The Start Of An Unconventional Love Affair [Zagreb].

18 Feb

It was a midweek afternoon in November and I was being battered by the elements. When I’d left the flat the sky had been slightly grey, but the air had been dry, and so I hadn’t thought to take a coat with me. But now, as the heavens opened above me, I wasn’t as bothered by it as I might have been. In fact, even as the water mixed with the gel in my hair – Aaah, gel. Remember how it used to be standard to wear gel? This was 2003, after all – and ran down my face in streams, meeting on top of my eyeballs to create an uncomfortable stinging sensation, I remained still and focused on the spectacle that was taking place before me. My face was pushed up against the wall; it was the only way I could get a proper view of the action, peering through the gap between the bricks and the metal gate. Every now and then a car would stop at the red traffic light behind me, while its passengers eyed me curiously, speculating amongst themselves about what I was up to and why it was important enough to keep me out in such torrential rain and gale force winds.

And then Ačimovič threaded a beautifully time through ball, which Zahovič latched on to before lashing in a ferocious shot from just outside the box that flew past the goalkeeper and nestled in the back of the net. I stood there for another hour or so, the only spectator to the Slovenian national football team’s final training session before they travelled down to Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, to play the first leg of the qualification play-off for the European Championships of 2004. At the end of the session, as the squad boarded the team bus in front of the players’ exit, I stood and wished them good luck. There was no security, no bodyguards, not even any members of the press. How different to England, I thought. I didn’t know any words in Slovenian then, so expressed my best wishes in English. Some of the players offered up a quick, “Thanks,” as they climbed aboard; others didn’t notice my presence. The bus disappeared around the corner and I made my way to a nearby pub to dry off.

Peering in to the Bežigrad Stadium, designed by the same man that created almost all that is beautiful in Slovenia’s capital, Jože Plečnik. Sadly the stadium was closed in 2008 and then torn down.

My life had been turned upside down over the past week in the build-up to that midweek afternoon. I had only arrived in Slovenia a couple of days before, after being told by my criminal Italian boss that I was no longer needed in the hostel in Rome that I had worked in for the past ten months. There had been no warning; it was just time for a change, he had told me. I felt ready to leave Italy behind anyway, as my health wasn’t in the best of states. A year of constant drinking, working and partying, without getting any proper sleep, will do that to you. But before returning to England I had taken the long train journey to Ljubljana to see one last time the girl that I had fallen in love with earlier in the year when she’d worked through the summer in the same hostel. I wasn’t staying with her, but rather another friend, and during the day both girls went off to University, leaving me with time to kill and nowhere in particular to go. And that is how I found myself on that rainy afternoon peering through the gap in the wall of the Bežigrad stadium (Stadion Bežigrad), after I’d heard the sound of a whistle come from inside as I passed and curiosity got the better of me, my interest heightened when I spotted Spurs midfielder Milenko Ačimovič taking part in the practice match. And now, as I sat in the pub, drying off next to the radiator and sipping my pint of Union beer, I felt a bond with the country that I was in. After all, how many others in the country had just seen the players off and into battle with their bitter rivals from across the border? I had just been face to face with the 11 men that in a couple of days’ time would be representing the nation’s two million citizens, playing for the chance to qualify for their third successive major championships. I had to be at that game.

“Kris, I have to go away for the weekend,” my friend told me as I returned to her flat later that evening. “You can stay here with my family if you like, but I don’t know how comfortable you will be.”

“No, that’s okay. I’m going to go down to Zagreb to try and get a ticket for the game,” I told her.

And on the Friday afternoon I packed a few items of clothing into a bag and jumped on the Ljubljana to Zagreb train. I sat reading in a carriage on my own, hearing the singing and chanting coming from the travelling Green Dragons (the hardcore supporters’ group of Olimpija, the capital’s football team) who were congregated further up the train. As we approached the frontier they got louder, until the Croatian Border Police came aboard and silenced the crowd with their no nonsense approach. These policemen were built like Ivan Drago from the film Rocky IV; I certainly wouldn’t be causing any trouble.

“How long are you staying in Croatia?”one of them grunted at me, as he inspected my passport.

“Just a couple of days,” I told him.

“And why are you coming here?”

“To watch the football,” I replied, hoping he would smile, before wishing me a pleasant game.

“But you are from England. Why are you travelling to watch this one?”

I hadn’t been expecting this and now I grew fearful. What if he decided he didn’t like the look of me and sent me back to Ljubljana? I decided it was best not to be entirely truthful with him about my new found affection for Slovenia, as I had been well educated by my Slovenian friends about the rivalry that bordered on hatred between the two countries, and so just offered up, “I am a lover of all football. I just enjoy experiencing different games.”

He stamped my passport, passed it back and said, “Enjoy the game.”

I changed my Slovenian money for its Croatian equivalent at the window and then exited the station and crossed the road to sit underneath the statue of the man on the horse while I studied the free map of the city I’d just picked up, looking for a nearby hostel. There was one just around the corner. The imaginatively named Zagreb Youth Hostel was five floors high and was a member of Hosteling International (HI). I entered through the large metal doors and asked the middle-aged woman behind the desk if she spoke English.

“A little,” she growled, blowing cigarette smoke into my face.

I paid for a room, gave her my passport as a deposit and then carried the sheets and pillow case she gave me up the stairs to the third floor, where I found my dormitory and unlocked it with the key. There were eight beds, one of which was already taken, the territory having been marked with a rucksack. I picked a bed in the corner and pulled the sheet over the mattress, and as I was doing so a Chinese guy of about the same age as me walked into the dorm.

“Hey,” I greeted him.

“Hello,” he said back, smiling.

The year I had spent working in the hostel in Rome had provided me with the habit of talking to every guest, and this occasion was no different. I asked him where he was from and what he was doing in Zagreb, and was very happy to hear that he was in the city for the game. Until that point I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to how I was going to get my hands on a ticket for such a big match, but now I had the opportunity to find out.

“I have just bought my ticket,” my new friend told me. “I went to the stadium and got it from a guy hanging around outside.”

“A tout?”

“Yes, that is the word.”

I didn’t like the sound of this. Tickets from touts tended to be expensive, and I wasn’t exactly loaded.

“How much did you pay?” I asked tentatively.

“I paid 130 Kuna.”

I did a quick calculation in my head and was surprised.

“130 Kuna? That’s like 12 English pounds. Was it really that cheap?”

“Yes.”

I asked him to mark on my map where the stadium was and how to get there from the hostel, which he kindly did. And half an hour later, after a couple of tram rides surrounded by rush hour commuters, I found myself staring up at the Maksimir Stadium, home to Dinamo Zagreb. It was getting late in the evening and darkness had fallen over the city. The stadium’s lights were on but the area seemed empty of people. I entered the stadium’s complex through a gate and set off on a lap of the outside of it, keeping my eyes peeled for any dodgy looking characters that would be able to sell me what I needed. My luck was in, as a stocky guy with a shaven head, wearing a dark hooded jumper, hissed in my direction before saying something in Croatian. I looked at him hopefully, despite not understanding what he had said, and then asked him in English if he had a ticket for me. He replied, “You want ticket? No problem.”

“Great. How much is it?” I asked, still not really expecting it to be as cheap as the Chinese guy had said.

“For you, 130 Kuna.”

I handed him the notes and he passed me the ticket, even taking the time to translate the details printed on it for me, and pointing to the area of the stadium that I would have to enter the following day.

“Hvala,” I thanked him using the only Croatian word I had learnt.

“You’re welcome,” he replied. “Enjoy the game.”

Zagreb’s Maksimir Stadium.

It wasn’t how I had expected a transaction with a shaven headed ticket tout in Eastern Europe to go. It was courteous and friendly. And cheap. I feared that I had been ripped off and the ticket was a fake, but even if it was, it hadn’t been an expensive lesson. I could afford to take a chance for £12. I made my way back to the hostel a happy and tired man, picking up a slice of pizza and a piece of cheese burek (a deliciously greasy pastry type dish) along the way. The Chinese guy was reading in the dorm when I returned, and the first thing we did was compare tickets to check that they at least looked similar. They did, although we were in different parts of the stadium; he was behind the goal, I was right on the half-way line, in the top tier. After a quick chat, in which I found out that my new friend was on a trip around the continent, primarily visiting different stadiums and going to be big matches, I was ready to get my head down for the night. The light was turned off and we got into our separate beds.

I dozed off quite quickly, but was woken at about 3 in the morning by movement and whispering in the room. The light was still turned off, but the door was slightly ajar, letting in a small stream of illumination from the hallway outside. In the door stood a large and scary looking guy in his early twenties, who was whispering in what I guessed was Croatian with another large scary looking guy who was pacing around the dorm. Suddenly I was nervous, believing that they had broken in and were looking to steal from us foreign guests. I didn’t have anything of value, apart from the ticket and my mobile phone, but I did have about £50 worth of Croatian currency, which would probably seem like a lot of money to a couple of Eastern European robbers. The slow breathing pattern of the Chinese guy in the other corner of the room let me know that he hadn’t been disturbed and was still sleeping peacefully. I thought to myself, ‘I hope he knows Kung-Fu’. The two large men continued their conversation and their pacing around for a good quarter of an hour; the whole time I lay watching out of one eye, whilst pretending to be asleep. I wished I understood Croatian. And then the door was shut, one of them left and one of them got into a bed and went to sleep. They weren’t there to rob the place. Just as well, because if they had been, me and my Kung-Fu master friend would have taught them a lesson they’d never forget.

I woke at around 9 and made my way to the communal shower, fully expecting to pick up a verruca or two from the dirty tiles on the floor as I stood under the cold water. The Chinese guy was going to meet a friend in the city, so we arranged to meet later on at the stadium and then went our separate ways. The sky was grey, but it wasn’t raining and it wasn’t too cold either. Using my map I made my way to Ban Jelačić Square (Trg bana Jelačića), Zagreb’s main square and most popular meeting place, where already the army of red and white checkered shirt wearing supporters were congregating, jumping around, drinking pints, chanting in deep voices and dancing underneath their national flag. The atmosphere was intimidating, and I would not have liked to be a Slovene accidentally turning up in the square. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable being a non-Croat of any kind. I left the square behind and soon found myself in a much less threatening environment; a Fans’ Park, set up by Nike, the sponsors of the Croatian team and providers of the playing kit. The park was packed full of fans of all ages; every single person wearing the red and white checkered shirts and jackets. Nike had set up a collection of different games, ranging from Kick the Ball through the Hoop, to a Keepy-Uppy competition, to Header the Ball into the Convertible Car from a Distance, to Dribble around the Cones. You were handed a card from one of the promo girls and then you worked your way around the different challenges, getting one of the girls to mark your score on completion of each task. If you did something well, you won a brand new Croatia home shirt. I was handed one after beating a Croat of about the same age as me in a Keepy-Uppy contest. I handed the shirt back to the girl and asked for a smaller kids’ size one, which I then gave to a young boy that was playing the games with his dad and who was one of the only kids in the park who didn’t have a team shirt. He took it graciously but excitedly, and his dad looked at me with a big smile and said, “Hvala.” He said some other stuff as well, but it was completely wasted on me. I walked away happy, remembering being a little kid at football training, the only one not wearing a replica kit as my parents couldn’t afford the ridiculous price that they went for. Even if there hadn’t been anyone there to give my prize to, though, I still wouldn’t have taken the shirt, as my team for the weekend weren’t playing in red and white; we were Slovenia and we were playing in green.

The game wasn’t due to kick-off until 5:30pm, but after I’d worked my way around the course at Fans’ Park I went back to Ban Jelačić Square and found the atmosphere twice as aggressive as it had been earlier, so I wrestled with the hundreds of large Croats all battling for a place on the tram and managed to get myself squeezed in against the glass. All the way to the stadium they chanted and sang; the atmosphere was getting tasty, and there were still over two and a half hours until kick-off. I jumped off the tram with everyone else and followed them into a burek place, feeling that if anyone knew which place served the best stuff, it was these guys. The area around the stadium wasn’t yet busy, and the gates weren’t due to open for another hour, so I crossed the main road and entered the large public park directly opposite the stadium, Maksimir Park, which was more like a large rainforest than a public park in a European capital city. With five lakes, several big meadows, numerous creeks, and housing some of the continent’s endangered species, such as the Middle Spotted Woodpecker, the park is the largest in Zagreb and one of the oldest in Europe. So large was it, in fact, that I managed to get lost in the middle and forget my way back out again. By the time I had made it back to the stadium the atmosphere had changed, as I found myself caught up in the hustle and bustle of Croatia’s hooligan element; many of whom were wearing t-shirts and hats that paid homage to their English counterparts from a bygone era. Slogans on t-shirts read: ‘England Hooligan,’ and badges on their caps depicted the cross of St. George. I felt embarrassed for these guys, as scenes like this in England had been left behind in the 80s. I felt slightly more embarrassed, however, for the skinny nerdy-looking guys that walked around the stadium dressed in Nazi uniforms and black Dr. Martin boots. At least the other guys had looked like proper hooligans in as much as they were big, barrel-chested and scary looking, with shaven heads and scars on their faces. The ones dressed as Nazis were clearly the ones that had been bullied in school and now sought some sort of feeling of power from being in a group of like-minded prats. Even the hooligans laughed as they passed these ‘Nazis’ with greasy hair and Coke-bottle glasses. Still, the Nazis strode around the stadium speaking on mobile phones, looking like they were arranging a rally. There were no women and very few children in the area; the football was still the domain of men in Croatia. There were also no Slovenes around; I guessed that their buses were keeping them away from the stadium until the gates opened.

Shortly before 4:30 I spotted my Chinese room-mate and we met with a handshake. He wanted to get in to the stadium, as the gates were now opening, so we wished each other a pleasant viewing and again parted ways. I was nervous now to see whether my ticket was genuine and would get me into the ground, so I made my way to the turnstile and, with my head down, handed my ticket to the steward. He waved me through. I climbed the steep stairs and emerged out into the stand, looking down onto the pitch below. The view was absolutely perfect. The stadium was slow to fill up, and as it did I sat in my seat watching the sun go down over the city’s high buildings. Being in the top tier of the Maksimir Stadium gave not only a great view of the pitch, but also a great view of the city. I looked across to my right, to the area behind one of the goals that had been reserved for Slovenian supporters. There weren’t many in there; in fact that area of the stadium was practically empty. I looked at my watch and noted that there were only ten minutes until kick-off. Where were the Slovenes? The referee led the two teams out and the stadium around me erupted. I stood with everyone else through the Croatian national anthem, but refrained from booing and whistling like everyone else as the Slovenian one was played. I looked across to their section, it was still empty. There must have been some problem, I thought. Still, there was a game to watch, so I didn’t give it too much thought.

The game kicked off and the atmosphere was now electric, as red flares rained down on to the pitch from high up in the stands, and firemen struggled to distinguish them without disturbing the game. And then five minutes into the game, almost as if from nowhere, the Slovenes started pouring into the stadium. I found out later that their buses had been held up for some reason or other. They might have wished that they’d been held up a few minutes longer, as in the sixth minute Croatia’s striker Dado Pršo struck to give Croatia the lead. Everyone around me went wild, and I was forced to rise to my feet with them as to do otherwise would have probably got me stabbed. I didn’t cheer, but did clap. And then the young boy of about 11 or 12 years old that was sat to my left starting speaking to me. In Croatian. I panicked; I was in the middle of thousands of large nationalist men, and I was foreign. I smiled, nodded and said, “Da, da” (yes, yes) to the boy, hoping that what he had said to me was, “That was a good goal wasn’t it?” or “Are you Croatian?” He gave me a strange look but turned away, saying something to his scary looking father in the process. His dad looked at me, I looked at his dad, and then we both looked at the game. Panic over. I looked across to the Slovenes behind the goal, who were now jumping around and singing passionately in support of their team. Oh how I wished to be in there with them, feeling safe and around people that wanted the same outcome to the game as me. I knew the Slovenes wouldn’t mind one bit that I couldn’t speak their language; Slovenes were a lot less threatening than Croats. Just under 20 minutes after Croatia’s goal, the moment of joy arrived. However it was short-lived, as I realised I had just jeopardised my life. In came the cross from the right wing, and there was Ermin Siljak to nod home the equaliser. The Slovenes behind the goal went wild. The Croats around me went silent. I went wild. Oops. I couldn’t help it; it was purely an instinct thing. I jumped up, punched the air and shouted, “Yes! Get in there!” Then I froze as I remembered where I was. Men stood up, shouting what I can only guess was disgusting abuse my way, and the kid next to me hung his head in shame. A few stewards came and stood at the end of my row of seats, but as far as I knew they were there to provide assistance to the mob that was about to kick my head in, or to provide alibis to the murderers. I wished I knew the Croatian word for sorry, but I didn’t. I sat back down, while behind the goal the Slovenes continued their party. Half-time came and despite desperately needing a piss, I stayed frozen to my seat. There was no way I was going to risk going into the toilets. Big men with tattoos stared at me throughout the interval, occasionally nodding in my direction, as if to let their friends know who it was they were talking about. This was not going to end well, but hey, at least Slovenia had scored that oh so valuable away goal.

Those Croats can be an intimidating bunch, I’ll tell you that for nothing.

Midway through the second half I noticed out of the corner of my eye the little boy next to me, staring at my face. I tried to ignore him, but after a minute I could take it no more and turned to meet him head on.

“Where are you from?” he asked me in English but with a very strong accent. Even on a 10-year old boy the Croatian accent sounded intimidating, and I found myself scared to answer, for fear of him not liking my response and slashing my face with a razor blade hidden in his top pocket.

“England,” I smiled.

He smiled back.

“Ah, England. No Slovenia?” he said, looking proud of his knowledge of my language. Then he told his dad; I heard the word Englez. His dad looked at me, I looked at his dad, and then we both looked at the game. Maybe I was going to be okay after all; maybe the meat heads around me would think I was a hardcore English hooligan from the 80s and give me a wide berth. Or maybe they would see that I was just a 20-year old boy with no muscles that they would feel ashamed to give a beating to. Eight minutes from the end, Siljak came a whisker away from putting Slovenia 2-1 up; his header going just the wrong side of the post. I jumped up again in excitement, for I am nothing if not an idiot, but managed to stop myself mid-jump and pull myself together. I looked around; no one had seen. The Croats were too busy moaning about their own team’s performance. And then the final whistle blew and everyone around me stood up, while the Slovenes carried on their party behind the goal. The announcement over the tannoy had told them that they would be locked inside the stadium for 30 minutes to give the home supporters time to leave. They didn’t mind, they were loving every moment. Meanwhile, I poured out onto the street in the sea of red and white checked shirts, each one of them being worn by a visibly disappointed Croat. Two tram rides later and I was back in the dorm, and 12 hours later I was on the train back to the safety of Slovenia. My flight back to England had already been booked for the Wednesday morning, meaning that sadly I wouldn’t be able to be in the home crowd for the second leg in Ljubljana on the Wednesday night. Just as well, as Croatia sneaked a 1-0 win to qualify for Euro 2004, while Slovenia would have to wait another six years before qualifying for their next major championship, the World Cup 2010.

Throughout those six years in the wilderness, my love for the Slovene national team only grew. A love affair that began in the rain on a midweek afternoon in November 2003.

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One Response to “The Start Of An Unconventional Love Affair [Zagreb].”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Playing England, away. « Tesco Value Beans - March 7, 2012

    […] Click here to read about my trek down into Croatia for the qualifier. […]

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