This event happened a few years back, in 2016. Dinamo Zagreb was trailing 1:2 against Crvena Zvezda Belgrade in a semi-final UEFA cup match in Maksimir. Maksimir is a strange name, meaning greatest peace.
In Maksimir, as a ten-year-old, I had seen my first match three decades before, also between Dinamo and Zvezda. My brother Zdravko brought me to the game. Being a Hajduk fan, I didn’t care who won; for some reason, Zdravko was a rabid Zvezda fan, and I rooted with him, and rejoiced when Dzajic scored the winning goal, with a fantastically curved lob, which licked the crossbar and fell just behind the line into the goal. We walked out of the stadium in a procession of Zvezda fans, Delije. Somebody handed us Zvezda flags (they were red and white, strangely enough, Croatian colors)—and we marched toward Trg Republike, at the head of the procession. The flag was heavy, my brother was screaming Zvezda Zvezda, and I mouthed the words after him, the way I did when we sang national hymns.
On the sidewalks Dinamo fans had whistled and sworn in such a colorful vocabulary that I was startled, but not nearly as much as when a rock hit me in my rib cage, on the left side. It was probably a cobblestone picked up between the tram tracks. It took my breath away, so much that I failed to utter a sound. I would have screamed out in pain if I’d had the breath to do it with. The flag fell out of my hands. Although I never swore, after gulping some air, I said to my brother, Fuck this! and ran to the sidewalk, where a fat man slapped me, knocking me down on the pavement. Since then, I detested both clubs, Dinamo and Zvezda, but a lot of years had passed, and my addiction to soccer had not subsided, and so here I was, right behind the goal, shrieking for Dinamo for no other reason than that it was a Croatian club. I must say that I am not particularly nationalistic, except when it comes to soccer, and then I tremble for the national team.
After a deliberation, the referees decided to let the game resume, which was a big mistake.
Anyhow, back to 2016. The match in Belgrade had ended 3:3, so 2:2 would advance Dinamo into the finals as goals scored away were still valued more than those at home. There were only ten minutes left and Dinamo was still trailing. Davidovic, Zvezda’s halfback, deflected a ball with his hand. The Dutch referee should have blown a whistle for a penalty shot in Dinamo’s favor, but he hadn’t. Is it possible that he didn’t see the hand play, and that the assistant referees hadn’t either, while the whole stadium had? The fans were shrieking and throwing crackers and for a few minutes the match was suspended, and after a deliberation, the referees decided to let the game resume, which was a big mistake.
Big guys around me kept jumping up and down so that the cement stands shook. I knew it was safe as it was not the first time they had been jumping up and down en masse, and it would not collapse the way the stadium in Milan had years ago, killing dozens. I have no idea how these guys grew up to be like human bears—most of them in the range of 6’2 and 6’6 and weighing between 250 and 350 pounds. And it looked unseemly that such huge guys would be so passionate about what short and stringy fellows did in the grass with a few balls. But passion is inscrutable, and to tell you the truth, I was one of those guys, jumping up and down and shrieking. It’s hard to explain for me how I got into this. Ordinarily I was a civilized denizen of Zagreb, an architect, with a taste for macchiato and single malts, and at the beginning of the match I still was a civilized human, but now by the end, I had taken off my shirt, and hollered for blood.
Maybe we would have helped Dinamo and scared the Zvezda players if the stands hadn’t been removed from the field by the red-clay running track. The pale crimson composed well with the green grass—it was a beautiful visual experience—but the track between the green turf and the stands removed the potentially threatening fans some fifty feet, enough to diminish their volume and psychoterrorist threat. The domestic field advantage here didn’t exist as much as it did in Barcelona, for example, where the shrieking Catalans are just two yards away from the field, threatening to devour the visiting teams.
Anyway, the game became frenetic. See, I am cultured enough to use words like that (and I am even writing this whole thing in the damned English language, not all that patriotic of me) when I am away from the stadium. In it, I am a Roman barbarian, wanting to see gladiators kick balls like chopped heads and heads like balls. Dinamo exerted fantastic pressure, shooting at the goal almost twice a minute, and then there was a great chance as Hodzic passed all the players, advancing to the goal. He was felled by Borislav Ivanovic, who slid into his shins from behind. Ivanovic is a fine player, Chelsea captain until recently, and I am sure he intended to get the ball rather than the player, but that’s just it with the rule that as long as you touch the ball first, anything goes, but if you get the foot or the shin of the player before the ball, it’s a grave foul. In that speed it’s impossible to always be accurate. Anyhow, it was a clear penalty, and strangely enough, the stingy Dutch referee did whistle and point to the penalty spot. Hodzic, the new phenomenal player for Dinamo, best scorer in the UEFA championship in the 2015/16 season, who had sunk Bayern, got the honor to shoot. The rules had been changed since 2015, so that instead of eleven meters to the goal from the white spot, it was changed to twelve.
Eleven meters had given too much advantage to the kicker. That one meter didn’t equalize the playing field between the two but it made it less predictable, giving the goalie somewhat more time to react, but still, a good shot like Hodzic could make it more than 90 percent of the time. In a crucial situation like this one, however, the anxiety of the penalty kicker had to be great—and it certainly must have been for Hodzic.
I knew that Hodzic probably hated the Serbian players. Hodzic was born in 1992 in a Croatian village near Bugojno in Bosnia, and both of his parents disappeared at the beginning of the war, never to be heard from again. He was raised by his grandmother, as a refugee in Austria, and for him, eliminating Zvezda must have been a dream, a form of revenge. I am not sure he thought in such nationalistic and simplistic terms, but in the stadium, he probably did. He certainly wanted to score more than anyone else. He was a bony guy, with sharp cheekbones and a long, hooked, and hawk-like nose.
Many of us jumped over the fence, and right in front of me, I saw a man with a machete.
At the whistle, Hodzic ran, took a full swing at the ball, and the ball flew straight and hit the inside of the crossbar in the right corner, the metal resounded, and the ball bounced onto the line and back up to the crossbar. The Zvezda goalie, instead of catching the ball now, kicked it out and it landed on Hodzic’s chest. Hodzic had another chance: he shot and yet again hit the crossbar, and the ball flew far out, where Ivanovic cleared it, sending it far away into the Dinamo stands. Now you had to admire Hodzic’s shots, even though they didn’t go in.
I think that there should be a different scoring system, whereby each hit on the crossbar should count as half a point. Not that it would have helped the outcome of this game. It was lost. The crowd was in a wounded state, bloodthirsty, screaming, and throwing firecrackers. The place was a stinging smoke screen, anything could go, and it did. Many of us jumped over the fence, and right in front of me, I saw a man with a machete. Another one grabbed the referee, a Dutchman by the august name of Rembrandt, and pushed him onto his knees. The first one brought the machete down, beheading him. Somehow it looked normal, at first…easy. The head fell and rolled and ended up sideways in the grass, stopped by the nose.
After thinking about what had just happened, I shrank back in horror. The Serbian team was gone, to safety, I imagined, and because of the prediction of potential violence, there weren’t many Serbian fans (the buses from Serbia were not allowed to come to the game), so these were Croatian hooligans. The Croatian police, some fifty of them, ran down, and surrounded the murder scene.
I followed another group of hooligans, who got hold of Dinamo players, beating them systematically. Somebody knocked Hodzic down, and several people kicked him, shouting insults: scumbag, good for nothing, they bribed you, didn’t they, fucking whore, faggot… One of them said, I have a better idea, let’s take him to the zoo.
I was still furious and drunk… I think I had a whole bottle of Hennessy during the game, and instead of sobering up upon seeing the beheading, I went along with the hooligans. Hell, I was one of them. I must admit, I even gave Hodzic a kick, somewhere in the kidney area, and I was one of the guys carrying him to the zoo. There were five of us, like pallbearers. It’s strange that in triumph, we carried our coaches like that and tossed them in the air, and in loss, we carried the culprit pretty much the same way.
The zoo had modernized recently. It used to have barred cages, but now, with us being members of the EU, the zoo had to become more humane, and tigers got a bigger cage, an acre of land, with trees to sharpen their claws, with a little pond to drink water from and bathe in, and these were new Siberian tigers, Putin’s present to Croatia. Putin had just retired in Croatia, having bought the island of Ugljan.
Anway, we tried to toss Hodzic over the fence and into the cage, but the fence was too tall, and Hodzic fell out of our hands onto the pavement. He shrieked in pain. Oh shut up, you should have kicked that ball a little lower. Why go that high with it, freaky ass.
Indira Ghandi had given Tito elephants, Mao Tze panda bears, so now we had grizzlies as well, named Bill and Hillary.
Let’s take him to the grizzlies, someone proposed. And we went on and carried Hodzic to the grizzly cage. Those creatures were a political present too, from Obama, delivered by John Kerry, the foreign affairs minister, when he visited a couple of years ago. Croatia had proven to be a faithful peon of NATO, starting with smuggling arms for the Syrian rebels, and sending peacekeepers into Egypt, and so on.
It’s been a long tradition of presents in the form of animals. Indira Ghandi had given Tito elephants, Mao Tze panda bears, so now we had grizzlies as well, named Bill and Hillary. Anyway, these guys were massive, the male probably 800 pounds, the female, 450, even bigger than the Siberian tigers.
Now, we had to climb the fence to throw him down and he landed on the rocks, a little island. Bill and Hillary jumped to the island and sniffed Hodzic. We shouted, Tear him, eat him, but the bears merely sniffed him all over for a while, and then licked his face. They did not bite him. Hodzic didn’t move, sprawled and loose like a rag doll. Bill roared at us, and jumped at us, but the fence was ten yards removed over a chasm, so he fell into it, climbed out, and growled at us, and jumped again, and he managed to reach the fence and climbed it, and soon he jumped over the fence, and knocked down one guy and snapped his neck. I ran. He bit my right calf and tore it right out. I pissed in terror and ran out of the zoo and into the streets, and a cab driver, who was right there near the zoo entrance, gave me a ride to the Rebro hospital. I bled richly and groaned until they cut off the circulation to my leg, and gave me the shots to stop bleeding, and morphine. At first it had hurt less than I imagined it should—the shock is a natural painkiller—and that’s how I had managed to run for my life. I passed out at the hospital from the loss of blood.
Without these muscles, it was clear I would limp for the rest of my life. At least I had the rest of my life.
When I woke up, I was in horrifying pain, my nerves were severed too, and I got more morphine. I stayed in the hospital for days. The surgeons patched me up, and now without these muscles, it was clear I would limp for the rest of my life. At least I had the rest of my life. I wondered how Hodzic was doing and I looked it up online.
Hodzic had a broken spine, a concussion, broken ribs, and a ruptured kidney. He was in critical condition at the Rebro hospital. Thank god we didn’t kill him. I swore I would never watch another soccer game if I could help it, and I would never root again for any team. Croatia, both individual teams and the national team, was banned from international competition for four years anyway. If I hadn’t been there, the same thing would have happened—there were enough of the hooligans. Maybe I shouldn’t feel terribly guilty, but of course I should.
When Hodzic recovered enough to go around in a wheelchair, and when I recovered enough, I volunteered to take him places, and we became fast friends. I took him to Gradska kavana every morning for a macchiato.
And what do we talk about? Anything but soccer. For a whole year I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that I was one of the thugs, but one day, we were relaxing and in a particularly fabulous mood.
Let’s go to the zoo, he suggested. I want to say hi to Bill and Hilary. You know, she saved my life by licking me and nursing me. I think I was clinically dead, I saw my dad and mom in heaven, and we ate baklava together. I think there’s life after death.
We took a cab. On the right side was the Dinamo stadium. He turned away from it. I don’t want to see that again.
I helped him get out of the cab with his electric stroller, and we went past the Siberian tigers, to the bears. I had no reason to be glad to see them, but Hodzic shouted, Hello my friends! Both bears stood on their hind legs and made strange noises, something between a growl and a roar, but a couple of octaves higher, the way they would talk to a cub.
Beautiful, aren’t they, he said. See, they remember me. Next time I am going to bring them some trout.
You aren’t supposed to feed them.
I can do what I want. You’ll help me get here? When?
What would I do without you?
You know, Bill ate my right calf. I am not that eager to feed him. I already did.
I know. I’ve read the articles.
You knew it all the way along. How? That’s crazy. Why would you talk to me then?
I saw the pictures, security camera pictures, and I could tell that one of the silhouettes was you. And then there were articles about the bear, how he killed two hooligans and tore up your leg.
And you don’t blame me?
Of course I blame you, you ass, but I understand. You were a fucking hooligan. You weren’t the ringleader, anyway.
Not generous. Let me show you something. He leaned over, opened his jacket—and I could see he carried an Uzi. Guess what that is for?
No. I am waiting for the other two. You are OK, you suffered, and I got to know you, Bill avenged me, and you weren’t the ringleader, but when I see those motherfuckers, off they go.
It’s vow, not wow. So when can you come back to feed Bill and Hill with me?
I am not sure. Seeing that gun makes me lose the appetite for it.
And as I stared at him, looking kind of like Stephan Hawking in his wheelchair, with thick glasses, and a proper black jacket, with a red tie, I imagined I was seeing him for the last time. But am I stuck with him now? If I quit seeing him, will he put me on the list of people to shoot? With thoughts like these, we couldn’t be friends anymore.
Adios, my friend! I said, and turned my back to him, my shoes crunching the sharp gravel, with every little stone imprinting itself into the leather as I angled to walk away. An uneasy feeling chilled my back, as though a bullet would go through me any second.
Josip Novakovich was a Man Booker International finalist. His latest book is Shopping for a Better Country, a collection of essays. He is the author of the novel April Fool’s Day and three story collections (Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust, Yolk, and Salvation and Other Disasters). He has also written two collections of narrative essays, Plum Brandy: Croatian Journeys and Apricots from Chernobyl. His work was anthologized in Best American Poetry, Pushcart Prize, and O. Henry Prize Stories. He has received the Whiting Writer’s Award, Guggenheim Fellowship, and two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships.