Serbian soccer fans throw their three fingers in what’s known as “the Serb Salute,” which most commonly stands for the Holy Trinity. (Courtesy of Aleksandra Skoric)

On the screen at the head of the Lucky Bar in Washington, Serbian back Aleksandar Kolarov lined up a free kick. Marko Ristic yanked the red, white and blue scarf reading “SERBIA” tighter around his head as it dampened with sweat. Then, Kolarov drilled a left-footed laser past the goalkeeper and Ristic pranced and twirled and kissed the cheeks of men and women he did not know at 9 a.m. on a Sunday.

“Putin!” he howled. “Putin!”

A few feet away, a woman wearing a nearly identical red, white and blue scarf, except that it said “YUGOSLAVIA,” sighed.

“Nationalists,” she said. “They think Russia is their savior, even though it has done nothing.”

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Serbia used to be a part of Yugoslavia, a nation of six republics established after World War I. In the early 1990s, a brutal civil war erupted and many people of mixed Yugoslavian descent fled to the United States.

“I support all the Yugoslavian teams,” said Nikola Agatic, whose mother was Bosnian-Serbian and father was Bosnian-Croatian. “Yesterday I was watching the Croatia game.”

Milorad Skoric was a Serbian living in Croatia; he moved to California days before the wars started. Even though tension between his two lives remains high, he can’t help but support both countries. He knows not everyone sees the region the way he does.

When Serbia made its first World Cup as an independent nation in 2010, it felt like validation to Ristic. As a boy, he had skipped a sleepaway field trip to Macedonia to watch the Yugoslavian team play, and he pulled for the Serbian players more than others. As the Eagles readied to play in South Africa, he marched out to a market in his home town of Knjazevac and bought the scarf he wore now. It felt freeing to read “SERBIA.”

“Now we’re pure Serbian, no Croatian,” Ristic said. “It’s a more local identity.”

Skoric struggled to reconcile what it means to be “pure” anything in that region. He preferred simpler memories, like rolling up old socks for a ball to kick around. He sighed. It was all so complicated.

He looked back at the screen, at the Serbians. All around him sat Bosnians, Croatians and fellow Serbians, and they all told similar stories. They had all grown up in a place once called Yugoslavia, dribbling whatever passed as a ball with kids they called friends, dreaming one day they would play in front of the world and show everyone where they came from.

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