered with a raincoat in an outdoor café – but it is the game a day or so earlier that plays itself out on live video in my mind: the third place game. The great Oranje of the Netherlands against the unexpected Croatian team – this team, from a country that had not even existed seven years earlier, was up against one of the best teams in Europe. I watched the game in a French bistrot, surrounded by drunk Dutchmen garbed orange…and I rooted for Croatia.

I’ve been on the streets of a European city when their team is the underdog in a major match. Traffic stills; the bustle of an ordinary day quiets. In cafés and on street corners men huddle around television sets intent upon the action. No matter where you go – from hotel lobbies to police stations, cafés to grocery stores – you can find a place to watch. I’m sure that the streets of Zagreb were quiet that day. They may have even set up large television sets in public places so that people who didn’t have them could watch. When Croatia scored, I bet you could hear the roar of the crowds echo through the cobblestone streets, all sharing the euphoric experience of joy.

In the little French bistrot, I was the only one rooting for the checkered red and white team, and, for fear of inciting the drunken, orange mob surrounding me, my outward celebration at their win was subdued. But internally I thrilled with joy. I knew I was joining thousands celebrating in a little country on the shore of the Adriatic Sea. I can imagine the silent streets of Zagreb flooding with citizens, singing and celebrating all night long in the city’s square. Only three years after the end of a terrible war, a young and struggling nation had made a name for itself on a world stage. I remember images of grown men weeping, and a country celebrating together as if it had again declared its independence.

Eight years later they returned to the World Cup for an encore performance. The team’s play was not as impressive as their first turn, and early match-ups against Titan teams didn’t bode well for the little country’s success. But the Croats had not forgotten what it meant to be there, to be playing – even if they were the long shot.

The old stadium in Berlin was overrun with Croatian fans, whose voices never hushed throughout ninety minutes of play. I watched from the other side of the world, kneeling on the floor in front of the television – rising up when the play grew intense, leaning back in the few quiet moments. For the entire game Brazil out-played Croatia. And for the entire game Croatia hung in there. They only allowed one goal.

The final 10 minutes of that match were electrifying. Watching on a small television, thousands of miles away, I was engulfed by the sound that filled the stadium. Every thought I was thinking and feeling I felt were displayed in full color and noise. The commentators could barely be heard over the din, but one of them said, “And remember, this is for the team that’s losing!” The entire Olympic stadium swayed with the sound and fury of the Croatian fans, who never gave up, even as their team lost.

The Olympic Stadium in Berlin was built at Hitler’s orders. He moved the games to Berlin from Poland in 1936 with the intention of showing the world the superiority of the Aryan race, but an American Black man named Jesse Owens won four gold medals. As I watched a soccer match in that stadium on a June day in seventy years later, a little part of me wondered what those walls – built for the glory of Hitler – thought about that crowd. A group of people whose land had been wracked by genocide and war, playing their hearts out on the field, singing their hearts out in the stands, forgetting for a moment the horror they had lived – the killing and being killed – in the glory of knowing that they had made it through and were once again players on a world stage.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for commenting on my blog. This is a place I hope to explore thoughts on life and the world. I hope you'll join me in doing so.