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Throngs of young people jumped with joy after Croatia went ahead against Brazil in their World Cup opener in Sao Paolo.

"Yes!" many of them screamed, while others pumped fists in the air, some of them clad in the red-and-white checkered jersey symbolizing Croatia's historic coat-of-arms.

A chance visitor would be forgiven for thinking that he or she was in the middle of the soccer-mad Croatian capital of Zagreb.

Actually, this was happening in the center of Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, Croatia's "arch-enemy" in sports, politics and -- two decades ago -- on the battlefield as the former Yugoslavia collapsed in a series of wars.

Football rivalries, sometimes reflecting historical relations, often run very deep -- just ask your average English, Irish, or Scottish fan.

In the light of recent bloody history, however, they are taken to the extreme in the Balkans. Deep antagonism, even hatred, especially among the young, seemed to be the rule and supporting the "others" is anathema.

But for several dozen young Belgrade residents, as well as a growing number of people throughout the region, this attitude just does not make sense at all.

That's why big-stage debutants Bosnia and relative tournament veterans Croatia, the only teams from the region in Brazil, can count on noisy support from some unlikely quarters this time around.

"I can only say that I cheer from the bottom of my heart for the neighbors, a little bit more for Bosnia than for Croatia, I have to say, but tonight for Croatia," a woman in her twenties told RFE/RL's Balkan service in a cultural center in Belgrade to the sound of almost frantic cheering for Croatia in the background.

The shared viewing of this and other games, under the slogan "Cheer for Your Neighbor," was organized by the "Youth Initiative for Human Rights,"a Belgrade-based non-governmental organization with a reputation for breaking ethnic-based taboos in Serbian society.

"We have to support each other. After all, we belong to the same culture," another woman said, standing against a wall adorned by the Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian flags.

One of those who could be credited with helping this thaw is Novak Djokovic, the world's number two tennis player.

Util recently, he was seen outside of Serbia as someone who allows himself to be too easily used by politicians when it comes promoting a nationalist Serbian identity.

But, after massive floods hit Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia last month, "Nole" did not spurn the opportunity to appeal for assistance to the three countries, saying that, when disaster strikes, there is no difference between these peoples.

He also didn't do any harm by saying that, in the absence of Serbia at the World Cup, he would cheer for Bosnia and Croatia.

Still, this may not be enough to persuade most Bosnian Serbs and Croats to support "the Dragons" as Bosnia's national team is affectionately known.

The team has been dominated by Bosniak Muslim players, but over the two decades since it first came into existence, Bosnian Serb and Croat coaches and players have played very important roles.

The western part of the ethnically divided city of Mostar looks no different than most Croatian cities these days -- Croatian flags and banners in support of "the Fiery Ones" adorn the town's streets and buildings.

Unlike Sarajevo, which awaits Bosnia's first game against Argentina on June 15 in a state of euphoria, in Banja Luka, the capital of Bosnia's Serb Republic, the World Cup does not seem to arouse any passion -- apart from those who say that, in the absence of Serbia, they would support any team except Bosnia and Croatia.

But even there, after years of widespread open contempt for the Bosnian team, there are signs that things are changing.

"I will support Bosnia, why not? After all, our players from Banja Luka and from Republika Srpska are on the team," one young man told RFE/RL.

-- Written by Nedim Dervisbegovic in Prague based on reporting by Zoran Glavonjic in Belgrade, Selma Boracic in Sarajevo, and Erduan Katana in Banja Luka

RFE/RL's World Cup Quiz

RFE/RL's World Cup Quiz

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If Psychic Saiga's World Cup predictions become a hit, they could help draw some welcome attention to the plight of his fellow antelopes. Kazakhstan's saiga population has decline rapidly in recent years.
Meet Psychic Saiga, an antelope that roams the Kazakhstan steppe, and uses his magic powers to predict the 2014 World Cup soccer results. Or so he claims on Twitter.

Using animals to predict soccer match results has become a worldwide craze since Paul the Octopus, who lived in a tank in Oberhausen, Germany, shot to fame by correctly predicting eight matches during the 2010 World Cup, including the final, when he foresaw Spain's victory over the Netherlands. (Paul didn't fare too well in the 2008 European Championship, however, getting two out six predictions wrong.)

Since Paul's impressive run, other animals around the world have attempted to get in on the act.

Big Heads, a turtle in Brazil, Madam Shiva, a guinea pig in Switzerland, and a team of baby pandas in China –to name just a few – are all aiming to predict the winners of each match at the World Cup in Brazil.

Psychic Saiga is also facing competition at home in Kazakhstan from Tomiris the Monkey from the Almaty zoo.

But unlike other psychic animals, Psychic Saiga has never been seen. In fact, there is no evidence that he even exists other than his Twitter account.@psychicsaiga.

Psychic Saiga, or whoever is tweeting in his name, also claims his predictions won't be limited to the World Cup -- or even sports.

"I roam the steppe and use my powers to predict future events via a shaman friend of mine," he tweeted recently.

The antelope, however, got his debut prediction wrong by saying that the opening World Cup game between Brazil and Croatia would end in a draw.


The host, Brazil won the June 12 match, beating Croatia 3-1.

Unfazed by the error, Psychic Saiga blamed it on a "dodgy" call by the referee.

"It should have been a ref from Uzbekistan," he tweeted.

He went on to make more predictions, forecasting victory in matches for Mexico over Cameroon and Chile over Australia on June 13 as well as a draw between Spain and the Netherlands on the same day.

As for the final game, Psychic Saiga predicts Argentina will win the World Cup with a victory over runner-up England.

Will Psychic Saiga be a worthy successor to Paul the Octopus? Will his predictions be better than Madam Shiva's and Big Heads, the turtle's?

If so, he may raise the profile of his fellow Saiga antelopes, an endangered species often hunted by poachers.

The population of Kazakhstan's saigas, which stood at around a million in the 1980s, has now decreased to some 137,000.

-- Farangis Najibullah

RFE/RL's World Cup Quiz

RFE/RL's World Cup Quiz

Start the quiz to find out!

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About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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