Silly Serbs and sobbing Slovaks

It is now day eight and country four of my World Cup adventure, and boy has it flown by.

So far I have witnessed how the World Cup is being ‘enjoyed’ in Greece, Serbia and Slovakia - two losses and one last minute equaliser conceded - and what I have witnessed has been varied and surprising.

Talk of a curse is ever growing, and the Slovenians must surely fear my presence for their match against USA on Friday. Nonetheless, I remain confident that one of these teams will get it right when I’m there - though I will reluctantly accept that I am as cursed as they come if Italy somehow lose to the All Whites on Sunday.

In Belgrade – the second destination on my whistle-stop tour of the continent - I met with my impeccable host Snezana who took me to the river island location of Ada Ciganlija (Gypsy Island), a delightful collection of bars, food stalls and sports facilities creating something of a beach-like feel some 370km away from any coastline.

The atmosphere most definitely surpassed that of Thessaloniki, as those around eagerly dried themselves off from their dip in the river to take their seat before some of the many outdoor screens broadcasting the match.

I detected the place was genuinely ready to explode with joy the second the ball hit the Ghanaian net. There wasn’t a hint of the supposed violent intimidation Serb football followers are often associated with, and the sending off and penalty decisions were largely greeted with disappointed tut-tutting rather than an angry volley of ref abuse. I got the sense the Serbs were used to this kind of showpiece collapse.

Serbia weren’t terrible, but it’s fair to say that they were most definitely silly. Although my prophecy of a Serb victory wasn’t to be, my inclination that they could screw themselves over somewhere down the line turned out to be spot on. From the wholly unsurprising, although perhaps slightly harsh, two yellow cards for Aleksandar Lukovic for petty challenges, to the drastically idiotic handball from Zdravko Kuzmanovic, this was a game Serbia could well have won if they had kept their discipline.

It would appear that whether they fall under the name of Yugoslavia, Serbia & Montenegro or just plain old Serbia, they will remain susceptible to the same shortcomings. Snezana, offered an insight as to why: “It is a national characteristic of Serbia to not acknowledge when we make mistakes,” she said. “So we just make them again.” Her point was seemingly proven by a media whom she says described the team’s performance as merely unlucky.

Kuzmanovic appeared initially to go against the grain, appealing for forgiveness from his team-mates as well he should. But then again, he also said it was an attempt to head the ball, which if true must surely raise a massive question mark over his heading technique.

Although it’s fair to say Serbia weren’t exactly coasting until that point, they did offer a mild threat and could easily have nicked it. Now, a result against Germany, trouncers of the Aussies, is essential and the Serbs I spoke with weren’t exactly confident.

The Serbs I spoke to were all women, mind, but don’t let that put you off - they certainly seemed to have a bit more in their football locker than the average girl down the pub who asks you which way England are shooting in the 65th minute.

They even didn’t disappoint when I asked if they knew of Savo Milosevic: he is apparently from Snezana’s area of origin,along with Nemanja Vidic and coach Radomir Antic, a man who relegated Manchester City and subsequently made David Pleat dance.

Despite defeat, there were encouraging signs and perhaps the last word on the Beli Orlovi (White Eagles) should be given to Snezana’s friend Marija, who seemed most positive of all about the performance: “Well I am proud of them,” she declared. “They were running for the whole time. That is an excellent thing.” True say.

And then there were the Slovaks. Those poor Slovaks. If you truly believe in the curse of the World Cup Traveller (the list of believers is no doubt growing), then you’ll consider yourself vindicated by the following footage.

Whipping out my camera in the 92nd minute, I pressed record for what I believed would be my first taste of celebratory footage. Instead, watching screen-in-screen in horror, I got this.

In an attempt to quell the disappoint, corporate associates of the ‘Fan Fest’ Coca Cola thought it appropriate to immediately follow the gut-wrenching goal with a right good knees up, featuring some of the most laboured dancing one has ever witnessed.

Ultimately though, as bad as I felt for the Slovakians, New Zealand’s late and frankly undeserved equaliser at least made for some good footage, and some classic ‘gutted fan’ shots – this one taken some 10 minutes after the game had actually finished.

There were other undeniable positives to take from the day as well: I actually witnessed the ‘home’ team scoring a goal and, in the form of the Kia Fan Fest outside a recently built shopping centre on the banks of the Danube, I found somewhere which truly had a real World Cup atmosphere, as the locals reveled in their first ever tournament appearance as an independent nation. As well as a whole host of frustrated angry people, I also found my first group of happy football fans on my travels, bumping into five jubilant Kiwis.

But it was two Slovakians in particular that I was incredibly disappointed for when the Kiwi goal hit.

Wandering around the fan park at the start of the second half, seeking semi-fluent English speakers, I was fortunate enough to come across Vlastimil Danicek - or Vlasto to his friends - and his patriotically decorated son, David.

The writing over his body, in case you can‘t decipher, are names of Slovakian players. Vlasto was well aware, as knowledgeable as he truly was about the game, that this game presented their biggest opportunity for three points, and he feared the threat of Paraguay and Italy.

He had nothing but praise for the side and their coach Vladimir Weiss for getting this far, stating that with Martin Skrtel at the back, Marek Hamsik in the middle, and Robert Vittek up front the team was at its strongest it had ever been since its split from the Czechs.

He had much praise for the English game as well, revealing that he had a bet on England to reach the semi finals and sharing his belief that they were one of the strongest teams at the tournament. It has truly surprised me how highly England seem to be regarded on the continent, and I’ll be honest - I’m not sharing their confidence yet.

Later on, I happened to come across a group of Portuguese during their match against the Ivory Coast. Their thoughts can be summarised in five words: players good; Queiroz no good.

And finally, here is a collation of the various Robert Green related piss takes from the nations of the world, all of which were uttered within around 60 seconds of meeting these people...

Miguel from Portugal“You need to watch that goalkeeper of yours.”

Vlasto from Slovakia“We can lend you a goalkeeper if you like. Yours nearly made me throw my betting slip away.”

New Zealander, after I told him I didn’t fancy playing them in the latter rounds“I’m up for it. I hear the tactic is just to kick the ball straight at the goalkeeper.”

Cheers lads. I’m thankful that  I didn’t end up speaking to the American - he probably would have advised that our goal defence roster is in a bad period right now, and coach Capello needs to give them a shake-up in the locker room. Or something.

PART ONE: Watching the Cup with the EuropeansPART TWO: Greeks philosophical rather than passionate

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