Sport has never been my forte. Swimming I can manage, but only in the serenity of the Adriatic Sea. My ten-year-old outclasses me at tennis and I can hardly run to save my life. Nor am I a great spectator. I lack the patience. Or is it passion? In football terms, anyhow, I wouldn’t be what Bosnians call a ‘fantico’. Although I’ll scream at TV screens when national pride is at stake. And, to my shame, Ireland versus England brings out the raving bigot in me… Sorry!
Yes, sometimes nerds can share the adrenalin high of dedicated sports fans. Often it’s found in the buzz of rooting for the underdog… particularly if that lowly side comes from somewhere special. So count me among the supporters of the soccer team from Bosnia and Herzegovina! As reported by the global media, their qualification for World Cup 2014 made history. More importantly, on the domestic front, it brought huge joy to our house. Perfect timing too – hours after Ireland had been hit by yet another austere budget.
Ostrich-like, our heads were stuck in sand dunes of avoidance at any mention of economic news. However, even before the match started, there were plenty of welcome distractions. As well as football D-Day, it happened to be Bajram, as the Muslim festival of Eid is known in Bosnia. True to my tradition of cooking for cultural occasions (and not much else) I was preparing a typical Bosnian spread. Well… a slightly lower-cal version of it – to reduce the risk of fatal cholesterol overdose. Burek and sirnica had just gone into the oven when we heard it was 1:0 in Lithuania. Or so the tweets suggested as, scrolling down my phone with greasy fingers, I noticed word-long messages simply declaring: ‘GOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLL!’ Fear not, this isn’t as ghastly as it may sound in English. Au contraire, when followed by a string of blue and yellow emoji, it’s profoundly positive. Things got better still – my husband burst into the kitchen to tell me the guy who’d scored was one of his friend’s (approximately seven billion) cousins. Seems we have an eternal claim to fame!
Tense minutes dragged – for the person glued to the internet. As I was having a culinary melt-down… Bosnian food is delicious but very labour-intensive. Finally, though, our Bajram meal was ready to be served. However, at about the same moment, a whistle blew in a distant Baltic city. Victory! Fortunately, my precious pita wasn’t incinerated amid the subsequent exultation. Bosnia and Herzegovina were heading to Brazil! The kids immediately asked if we could go too. Sadly, the latest round of Irish fiscal adjustment has quashed all hope of Rio, unless we get lucky in the EuroMillions lotto. But, at least, we’ve got one of the family’s teams to cheer. While Ireland might’ve salvaged credibility with a win over Kazakhstan, its Brazilian quest had already proven vain. Yet Irish disappointment was suddenly irrelevant. The night belonged to Bosnia. Through every form of social media, photos, songs and fireworks whizzed across the diaspora. Sarajevo erupted into jubilance. Celebration went viral. Bosnia was trending with a rare shimmer of success.
Maybe that’s the beauty of the game – its power to generate euphoria, no matter how ephemeral. A football match can’t heal post-war divisions. It won’t make life, for most Bosnians, any less of a struggle. But, for one evening in October, past scars and future uncertainty were forgotten. It felt like Ireland’s trail to Italia ’90. That virginal delight of qualifying for our first World Cup… especially as it came when horizons still seemed bleak. Then, Ireland’s reputation was defined by violence in the North, economic stagnation, corruption and emigration. As a nation, we were minnows – a poor, peripheral member of Europe’s clan. Perhaps our status now isn’t that different. Though surely, in the late 1980s, our FIFA rankings were higher.
Soccer gave us a boost. Long reviled as a ‘foreign’ rival to native Gaelic (all-limbs-allowed) football, it helped us to restore faith in ourselves. Everything stemmed from Stuttgart… The European Championships in 1988 saw the epic defeat of our former colonial masters by a team that couldn’t be described as quintessentially ‘Irish’. Lads from mixed backgrounds joined the squad. Red hair and a thick brogue weren’t exclusive criteria for selection. Once a chap could trace his granny’s roots to somewhere between Dingle and Donegal, all he needed was the skill and the will to win. And the country got behind this motley bunch. Singing tributes to our English manager, we became ‘part of Jackie’s army’. Houses were re-painted in the Irish colours. Babies were taught how to chant ‘olé!’ Flags were draped from windows until their edges frayed. Years were spent paying off that pilgrimage to Italy.
But, as the expression goes, ‘the craic was ninety’. Even if – in retrospect – it was quite over-the-top. Sport is no panacea for the trials of reality. The diversion it provides is akin to bread and circuses. Or beer and football, in many Irish cases… And soccer itself is tarnished. Racism on the field and in the stands, fans with neo-Nazi links, and hooliganism are some of its corollaries. Allegations of match-fixing, bribes and seedy deals, the exploitation of workers building stadia for major tournaments further undermine its ethos of ‘fair play’. Exorbitant salaries paid to players who are seized by a celebrity culture that turns them into idols, then ogles their fall from grace, also attract bad press. Nor is football the automatic leveller of fraught pitches. Ireland, for instance, is home to two ‘international’ teams, both of which have their own distinct fan-bases. In its northern counties, the Scottish Premier League gets harnessed for sectarian purposes. Identities are gauged from Glaswegian club preferences – are you for Celtic or Rangers? Bosnian soccer is plagued with similar problems. More complicated, as the potential split is threefold. Still, nothing can detract from the achievement of a team that, whatever cynics and propagandists say, is multi-ethnic. So, in our hearts, we’re with the Zmajevi…
All the way to Brazil! An amazing country – I had the sheer good fortune to visit it in 1990. On a holiday I’d won, at the age of sixteen, as first prize in a national competition for poetry. Back when I’d the guts to enter contests… The week I spent there, accompanied by my rather overwhelmed dad, was unforgettable. It’s a place that rightly revels in its diversity. Yet, although I had no previous travel experience, I was struck by the starkness of its inequality. Dual faced Rio de Janeiro – a city of hills, where favela-covered slopes plunged down upon the opulent Copacabana coast.
On our last day in the city, we took a tour by taxi around its centre. In a battered VW Beetle which, fuelled with ‘alcool’ (a cheaper, ethanol substitute for petrol) reeked of booze. We passed the famous Maracanã stadium and another striking example of modern architecture, the cone-shaped cathedral. Naturally, my devout father wanted to drop in to say a prayer. Possibly to beg God to grant us safe passage home, after our numerous adventures. The driver, however, advised against any such show of piety. His unequivocal Portuguese – ‘drogas!’ – as he mimed a point-blank shot to the head, was enough to convince us to stay inside the car.
Brazil has made substantial progress in the decades since. Today, with its economy at a ‘newly advanced’ stage of development, it’s added its initial to the BRICS. But it’s been the scene of popular unrest. And many of the issues prompting recent protests relate to the extravagant hosting of next year’s Mundial and the 2016 Olympics, when poverty remains rampant. Sporting glory, it appears, can’t eradicate suffering in a country of two halves.
A glimpse of Brazil… it’ll always brighten my mind with vivid snapshots, such as those from our brief trip to Amazonia. There, among other escapades, I got my heel clamped between the jaws of a jaguar (it may have been crippled, but its teeth were sharp as sabres). We also journeyed by boat through a confluence called the ‘Meeting of the Waters’. Where, due to a temperature difference, the dark Rio Negro and the silt-rich Rio Solimões flow in separate shades for several kilometres. Until, mingling, they become the largest river in the world. And so, perhaps, with football…
My dreams of returning to Brazil aren’t likely to get much further than a café of that name in Sarajevo. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance again to sample its chocolate-oozing palačinke (scrumptious crêpes). As for soccer, thanks to a testosterone deficiency, I’ll never understand the offside rule. But when it comes to shouting at the TV, you’ll hear my roars – and those of my ‘dragons’ in Ireland – right to the very top of the Corcovado.
‘Hajmo Bosno! Hajmo Hercegovino!’