Football Fever Hits Jelsa

Published in Highlights
Croatia takes its football seriously, and has produced numerous fine footballers going back many years.
In Jelsa, football fever excitement was palpable on the morning of June 12th 2014, with Croatia due to face Brazil later on in the first round of the World Cup. As Brazil were the hosts, this was the opening game of the championships, so there was a lot of extra pressure on both teams.

Nijazi Salija, owner of the Caffe Splendid in Jelsa, is a fervent football fan. His own home country, Macedonia, was not playing in the championships. Nijaz made no secret of his preferred team while serving drinks and the renowned pastries baked by his patient and endlessly caring wife Letafe.

Young and old were caught up in the growing excitement of anticipation.

Even non-football-supporters couldn't help but join in.

The Caffe Splendid attracts a wide variety of customers from all over the globe, many of whom return time and again, sometimes after a gap of many years. Being host to many non-Croatians, the cafe sported the flags of all the participating national teams, arranged according to the groupings in the opening rounds.

The youngest Splendid regulars with dual nationality were encouraged to express their loyalties without fear or favour.

As Scotland were not in the competition, there was no dilemma of loyalties for Scotsman Pete McGuire of Vrbanj.

Preparations for The Game were not confined to the Caffe Splendid. Others who had not yet installed their wide-screen televisions were busy organizing last-minute deliveries.

Big matches like Croatia vs Brazil in the World Cup bring Croatia to a standstill. It's impossible to escape the action, should you want to. Inconclusive play casts an eerie unnatural silence over the whole country; missed Croatian chances elicit groans and roars of anger; opposition goals are greeted with gloom and howls of despair; Croatian goals cause eruptions akin to mega-fireworks. And in between there may be muttered, growled, hopeful or aggressive snippets of advice from the armchair pundits, all of whom, of course, know better than the current Croatian manager, coach, trainers and all the players put together.

 

The result of the match? Brazil 3, Croatia 1. It seems to have been a well-fought match, played with skill and fairness, although there was some doubt about the award of the penalty which gave Brazil their second goal. No celebratory roars and cheers this time. Much dissection and discussion to follow, and renewed hopes for the next matches. The general opinion was that the Croatian team had acquitted itself very well.

According to long-established custom, Jelsa's electric delivery float was bedecked loyally in Croatian colours, brightening up a dismal rainy day on June 14th. Young Croatian fan Ivan chose to sport his loyalty on his face while showing his skills in kickabout football on Jelsa's central piazza. It could be called barefaced loyalty, or perhaps the modern equivalent of wearing one's heart on one's sleeve. Ivan very kindly took time out for a photoshoot, with his parents' permission. All good practice in case he becomes one of Croatia's major stars in the future..

Top footballers are in the media spotlight, and are often harassed by press and particularly photographers, just as film stars and members of royal families are. Does fame give the press the right to intrude on people's private activities? In the days following their first match, Croatia's players at the World Cup were rightly outraged that some photographers hid in bushes to take pictures of them swimming nude in their swimming pool, and then published the photos on online media. The incident soured relations between the players and the World Cup press, leading the players to boycott press interviews. Everyone has the right to privacy. All the World Cup players are under the greatest tension, so they should be allowed to prepare for their matches in peace.

Croatia's subsequent 4 - 0 win over Cameroon on June 19th raised expectation, hope and fear in almost equal measure among the country's solidly united fans. More and more cars sported the colourful red-and-white flags, and Croatia-themed shirts blazed their trail among the more soberly dressed tourists. Young men like Paulo Duboković (pictured above), Pitve's Cross-bearer for 2014, was patriotically dressed on duty at the Tarantela cafe-bar on Jelsa's main square, while Council Leader Jakša Marić (below) sported a more subtle hint of his affinities.

More patriotic hats were being distributed and showed off, as in the fine specimen from national newspaper Jutarnji list, sported by Jelsa's favourite son, Frank John Duboković.

Everything now hinged on Croatia vs Mexico on June 23rd. Mexico had reached the last 16 in the tournament five successive times, whereas Croatia had not reached the knockout stage of the last 16 since getting to the semi-finals in 1998. Could Croatia beat Mexico and guarantee to go through on merit? How would the pressure tell on the players? Could they capitalize on their good showing in their first two matches?

On the day of the Croatia - Mexico match, scheduled for 10pm Croatian time, the build-up was intense, with great excitement in the air. Cafe owners like Nijaz and Letafe Salija (above) were preparing themselves for both watching the match and taking care of their customers during and after it. It could be a long night of celebration or woe, depending on Croatia's performance. One ardent fan, pictured below, was accompanied by a hint of football music as he went about his business around Jelsa during the day - not loud music, just enough to keep him in the mood for the game. 

Sadly, in the event, Croatia lost 1 - 3 in a well-fought game, while the Mexicans went through with a well-deserved victory to their sixth successive appearance in the knock-out part of the tournament. So no further excitement for the country's football fans, no extra celebrations on National Day, which fell two days after the match. The Croatian team acquitted itself well in all three of its matches, but it wasn't quite enough for further success. That's sport, that's life.
© Vivian Grisogono 2014
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