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Head topic Croatians celebrate World Cup finals

July 12, 2018

STAMFORD — Rob Vebegonja will be watching the World Cup in one of two places on Sunday: At Casey’s Tavern on Woodside Street or at Greenwich Hospital while his wife gives birth to their first born.

Either way, the Stamford resident and first-generation Croatian-American will be watching his parents’ home country play the World Cup finals for the first time in history.

“We had heart, we had unity and we had a drive for our country,” the 33-year-old said after Croatia beat England in the semi-finals, 2-1. “I’m either going to watch the finals and have a baby or have a baby and watch the finals.”

He’s not the only one dedicated to watching. While Stamford has a small Croatian population (the 2016 census shows there are fewer than 100 in the city), their showing power for their team has been mighty.

Michael Kraljevic, 42, another first-generation Croatian-American and Stamford resident said on Tuesday afternoon that he would fly to Moscow to see Croatia play in the finals. Prior to Wednesday’s game, he and his family and friends had been following the World Cup closely. On Saturday, Kraljevic’s friends and family came to roast a lamb on a spit in the yard of his Stamford home before the game.

Kraljevic, whose father escaped Croatia during the war, said winning would mean a lot after all the country’s seen. He said his love of the game ties back to his love of country.

“When the war was going on, it was scary,” he said. “I have a lot of family there. We did what we could financially. My dad re-mortgaged his house to send money to Croatia...it was pretty emotional. I lost relatives in the war. I was very connected to it.”

Both the stories of Croatia and England tug at heartstrings like the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 World Series win and the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2018 Super Bowl win. Croatia has reached the finals for the first time since gaining independence in 1991. England hasn’t won a World Cup since 1966.

Both English and Croatian transplants have found their communities in Stamford and in each other through a shared love of the sport. But Wednesday’s semifinal game drove the two apart. Croatian fans fled to Port Chester (with the exception of Vebegonja), while a mob of England fans sporting red, white and blue took to Casey’s.

However, the latter, many of whom took off work to see the game, felt the heartbreak after England lost to Croatia in extra time.

“We’ve been supporting each other the whole tournament,” said British native, Greenwich Academy coach and Coerver Coaching Connecticut director Alistair Lonsdale. “They came to the bar, we came to the bar. We’re friends. But now we’re facing each other. It means a lot to both countries.”

erin.kayata@stamfordadvocate.com; (203) 964-2265; @erin_kayata

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