As I wandered down an ancient street 1000 miles from home, three men cavorted on the cobbles and attempted a piggyback, tumbling precariously close to a marina edge. On being saved at the last moment by the hands of a passerby, the players clapped each other on their soaked backs, cheered and began a wild jig.
In Hvar, one of the countless blissful seaside havens dotted along the Dalmatian coast, I watched four utter strangers in footie garb frolic by a 15th century church, raucously chanting:
‘ENG-ER-LAAAND ENG-ER-LAAAAND ENG-ER-LAAAAND’.
England had just beaten Tunisia, and faint renditions of this mantra were heard deep into the night, soaring over the orange roofs of Hvar up to the myriad stars, as a prayer to some kind of Football God.
Next morning, I mused over the phenomenon of football over my buttery croissant, dipping my toes into the sparkling crystal waters of the Adriatic, as it rippled lazily against the city walls. I’ve never been a fan of the game, but even a sceptic like myself easily became swept up in this zealous atmosphere.
The tension was tangible on the eve of Croatia’s test against the intimidating Argentinean team. It felt like there was electricity dancing in the sea-salt air. Aussies proposed boat parties, waiters enticed me with delectable seafood, but I grabbed a bottle of Ozujsko beer and clambered onto the low wall at the front of the Old Town Hall. From here I had a 360-degree view of the People’s Square, lined with eateries brimming with punters waiting eagerly for the game to begin.
The chorus of the crowds reached a climax, with everyone fidgeting in anticipation of the first goal. Who would it be?
I raised my beer when Split exploded one, two, three times as Croatia scored. Waiters banged spoons against metal trays, children ran in dizzying circles with arms outstretched, people waved out of windows as Croatian and foreigner alike cheered for the local team. It was a blur of red and white jerseys.
With the embracing going on, you’d think it was Europe in 1918.
It didn’t matter where I wandered that evening. By Diocletian’s Palace, in shops of voluptuous ice cream towers, down the palm-lined promenade: everywhere there were celebrations and laughter. My memories of Croatia are of the endless merrymaking of incalculable nations, in timeless towns and stoic fortresses, as fishing boats bobbed silently in the warm summer breeze.
As teams from all over the world were painstakingly scoring goals, I was blissfully living mine.