Soldier Field was an ocean of green and red last week when Mexico's national soccer team came to town for a pre-World Cup warm-up match, but here and there were bright dabs of yellow and blue — fans dressed head to toe in the colors of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Though they were wildly outnumbered by the chanting, horn-blowing fans of the team known as El Tri, Bosnia's supporters seemed possessed by a serene delight, and not just when midfielder Izet Hajrovic buried a shot in Mexico's net for the game's lone goal.
"As a people, we've been through so much," said Chicagoan Armin Suljevic, a Bosnia native who left his homeland toward the end of its catastrophic civil war in the 1990s. "This team really captures the passion and everything we've been through. It helps to connect us because we have a large diaspora yet have this in common. We can watch this team wherever we are."
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Thirty-two nations will participate in the quadrennial World Cup, which starts Thursday in Brazil, and for expatriates and immigrants here in Chicago, the tournament offers a chance to unite with countrymen around the planet's largest sporting event.
They will gather in bars, restaurants and private homes to cheer their teams' victories, lament their failures and taste a bit of global attention that, in many cases, rarely focuses on their home countries.
More important than that, though, they'll have the opportunity to strengthen bonds that might have stretched thin over time and distance. When the referee blows the whistle to start the game, they will be countrymen once more.
"I know people who don't have that much connection to the country, but when it comes to the World Cup, I can see they really care about the team," said Soroush Aslani, an Iranian graduate student at Northwestern University. "It's a reflection of their heritage, so it's really important."
Simin Rasmussen is on the board of Iran House of Greater Chicago, an organization that aims to strengthen cultural ties among the Persian community, and said there are roughly 10,000 people of Persian descent living in the Chicago area, not counting those who have traveled here to study.
There is a generation gap between those who came before the country's 1979 revolution and those who arrived later, she said, but Iranians of all ages are crazy about soccer. When the national team plays in important matches, restaurants will open at any hour to accommodate the swarm of fans.
Soccer has at times helped to warm the icy relations between the United States and Iran, particularly after Iran defeated the Americans 2-1 at the 1998 World Cup, but with the teams not expected to meet in Brazil, Rasmussen did not foresee a similar rapprochement this time.
"If they were playing against each other, I would say more people would watch it, but with Iran playing Argentina or another country, probably not," she said. "Politically, I don't think it will change the perceptions because (Americans) don't know the players. They're not personalities."
The team from Uruguay, by contrast, features one incandescent personality — Luis Suarez, a man as notorious for his volcanic temper (he's twice been suspended for biting opponents) as he is revered for his otherworldly talent (he's the reigning player of the year in England's Premier League).
A recent knee injury, though, has put Suarez's World Cup in doubt, and that has depressed expectations among Chicago's small Uruguayan population, said Gustavo Dibarboure, who works in the office of Uruguayan Consul General Nury Bauzan.
Still, Dibarboure expected a strong turnout at local get-togethers to watch the national team, which has become Uruguay's global calling card. Dibarboure said that when he was recently posted in China, locals immediately associated Uruguay with soccer.
"It's something we feel really proud of," he said. "It's our national sport, even though, for example, I'm really bad at playing soccer. I love the game, love the players. Everyone in Uruguay feels he or she should be the coach of the national team."
That kind of obsession can also be found among Algeria's supporters, about 15 of whom last week gathered at Cafe Zafferano on the North Side to watch a pre-World Cup "friendly" match against Romania.
Some wore pistachio-green Algeria jerseys as they drank tea and shouted in Arabic at the televisions. When midfielder Nabil Bentaleb chipped in the game's first goal, the men erupted in cheers that quickly became a rhythmic chant.
"It is the only sport that Algerians really like," said cafe owner Abderahman Khellil, who is from Algiers. "We don't have baseball, basketball, football and hockey. Just soccer. They don't follow anything else."
Algerian native Rachid Belbachir of the Maghreb Association of North America, an organization that fosters ties among people from North African countries, said that when the national team plays, electronic messages fly back and forth from his desert homeland to Old Irving Park, center of Chicago's small Algerian community.
"It's the excitement," he said. "It's like the Cubs, or the Bulls when they're in the championship."
World Cup fever is spiking with particular intensity in Chicago's Bosnian community, which is celebrating its home country's first appearance in the tournament. Dijana Keljalic, a Brookfield resident who was born in Bosnia, said the team could give international soccer fans a different view of the country.
"It's a great way to show people our culture," she said before the match against Mexico. "Hopefully we'll get far enough (in the World Cup) to get more attention."
Elmhurst resident Ramiz Nukic is from Srebrenica, a town that became synonymous with ethnic cleansing after the infamous 1995 massacre. He left just before the 1991 breakup of Yugoslavia and said he lost two brothers in the violence.
Watching the national team play now stirs feelings of patriotism, he said, as if Bosnians scattered around the world were "like one person." Though like most fans of the team he wasn't expecting it to make a deep run, he said its qualification for the tournament alone has been a source of joy.
"It's an amazing feeling," he said. "It's like dreams come true, after all the tragedy we went through, all the pain. A lot of people got hurt, a lot of people lost family. After all that, we have this team. This is our dream team."