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The hugs were crushing, but Serbs take defeat well
One of my favourite memories of the 2006 World Cup is congratulating a group of lads wearing Argentina shirts, after they'd beaten Serbia & Montenegro 6-0.
"Thank you," one of them said, "but we are Serb." So I asked him why they were wearing the shirts and he said: "Today Argentina are so good we decide we are all Argentina hah hah. Now, you have beer off bad Serb? All Serb are very bad, did you hear? Hah hah."
You could see his point, because Serbs are the nationality it seems to be all right even for liberals to hate. For example, one prominent liberal journalist wrote during Nato's bombing of Yugoslavia that, in a discussion with some Serbs, "I tried to tell them no one cared for their god-forsaken, dirt-poor, hate-ridden blot on Europe but they refused to listen." Some people don't want to hear constructive criticism, do they?
But in the Serb-packed Paya and Horse in Battersea, the match against Australia began with a mass of hugs, proper Balkan hugs where you feel like you're being clamped. Maybe this is because the World Cup is one of the few occasions when Serbs meet in such numbers in Britain. Or it might be anticipation of the slivovic, the lethal Slavic plum brandy that, as it goes down, makes you say the word "Ooawaahaahaahmmm", while feeling strangely smug, as if you've taken your medicine, and immediately order another to be really well-behaved.
It also attracted Nims, the liveliest loudest, Londonest Serb in the world, covered in a vast Serb flag. "I tell you what Mark," he told me, "My ol' man made the most wicked slivovic in Serbia, straight up, you could feel it burnin' my son, LET'S HAVE TWO MORE."
Even when talking to his Serb mate he said something like "Dravk benichdyvh nusk not being funny but his brekdevyk nch prstvk is proper sorted, proper sorted." He hadn't been back to Serbia for 15 years, but I never found out why because, as we discussed Serbian history, I was distracted by the sentence "Mind you, Mark, that Tito, he was a diamond."
His team was dominating but failing to score, but he told me it didn't matter because "this is a BALKAN pub, you don't know WHAT'S gonna 'appen", and we had more slivovic.
By now everything felt glowing and floaty, and I reckon I could have had open-heart surgery and only felt a minor tingle. But the pub was showing the game from Serb TV, so at half-time there was an advert in which packets of crisps danced with each other and sang in Serbian – not for the best when the world's already becoming a hazy wobble.
As the second half began the crowd sang a song that went "Zhivoli zhivoli zhivoli zhivoli zhivoli". "Sing up, mate, join in," said Nims to one lad, who seemed extremely slivoviced, and replied, "I can't, Nims, I've forgotten the words."
Then Australia scored, and a drunk Australian cheered on his own. A few minutes later it happened again and he whispered to me, "I'm going to stand right in the middle and scream 'Wooooooohooo.'" "Please don't," I begged him, but the only argument I could think of was, "Serbs can be very bad. Didn't you hear?"
A couple of drinks later came the most humiliating moment for anyone writing about a sporting event. I gazed at the screen and saw it was 2-1. Somehow I'd been in a pub full of Serbs to watch Serbia and Serbia had scored and I'd not even noticed.
As far as I know it ended 2-1 and the room filled with one of the saddest emotions – expected disappointment. They were out, and that's when the Australian chose to wipe off the beer he'd spilt over his hands on Nims' flag. Everyone looked at each other, made a note of the nearest exit, and then my 13-year-old son laughed, "That's how one wipe of the hands sparked an international incident."
"He's well sharp, your boy," said Nims, "Here, son, when your ol' man's not lookin' 'ave yourself a slivovic."
As the crowd filed away, one couple, Peter and Ivana, were beaming. "I am Serb," said Ivana, "and Peter is Australian, now we are both knocked out, which is good because Monday we are married and now we can have wedding with no argument."