Here's an excerpt from Bosnian-American writer, MacArthur "genius" fellow, and Howler contributor Aleksandar Hemon's new e-book, The Matters of Life, Death, and More. It'll give you a little taste of how seriously this World Cup debutante nation takes its soccer.
I watched my first World Cup in 1974. Yugoslavia, my then homeland, had qualified for it in a dramatic game against Spain, in which Josip Katalinski, a player from Željezničar, the Sarajevo team I supported (and still support), scored the decisive goal, which I can replay in my head to this day. As many a ten-year-old, soccer-crazed patriot would, I passionately roorted for the national team. One of its games on the way to the inevitable elimination was against the great Polish team, featuring Deyna, Lato, Szarmach, etc. I distinctly remember the bright-green pitch, the white-and-red jerseys of the Polish team, the blue, red, and white of the Yugoslav team—even though I watched it on a black-and-white TV. I was insanely involved: I rolled on the floor and screamed with every missed chance, I beat my chest with every decision against us, while my frightened mother tried to calm me down, claiming it was just a game, and I damned her to hell for not understanding its importance.
Needless to say, Yugoslavia was losing because of a grave and systematic injustice. How else could we lose when we had my passion to drive us forward? When we were such great and decent people? It quickly became clear to me that it was all because of the referee, who made all of his decisions against Yugoslavia, because he for some reason obviously hated us. Even the Poles, it appeared, were appalled by the ref's blatant bias. At one point, the Polish player Gorgon (who looked like a Slavic god: wide-shouldered and strong, complete with blond locks) was taking his time with a free kick. I thought that even he was so disgusted with the evil ref that he was refusing to restart the game, out of sheer solidarity peculiar to the Slavs, well acquainted with injustices of this wicked world.
Shortly thereafter, naturally, I realized that the ref was disinterested, that Gorgon was willing to do anything to win the game for his team, that Yugoslavia was a lousy, loser country and was deservedly defeated by the team that nearly made it to the finals and beat Brazil, the reigning world champion, in the third-place game. But blessed are the childhood days when it is possible to see the world neatly divided between right and wrong, between the evil ref and the rest of us! How glorious it was to live with the conviction that we were always right! That's why I remember that day: it may have been the last time I was unquestionably on the right side, and how sweet was the comfort of righteousness.
A few years ago, playing in an acrimonious soccer game that I largely spent screaming at everyone else, I got into a fight with a young man named Clemente. He said something about my sister in a disrespectful manner and I kicked him in the head. I could feel the ridge of my foot catching his cheek. Of course, I was horribly sorry later, but there was a moment (and that moment was simultaneous with kicking Clemente) when I was at perfect peace, when there was a stable, solid center somewhere deep inside my fury, somewhere in the tranquil space of unmitigated self-righteousness. After a lifetime of insult and injury—or so I felt in that instant—here was an occasion to let all that accumulated anger go: he took my blow because of something that had begun, a long time ago, with an evil referee. It was after kicking Clemente in the head that I finally and fully understood what Albert Camus meant when he said: "Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to soccer." It was after I kicked Clemente—whose name could be translated as merciful—that I started my anger therapy.
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