Croatian Fan Fest

Even the Sceptics Had to Admit That the Atmosphere Was Extremely Positive - A Celebration Bursting With Real Pride

News | Ana Valjak, Dardis McNamee | July / August 2008

Croatians invade Vienna’s first district: national flags and checkered outfits (Photos: Ana Valjak)

After months and months of preparation, the European Soccer Championship 2008 in Austria and Switzerland began on Jun. 7. And the next day Austria and Croatia were to meet in Austria’s capital.

Nobody wanted any trouble, so police from both countries were on hand in case any hooligans showed up. After all, this game came with memories of violence at last year’s match and had been designated a zero tolerance game where police were allowed to use force at the slightest sign of discomfort.

With Croatia so nearby and the morning sun approaching, thousands of fans poured into Vienna: four flights, two trains, more than fifty buses and hundreds of cars, brought over a hundred thousand fans of all ages. Cars were decked out with flags large and small, and almost everyone was wearing the red-checkered shirts, hats and face paint, the official symbol of the Croatian national team, which translates more closely to "cubes," the unofficial name of that costume.

The game started at 18:00, but we had been getting ready since eleven and were strolling onto Stephansplatz before the noon chimes rang. We were very curious to see what the atmosphere would be like.

Walking down from Schottenring, the town seemed empty, and hardly a car passed us. Still nearly every parked car had small Croatian flags on their windows; even some of the cars with Austrian plates carried the telltale Croatian checks along with the Austrian flags.

With Graben in sight, red and white checks were everywhere. It could have been Zagreb, we thought. The Fan Zone itself looked like a cubist painting, with a distorted checkerboard wall and humanoid shapes disjunct and distorted and seemed to be swollen by sea of checkerboards. All the coffeehouses were packed, songs and football cheers were coming from every side, and the atmosphere was electrifying. After the first thrill, though, I began to worry: There were so many people.

"Please no incidents," I thought, "Let’s not embarrass ourselves." But even we, true skeptics, had to admit that the atmosphere was extremely positive, a celebration that was bursting with real pride.

We walked towards Stephansdom, where the loudest cheering seemed to come from. In the sea of checks, we didn’t realize how many people were on the square. We had barely walked a few meters when we realized we could hardly move. The feeling was surreal. Even at home, I had never seen so many Croatians celebrating together. On the ground was a Croatian flag banner five meters long, that the fans then picked up and carried around.

All the buildings surrounding Stephansplatz were decorated with Croatian flags; fans cheered from windows, balconies and from the ground. Someone blew up a beach ball and a group of fans started playing kicking it around, sending it high in the sky. People were cheering, singing, hugging each other, taking pictures and drinking beer. You would have thought Croatia had already won the game.

In short, it was a love fest: Everybody was saying "hi" and smiling at each other. No introductions needed. The same was the case at a bar terrace on the Kärtnerstraße. Here, every "Lokal" was packed and anywhere you looked, those checkered shirts were walking by singing. And most amazing, most of the stores on Kärtnerstraße were open even though it was Sunday. The Austrian government seemed to anticipate all those Croatian women fans for whom shopping is essential to their existence.

Looking around, we finally saw a small cluster of Austrian fans. It was tragically comical, and in a way sad, that there were so few of them. Where were all the Austrians? As they walked through all the checks, we worried a little for them, especially as there was a small child with them.

But then something beautiful happened: A group of checkered shirts went up to the Austrians and asked to take a photo with them. We could see the relief on the Austrians’ faces. They had their picture taken together, drank some beer with the checkered shirts, the child got a whistle from one of the "opponents" and then they each went their way. At that moment we knew, there would be no riots, no problems, just fun.

After the drinks, we started walking down the Kärntnerstraße past the Palmenhaus, to the Volksgarten, where there was an entrance to the Fan Zone. We had intended to walk down the whole Fan Zone from Volksgarten to the Rathauspark, where the main Video Wall was.

The fan zone occupied the center section of the Ringstraße, between the alleys of trees and side lanes for deliveries. So where cars usually drive and trams roll by, people were walking peacefully along inside a two-meter high fence. There were stands with food and drink and plenty of portable toilets and eight big screens. There were medical stations, where staff was on call to help with problems from dehydration all the way to alcohol poisoning, and of course more serious injuries.

There were also a lot of police. Their vans were parked at the Rathauspark, where most of them rested on the benches while the others were patrolling the area in shifts. There was even a kindergarten inside the zone placed in one of the train compartments, where parents could leave a child to be supervised by trained nannies, where they could play with other children and not get into potentially dangerous situations in the crowd at the screens.

The zone was surrounded by a high fence, and guarded by security. Entrances were marked as well as the exits. The entrances reminded me of the airport checks. We were checked from top to bottom by the security. No water or any other drinks, food, and cosmetics were allowed in, and even my water spray for refreshment was thrown in the trash. After the checkup, other security was directing people where to go. Since we came three hours before the game, we walked through the half-full zone.

There were more Austrian fans there, but still they and the "cubes" were in harmony, only competing through the music playing over the loudspeakers. On the main stage, nothing much was going on, only a quickie competition for tickets to the stadium and a couple of shorts about the Austrian players. Yawn. Then a dozen cheerleaders jumping up and down a few thumpy songs… Lame.

Prices were high: water at one of the stands was €4; beer was €5,50, and hot dogs €5,00. Austria had decided to earn money with this event. Nevertheless, people were buying beer by the liter. And they weren’t complaining so much about the price of the beer, as about the poor quality.

"There are so many good brands of beer, and Austrian beer is good, why are we drinking this watery stuff?" complained one tall Austrian fan in red shirt with the flag stripes on his cheek.

The Croatians agreed. "In Croatia even the non-alcoholic beer tastes more like beer than this," complained Croatian fan Igor Vuglac from Zagreb. "The foam filled half the glass," chimed in Biserka Valdec, another Croatian fan.

As game time came closer, the zone filled up, and it became harder to move. Still, the mood was tops, and cheering came from everywhere. People were watching the count down clock as if it were the holy cross in the church.

And then, it started! Croatia shot a goal relatively early, and that was all it took. They won the game, hands down.

But the game itself could not have possibly compared to the atmosphere in Vienna that day. Croatian football players didn’t give one percent compared to their fans. After the game, people spread around town, for food or more celebration. Many went to the train and bus stations and went straight back home. The whole day went by without incidents or riots, in a very positive mood. Even days later, walking into a bar or a restaurant, you could still feel it; walking down the street people were still saying "hello." From many bar and restaurant owners, we heard, "Croatians come back."

"You spend a lot and leave great tips", said one of the waiters at Café Europa on the Graben. "You are the perfect customers!" Altogether, we felt we had had a once in a lifetime experience, crowned with Croatia’s victory.

And we understand if the Austrians weren’t so happy about that.

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