5 PM. Lily Lynch. Belgrade, Serbia.
At first, the TV screens continued to play Serbian tennis champion Nole Djokovic as he closed in on his victory at Wimbledon. The assembled sports fans had to stream the early minutes of the Croatia-France World Cup finale on their phones so as not to miss a minute of either event. Our venue, a faded cafe in a residential area of Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, served suntan oil-flavored cocktails the color of swimming pools.
In Serbia, the question of whether or not Serbs should cheer for the Croatian team was the most controversial of the tournament. The cover of Blic, one of Serbia’s major pro-government dailies–and with the exception of the small-circulation Danas, there is no longer any other kind–managed to distill the national debate into a single headline: “Is it Serbian to cheer on Croats?”
Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, touching off a war between Croatian forces and local Serbs backed by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA). Relations between Serbia and Croatia have improved in recent decades but pain and bitterness remain. The authoritarian regime of President Aleksandar Vucic exploits this pain and bitterness to its advantage daily, and during the World Cup it attacked those it decided to designate as “guilty” of having cheering for the Croatian team.
It was surprising, then, that Serbian fans erupted in applause for the Croatian team midway through the first half of the finale in Moscow. All but one table was cheering for Croatia. The enthusiasm of sports fans is spontaneous and real, something beyond the crooked hand of the state. After years of exposure to the psychedelic war porn that is the regime’s propaganda, I’d forgotten that such a Serbia still exists.
6 PM. Yonatan Raz-Portugali. Tel Aviv, Israel.
I decided to go see the World Cup Final in a pub near my apartment. I never go to pubs in my neighborhood, Florentin, because they are very loud and student oriented and they hire people to stand outside and say “good evening” when you innocently walk by. But I remembered a nice new place I saw a month ago in an industrial passage behind a supermarket on Hertzel Street, which was closed and looked a little too fancy for the neighborhood.
I wasn’t sure if was a bar or a loft someone lived in or something else. I went there on my way back from writing and when I found someone inside, installing a screen, I stepped in and ask him if it was a pub or what and if I could see the game with my wife and my mom. He smiled and said that yes it was a pub, but they also have “closed content nights” so they are only open two nights a week. But sure, we could come. Then he gave me a high-five.
When Toony (my wife) and I arrived an hour and a half later, there were ten people there. They all looked like they knew each other. When we said “hello,” and sat down on a bench, I felt like someone who had gotten a polite invitation to a party no one really wanted him to come to, but who accepted anyway. The place looked much bigger on the inside, like an urban wedding hall, with expensive vintage furniture and bare brick walls. We ordered two beers, a Goldstar for me, a Heineken for Toony.
After a few minutes, my mom joined us, and ordered a Heineken. She stayed at our place when we were at the Kibbutz because her crazy sister, who lives with her on the same street, had accused her of stealing some money and then sent a strange Whatsapp. I was a little worried and asked her to come spend a few nights with us. Even after the game started, my mom went on and on about her sister until Toony suddenly said “Let’s watch the game,” and she got offended and took her bag and said she was going back to the apartment. I said “Mom, you didn’t even finish your beer” so she took her bottle, drank the whole thing on the spot, took her bag and left.
After halftime only four people remained, so I figured the others also came randomly like us. I ordered another Goldstar, and the owner gave us free roasted seeds, which are the best football food. Toony wrote to my mom that she was sorry, and that she really cares for her and her troubles but it was too much. My mom wrote “It’s ok.”
When the French scored the fourth goal, I was a little disappointed for the Croatians because of Giovanni Rosso, an ex-Croatian international that somehow found himself in the Israeli league at the end of the 90s and stayed here, becoming an Israeli citizen and a very popular player. He was a guest at the TV panel for all the Croatia games, and they always cut to his emotional off-camera celebration when Croatia scored a goal. I liked how an ex-professional player can still love the game so passionately, like a fan, so I had hoped they would win, for him. When the game was over, in the studio, he cried.