Second Half With the Slovenians

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TIME’s Katy Steinmetz watched the second half of the USA-Slovenia World Cup showdown with that country’s ambassador in Washington. Here’s her story:

In a dark, dingy corner of Buffalo Billiard’s, an underground pub in Washington D.C., Slovenians of all degrees — be they visitors to the U.S., expats or second-generation — had their hopes high during halftime. Among the 50 or so gathered was the Slovenian ambassador, who sat chatting optimistically with flag-bearing compatriots as they waited to see what would happened to their 2-0 lead against the big, rich United States.

“You know, before the match, I hoped for a victory as a Slovenian, of course, but now after the first half, I am quite sure that it is achievable,” Ambassador Roman Kirn told TIME. But regardless of outcome, he said, “My job will be much easier.” The amount of Google-action, exposure and general recognition the tiny country of 2 million people is getting wouldn’t have been achievable any other way, he explains. “Everybody’s so supportive and enthusiastic,” he says of Americans. “But whether you lose or win, [what’s important] is that we are together on the field.”

Christina Emersic, an expat and salon manager living in D.C., put the same thought more succinctly: “People don’t know much about Slovenia, but now they’re gonna know more.”

As the second half rolled on, the Slovenian fans waved clap banners — signs folded like fans that yield a healthy whack when hit against an open palm — that read “I feel Slovenia” but were bolded so that it also read “I feel love.” And even though the clap banners made them look like teachers ominously wielding rulers, their demeanor was just as endearing: As the U.S.’s two (non-discounted) goals stacked up against the Slovenian supporters, many shrugged and laughed like they had been wondering how long they were actually going to get away with having a lead.

Being drowned by cheers of “U.S.A.!” only put their yells, elicited at every possession, saved goal and sight of Slovenes on TV, temporarily on pause – their actions echoing the halftime words of Kirn: “Soccer is a national sport. Now we don’t have 11 players on the field. We have 2 million.”

Christian Antalics, a second-generation American who was there with his father and uncle, well summed up the American feeling about the eventual tie result: “Tying England is a win. Tying Slovenia is a loss.” And for many of the Slovenes, the tie result elicited the same underdog feeling of half-jublilation-half-disappointment the U.S. felt after tying England. “This is not a surprising result. I wish we would have won, but I think now we can have this huge party and everyone is a winner. This is just paving the way to square off again in the future,” said Mateja de Leonni Stanonik, a neurologist who wore the Slovenian flag around herself like a cape.

But for the others, it was the ideal outcome. Rocky Shapla, a Slovene who came to the U.S. when he was 15 and was then drafted into the army in 1970 (and who was donning an Army Reserves camo backpack during the game), was all smiles. “I’m so proud to be American and so incredibly proud to be Slovenian. So this feels good. I’ll take a tie any day.” The ambassador concurred: “This is the result that is good for America and Slovenia and reflects the situation on the ground,” Kirn said. “Both teams played with full hearts, so I’m happy with this. I hope you are, too.”

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