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Croatia
Group Therapy: A Nation is Born

By Courtney Angela Brkic

Not so long ago, when Croatia was part of Yugoslavia, soccer was an expression of ethnicity, of political orientation, of self. Many feel that a 1990 match between Zagreb's Dinamo and Belgrade's Red Star marked the beginning of Croatia's war for independence. At the beginning of the match, fans from both sides clashed in the stands and on the field. The Serb-dominated police beat Croatian fans while allowing Serb fans to run amok, and the events caused the already bubbling frustrations with Yugoslavia to boil over. Even the players were not immune. Upon witnessing a policeman beating a fallen Dinamo fan, midfielder Zvonimir Boban karate-kicked him, becoming a hero of the growing independence movement.

The war that followed was long and brutal. More than ten thousand people were killed, and one thousand are still missing today. Not surprisingly, tourists stopped visiting the Croatian coast, and the region became associated with suffering. For a country so rich in potential, so enthusiastic about what it could achieve now that it was on its own, being classified simply as a war zone or a former Yugoslav republic was a blow.

Croatia's independence was recognized in 1992, but the 1998 World Cup brought another form of recognition. Elation had already begun to sweep the country when Croatia beat powerhouse Germany in the quarterfinals. "Is it really possible?" people seemed to be asking one another, unable to contain their optimism. In Zagreb, large-screen televisions were set up on the city squares so people could watch the Croatia-Netherlands third-place match in raucous groups. It was a Saturday, and I watched in my apartment with friends, drifting out to the balcony to listen to the excited conversations and shouts coming from the cafés below. The sound of cheers filled the air when Croatia scored. It was like the city was one gigantic living room, everyone's eyes on a single television set. Traffic all but stopped, and the street below was empty. When the game finished with Croatia the winner, people flooded the streets. They filled the main square, and that night, all night, we heard happy, drunken voices singing.

Coming nearly three years after the war ended, it was an emotional moment in a young country's history. On television, reporters interviewed grown men who could not stop weeping. The country had not seen such unified celebration since its declaration of independence. Now no one could deny Croatia its place on the map.

Courtney Angela Brkic is the author of Stillness: And Other Stories and The Stone Fields: An Epitaph for the Living.

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