[The following appeared June 25 on The Mantle.]
BRATISLAVA – That’s what the Slovak commentator screamed from the TV.
How about ‘dem Slovaks?! Our scrappy Central European friends today sent the reigning champion – mighty Italy – tumbling out of the World Cup, 3-2. Even I cheered in the pub today.
“After you, France … Want to share a taxi to the airport?”
Bratislava is celebrating tonight. Flags are fluttering. There’s chanting in the streets. Slovaks are greeting strangers with warmth. My wife and kids are congratulating them as well. Smiles everywhere.
All this reminds me of one plain truth: nothing compares to living in a small, almost-invisible country during a major sporting event, like the Olympics or World Cup.
Seeing how they come together to root for the national team really warms the heart – especially if you focus on the negative most of the time, as I tend to do. (Scroll down for countless examples!)
Living here, though, you connect. You develop relationships. You pull for the people, for the land. You want them to do well.
I’ve now been very, very fortunate to experience this in two countries. First Hungary, now Slovakia.
The Hungarians, renowned as the “Magical Magyars” during their footballing heyday of the 1950s, have had their sporting moments, with Olympic champions in water polo, fencing and handball.
I’m always struck, though, by the intimate way in which commentators urge on their countrymen (and women). In particular, they often attach the sweet diminutive to their first name.
For example, an Agnes would be nicknamed Agi. Family and dear friends would extend it to Agika, or even add the “my” equivalent as a suffix – Agikam.
We don’t have this in English. Moreover, in American sports, commentators would draw a line: call them by their family name, or a well-known nickname. Thus, a stud basketball player like Kevin Garnett may be referred to as “KG.”
But that’s it. How jarring, then, to hear a Hungarian commentator implore a swimmer named Laszlo, “Gyerunk, Lacikam!” … Come on, My Little Laci!
Actually, I rather like it. Endearing, no?
So now we’re in Slovakia, the land of hockey. They don’t need to call it “ice” hockey; there’s only one hockey. In February, during the Vancouver Olympics, Slovakia’s team had me so mesmerized, I blogged about it – twice. (Here and here.)
They don’t award medals for fourth, but Slovakia certainly earned one.
Then, over the past year, Slovakia qualified for its very first World Cup. A big deal, if for no other reason than their Czech brethren – whom they divorced in 1993 – already competed in the 2006 World Cup.
Been there, done that.
Oh so gratifying, then, for the Slovaks to conquer the Czechs in the qualifiers to earn the trip to South Africa.
So you can imagine how I leapt at The Global Post, when the paper asked me to write a profile of the Slovakia side for the splashy World Cup preview the paper had planned. When I saw that no one had yet claimed Slovenia – the tiniest nation in the 2010 World Cup – I couldn’t help but throw myself behind another East European underdog.
The Slovenes deserved their 1-0 victory over New Zealand, the country’s first-ever World Cup win. They then raced to a 2-0 halftime lead against the U.S., before the Americans roared back with two to tie. Slovenia then got lucky, when what should have been a winning U.S. goal was scandalously waved off.
When Slovenia finally succumbed to England Wednesday – then watched the American lightning bolt strike down Algeria – they were able to return home in dignity, which is what their nation deserves.
Now, on to the Slovaks. I’d interviewed two Slovak football experts for my GloPo piece. One, a football journalist for Slovakia’s leading sports daily. The other, a youth-football trainer. I watched him coach a team of 13-year-olds, as they dashed around the pitch against their rivals.
Both fellows predicted Slovakia’s fate rested on its opening match: against New Zealand. Beat the Kiwis – seen as soft, because of lower-quality play in their Asian grouping – then ride that momentum to a win, or at least a tie, against Paraguay. Then, maybe we have a chance.
Because, in that third match, Italy looms. My subjects expressed no optimism.
That was the context, then, when I watched that opening match in a neighborhood café with about a dozen other customers. There was such a cheer, when Slovakia scored its first goal against New Zealand.
That 1-0 lead held, and the vibe in there was one of real delight. Crushing, then, was that out-of-nowhere New Zealand goal in the 93rd minute. On what was probably their last possession. “Sports Guy” Bill Simmons would call that one a “stomach punch.” Could you imagine a more disappointing tie?
I don’t think the Slovak team recovered, either. They were sorely outplayed by the Paraguayans, 2-0.
The Slovaks had one last chance. Only the 2006 champs stood in their way. Well, that and a New Zealand tie.
I hoped for a miracle. I didn’t want the tournament to end for Slovakia. Keep the fun going for another week.
I didn’t sense much optimism among the Slovaks, though. In a café yesterday, a Slovak waiter asked me my prediction for today’s match.
“Two-one,” I said. He was incredulous. “For Slovakia?” Yep, I said. “Dufam.” I hope.
So it was that I watched Slovakia battle the Italians from the opening tip. With a whole new crowd to call friends for two hours. We erupted after Robert Vittek’s first goal. It also stunned us: Could we win this?
A second goal, euphoria. Up 2-0 against Italy, deep in the second half!
Bam, Italy scores. Suddenly, 2-1. Our enthusiasm deflates, with an audible groan.
With the third goal, our fists punch the air. I’m tempted to give out high-fives. But, well, I wasn’t feelin’ it. It’s enough that they knew I was a stranger in their midst. Here with them on this day.
When the Italians fought back in injury time, with that second goal, well, I felt their fear. Despair. Dread.
You have to understand, Central Europeans like the Slovaks and Hungarians can be an awfully pessimistic bunch. I could read their thought bubbles: Oh, f*@% … something bad’s coming.
Those minutes were truly agonizing. Blow the damn whistle already!
A full-throated cheer. Exultation.
The Slovaks had stunned themselves. It was tough to hear the TV commentator up on the wall, but I did catch his classic “Arrivederci” farewell.
That, and two more words that require no translation: Historicky moment!
I’m just thrilled to have been here for it.