Boys Are From Croatia, Girls Are From America
Transcript: My sadness is overwhelming as I finish walking through the security gate in Zagreb International Airport. As I look back once more, my heart breaks a little. I can barely see my grandmother's tear-stained face through the crowd of people. I turn back towards my family, and accidentally run into a man reaching for his bag. As I glance up to make my apology, I'm stupefied. There is no way I've just run into my long lost friend and lifelong idol. As I stare into his gray-blue eyes, I'm taken back nine years to one of the other best summers of my life.
Sneers. Smirks. Snickers. The boy across the room nudges his friend, points at me, and they laugh. They make funny faces at me and shout random things in English. I don't belong here. As I watch my uncle's car fade into distance, the feeling of dread turns my stomach into knots. Why the HELL did I want to travel across the world alone, knowing that, as the only girl here, I would be laughed at for two weeks?
The doors to the conference room open and I rush into the room. I feel as awkward and uncomfortable as a new kid in school during their first lunch period. And just like the new kid, I turn my head left and right, trying to decide where I should sit. So naturally I choose to stand in the corner, waiting for the welcome ceremony to begin so that the day can finally end and I can retreat to sanctuary of my room. The others are still staring, still smirking. I don't want to be here. "What's a girl doing here?"- I see the question on each of their faces. They are just as anxious to have this question answered as I am to bolt out the door. You've got to love cultural gender stereotypes and immature pre-teen boys. The lights dim, the ceremony begins, and I survive the night without having to speak to anyone.
I sneak away from my room early the next morning and call my mother in an anxious haste.
"Mom, please come get me, I don't want to be here anymore!" I plead with my mother over the phone.
"Daniela, you are the one who wanted to go in the first place. I can't jump on a plane and come get you. Your father and I are still busy with work. I'll see you at the closing ceremony."
"They're all laughing at me."
"When has that ever stopped you before? You've been playing with boys all your life; this is no different. Just because you're the only girl there does not mean you don't deserve to be there."
Maybe she has a point.
I kick rocks as we walk to the practice fields, trying to figure out how to prove that I deserve to be here. Should I slide tackle those boys who were laughing at me in the lobby? Or maybe I should start juggling, show them whose ball skills rival those of Ronaldinho? Oh, I know, I'll shoot the ball as hard as I can at the goalie's face, and see if that makes him sneer. Someone nudges my arm as I plot my revenge.
"You the American girl, yes?" a short boy asks me in broken English.
"I speak Croatian," I respond in Croatian.
"You play football good?" once again in broken English.
"Yes." As if that's a legitimate question. The deprecating comments about my soccer skills continue to stoke the ever-growing inferno of rage that sits in chest.
He chatters away, displaying his eloquent English prose. I quickly learn his entire life story; he's from a small village near where my father is from, has two other brothers, is the same age as me, loves playing center midfielder, and his mother makes some mean stuffed peppers. He seems excited to talk to me, but I get the feeling he hasn't made any friends either. I tell him we can pass together during warm ups. He smiles at me, and the ever-present knots in my stomach loosen.
The head coach calls us all in. He makes certain to try and relay the information in English, grinning goofily at me. He drags me up in front of the group, makes me introduce myself, and wastes valuable minutes of my life (minutes that could have been spent practicing) explaining to the immature male population of the camp that a female soccer player from America will be joining them for the duration of the camp. An awkward moment of silence is followed by a smothered eruption of laughter. I sigh and roll my eyes. Here we go.
The coach pulls me aside as the group disperses to begin the drills.
"You watch malo i see kako drill is done," the coach says to me in Cro-English.
"I speak Croatian," I repeat for the second time that day. "And I understand the drill just fine, but thanks anyway." I jog away before he can spew more demeaning placations at me.
After the drills, he splits us into teams for scrimmaging. I can see he's a little stupefied at my legitimate performance during the drills, and cannot wait to see how I perform in a real game setting. Well, I guess this is it. Time to show these chumps who's boss.
As soon as the whistle blows, I'm off. As I wait for the ball to be passed in my direction, I quickly realize that they've placed me as a right winger on purpose. They've isolated me, and my teammates are doing their best to avoid passing the ball in my vicinity. Really classy, boys. I decide it's time to show them the reason I came here in the first place. As the ball is passed to the teammate nearest me, I sprint out from behind him and steal the ball before it gets to him. I weave through the other teams line of defense and neatly slot the ball in my preferred upper right corner. I casually adjust my practice jersey, and nonchalantly straighten my shin guards. It takes a minute for me to realize that everyone has stopped playing and is staring at me open mouthed.
You would think they'd never seen a girl run circles around some boys in a soccer scrimmage.
Now I realize that not only has our scrimmage stopped, but the other two scrimmages on either side of ours have stopped. Everyone has been watching me; I feel like an animal at the zoo. The coaches urgently call me over, and gape at me. All at once, they shout their (dumb in my opinion) questions at me.
"Where did learn to play so well? How did—"
"Who taught you to—"
As I answer their questions, the other players follow suit with their own questions, and soon, I'm surrounded by sweaty boys all vying for my attention. Every nine-year-old tomboy's dream. But while their pestering annoys me, their ignorance enlightens me. My previous belief that this trip was crazy disappears as I come to a new realization. Not only did I come here to get better, to enhance my soccer skills and grow as a player, but I came here to destroy my culture's belief in the inferiority of female athletes. I came to show them that a girl could be just as good (or in my case, better) than a boy. As I internally process my realization, the group moves along, and finally we head back to the complex for lunch. As I walk into the dinning hall, several boys sporadically wave their arms and call out to me, "come sit with us!" This is what I've been waiting for. I've earned my place. I've earned their respect and camaraderie. It's about damn time.
The remaining part of the two weeks are an absolute blast. The mean looks and comments are far from over, but now I've got some friends willing to stick up for me, to defend my right to be here. Several news crews come to interview me on my last day, and the articles I'm featured in have some pretty awesome pictures of me. I hope the articles will give all of the other Croatian girls who love to play soccer more confidence. I hope they join in on the ever-present pick-up games and make their own impacts on their communities.
One night, I get to meet my idol and owner of the camps, Davor Suker. He let's me sit next to him during our nightly game tape watching sessions, and gives me advice after watching some of my scrimmages. The more time I spend with him, the more I get to know him, the more I admire him. Not only is he a great soccer player, he's just a great guy.
At the end of camp, Davor concludes his final remarks in the closing ceremony and bids all the Croatian boys and the American girl good luck and safe travels. As I wave my final goodbye to him, I notice that his gray-blue eyes are really similar to mine. That old feeling of dread turns my stomach into knots. I don't want to leave my new friends behind, but I know that this experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. And besides, I have some more boys butts to kick.
My brother nudges my shoulder, and I'm back in the airport. I apologize; Davor smiles and waves away my apology. I grin goofily back at him.
"Do you remember me?" I ask him with trepidation.
"Of course I do. Are you still causing trouble like I remember?" I grin once more. As if that's a legitimate question. Some things never change.