[aka FIFA World Cup 2018]
Whether it was their first time or a tradition, residents and immigrants throughout Pittsburgh came out in bulk to celebrate their respective heritages and appreciate one another.
It’s just over an hour into the game and the 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe needs just two touches, one poke with his left foot and a thump with the right, before launching a knife into the heart of Croatia.
4-1 France leads.
“Fucking frogs,” I hear a voice dripping in frustration utter from behind me. The crowd of red checkered kits surrounding me is silent, suspended in disbelief following Mbappe’s kick to the gut. Just 20 minutes ago this was the same crowd chanting “Suba, Suba, Suba” after the Croatian keeper Danijel Subašić made a sensational save. Now, a woman next to me whispers, “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” resting her Karlovacko pilsner down on the beige countertop at Javor’s Croatian National Hall in Pittsburgh’s North Side.
The atmosphere is moot. The heartbeat null and then suddenly just before the last remnant of enthusiasm escapes, the unthinkable happens.
Hugo Lloris, the French goalkeeper, mis-dribbles the ball as Mario Mandzukic of Croatia sticks his right foot out just enough to slot the ball past the French captain and into the far corner of the net. It’s a move of pure, unadulterated will, flattered by the instincts of a world-class striker. And just as sudden as Manduzukic’s toe taps the ball, I see fists clenching in anticipation, Karlovachko’s colliding and then — the release. The roar of fanaticism at its finest. The woman next to me is howling, the once silent bar is now jumping, shouting and singing in Croatian as an IV of hope is injected back into their systems.
A smile creeps across my face. I can’t help but be smitten with this beautiful moment of raw passion. Albeit the scoreline still stands at 4-2, in just a few seconds the man who sent Croatia into their first ever final, Mandzukic once again inspires the world. His intrepid spirit, his team’s relentless defiance of defeat is embodied in that very moment. Down by 3 goals on the world’s biggest stage against a younger, faster team and yet a 32-year-old, over-the-hill striker from Slavonski Brod refused to quit. Nudging a defibrillator across the goal line. And at this moment, everyone in Javor is alive with belief, united under one emotion and captivated by sport.
This is football. This is the World Cup.
“The whole world is watching,” said 42-year-old Stina Gorsic of Gibsonia.
I met Gorsic and her partner, Kyle Milne, during the semifinal matchup between England and Croatia at Javor’s in Pittsburgh’s North Side. Milne admitted he took a half day from that work in order to watch the game. I noticed them celebrating with a hand-made poster that read “Vatreni” in red and made my way towards them. I pointed to the sign and I presumed she mistook me for being Croatian, asking me “You know what that means, right?” I shook my head no. Come to find out “Vatreni” is the team’s nickname meaning “The Fiery Ones” (also known as “The Blazers”). Fitting for a team that displayed so much heart throughout their path to the World Cup final.
I rhetorically inquire about their nationalities.
Gorsic’s response surprises me when she told me she was “Yugoslavian,” with unflinching, stern eyes. Her body language at this moment can only be characterized as fierce. To a point that it catches me off guard considering the history of Yugoslavia, the Balkan Wars, Yugoslav Wars and regional tension. I try to sidestep Gorsic’s stare to hear Milne chiming he is of Slovenian descent. Soon, Gorsic explains that for her, Yugoslavia is where her roots lay. Croatia is her adopted nation. She explained to me the World Cup is the time to celebrate your heritage — past, and present.
This notion of amalgamation was something I didn’t hear directly about until one of the final three games of the tournament, but it was something I witnessed throughout.
When I met Juan Hernandez at Piper’s Pub in South Side, we were sharing a pint of beer and exchanging pleasantries over soccer culture during the Croatia/Argentina match. Occasionally he would drift out of the conversation, locking eyes with his phone and immersing himself into a group text. Moments later he’d pop out of tech hypnosis, re-engaging with an apology for texting his friends watching in South America. The 32-year-old Hernandez was born in Argentina. This was his first World Cup watching without his friends and family back home in Buenos Aires.
He was one of the lone blue-and-white striped Argentina jerseys at Piper’s that day. He stood separate from the rest of the crowd, cussing in Portuguese after Caballero gave up a howler for Croatia’s first of three goals in an eventual 3-0 dismantling of his beloved “La Albiceleste.”
“Sampaoli started Callebero because he was good with his feet,” he said with a smirk following the opening goal. Hernandez has lived in Pittsburgh for the last two years and is surprisingly well adjusted to American sports. Even during the game, he impresses me with his critique of soccer’s newest addition, VAR (video assistant referee). This World Cup was the first-ever to utilize soccer’s version of instant replay, but for Hernandez, it is light years away from being effective.
“Nothing against technology, it is just poorly designed,” he said. According to Hernandez, FIFA should take a page from the MLB or NFL and determine what plays can and cannot be reviewable. For him, as VAR stands now, it destroys the tempo of the game. And tempo is a large part of soccer’s soul.
The next time I see Hernandez, he’s shouting from a corner chair near the entrance of Piper’s Pub donning the black-and-red of his favorite club team, River Plate — a club based out of Belgrano in Buenos Aires — during a must-win game against Nigeria. I hear him yell “El Pibe del Oro” from across the bar with a smile on his face as the camera switches to Argentinian legend and “Golden Boy” Diego Maradona after Marcos Rojo’s majestic strike in the 86th minute. The goal would cement Argentina’s fate. His team — his nation — would advance into the knockout round. He embraced a fellow Argentine fan sitting next to him, the two sharing in “What would be a dream come true” as Hernandez told me prior. The dream of Argentina winning “El Cupo del Mundo.”
There’s a unique spirit that comes with international football. Especially during the World Cup. Javor might have been the mecca of my World Cup watching during Russia 2018 considering the finale, but Piper’s was the melting pot of fans. A number of fans, including Hernandez, told me they came to Piper’s because it was “the only soccer bar” in Pittsburgh. For many, Piper’s is where they’d make their soccer pilgrimage.
And rightfully so. After all, not many bars in Pittsburgh (or America for that matter) will open at 8 a.m. just for soccer. Then again, not many bars will have a Senegalese man running up and down the aisle high-fiving fellow customers in front of a wall of frowning Polish faces before noon. Yet, such was the case after Senegal scored their first goal of the tournament against Poland. And later, for their second goal, in the same game.
Only moments later I caught him with arms wrapped around two new friends, posing for a selfie with a family of Polish fans.
What fascinating about the World Cup isn’t so much the game, the stat lines or the final scores — it is the moments. A lot can happen over 90 minutes. Yet, there’s a series of seconds, microcosms in the grand scheme of the game that unite spirits for an instant. These moments culminate, and over the course of a 32-day tournament, you witness the birth of new loyalties, preservation of new friendships and the admiration of it all. Just like Mandzukic’s goal in the final that uplifted one bar in Pittsburgh and millions across the Atlantic. There are times throughout the tournament that empower and cease any prejudices the world has created — even for just a moment — and often times you’ll find fans cheering for teams and nations they have no allegiance towards.
I witnessed an Englishman hold a business meeting at 10 a.m. at the bar during a game his native country wasn’t even playing in. Enjoying breakfast during the France/Denmark match because “this was the World Cup.”
I observed a sea of yellow jerseys flood the corridors of Piper’s for every Columbia match. Their furious chant of “Roja, Roja!” following each cynical challenge made against a Columbian player was infectious.
I was introduced to a gentleman named Scott and his wife, who moved to Pittsburgh’s South Side about two months ago from California. Scott’s wife isn’t so much a fan of soccer, but she enjoyed seeing how everyone “gets into it.” Her husband, on the other hand, has developed quite an affinity for the sport.
“I love how open it is, any team has a shot [to win it],” he said. For a man who looks more like an oil-rig worker with an undeniable allegiance towards high school football in Texas than a soccer fan, his keenness towards the latter was rather stimulating. He informed me he wasn’t much a fan prior to the cup, but he saw all the excitement happening at Piper’s and began to take an interest. He fell in love with a number of teams like the Blue Samurai.
“I love the way Japan plays. They’re impressive, their passing… they’re really exciting to watch,” he told me during a group stage match. He informed me how his friends have been teasing him for watching soccer.
“They don’t get it,” he said in a begrudging tone. Before discussing the “drama” and “tension” within the international game with a youthful enthusiasm. Something he believes the high-scoring NFL and NBA just don’t have to offer. For him, there’s an absence of conflict and buildup within those leagues. The void isn’t filled with mere point totals.
That void is something many American-born fans can’t overcome. Matt Ryan, a Duquesne University professor and Iceland supporter, admitted he never use to watch soccer. Not until a trip overseas. Ryan became enamored with Iceland during their Euro 2016 run where they upset England 2-1 in the round of 16 before a quarterfinal exit at the hands of France. Ryan was in Iceland during the tournament with his 10-month old son and saw how intense the fans were. He saw how much it meant to them and “couldn’t help but join in.”
Ryan lead a group of about half dozen Duquesne University professors to Piper’s for the Iceland-Croatia game. The group meets once a month, but for this particular venture, they weren’t missing a chance to watch the World Cup together. David Wasieleski, who also teaches at the School of Business at Duquesne, was caught rooting for Iceland during the game in a French jersey.
“It is still blue,” he joked. Wasieleski has spent a large portion of his career in France and assured me his transformation into a Les Bleus fan “was somewhat natural,” albeit his club team is still Liverpool. And when he’s stateside he tries to frequent Piper’s as often as he can for the English Premier League seeing as it is “really the only soccer bar in town.”
While Piper’s isn’t the only soccer bar in town, it remains one of the few that captures the soul of soccer — where kinships are made, differences absolved and new fans are born.
“I think ethnic clubs are making a comeback,” Fannie Dunn said. Dunn, who is of Italian descent, visited Javor throughout Croatia’s run with her husband, Jim and her son David. Dunn told me during the semifinal how she’s noticed at least one guest each game applying for membership to the club.
“Makes you wonder if they’d get this much attention if the team hadn’t gotten this far,” she said.
And while she has a point, there’s no denying the allure the tournament has had. Fans young and old, regardless of their ethnicities, found their way to Javor for the semifinal and final, whether for love of the country or love of the game.
“I’m a relatively new fan,” said 22-year-old Chris Grupper, who admittingly didn’t start watching the tournament with enthusiasm until after the Denmark and Croatia thriller. Despite being a “relatively new” fan sporting a Modric jersey, Grupper made the trip from Cranberry to North Side along with his two friends, Vincent Nerone and Gene Kelley to watch Croatia in the semifinal. The 23-year-old Nerone acknowledged he was along for the ride while Kelley added he was pulling for Mexico at first, but once they got bested by Brazil he hopped on the Croatian bandwagon.
A bandwagon that filled the halls of Javor on Sunday, July 15. While even after defeat, the room was pulsating with pride. I witnessed Croatians, Americans — humans — singing aloud to “Moja Domovina” (‘My Homeland’).
The power of a World Cup.
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