STAMFORD — American and Irish flags hang outside Casey’s Tavern near the corner of Summer and Woodside streets. Good beer. Lots of TV screens. And on this Sunday, there would be a third national banner placed prominently on the front window of this Irish sports bar.
The red and white checkerboard was a beacon, a great magnet for passionate fans pulling for the underdogs of the World Cup final.
“Today,” said Rob Kraljevic, wrapping two soccer scarves around my shoulders, “you are Croatian.”
Spurred by the HNK Connecticut Croatia club, more than 150 Croatian soccer fans packed into Casey’s, so many they probably should have named the place Cacic for this warm July day. It surely was much closer to Zagreb than Stamford.
They began gathering two hours before the game, walking in the Croatian banners, and by the 11 a.m. start against France (6 p.m. in Moscow) Casey’s Croatians already were in full, throaty form. They hung to each other as they sang the national anthem along with the Croatian players on the screen, tears welling in some eyes.
“I couldn’t sleep last night,” Michael Kraljevic said. “It’s beyond words.”
“The feeling is inexpressible,” John Matura said. “We never thought we’d make it to the finals, but we are here. We play with our heart and there is no better feeling than playing with your heart.”
Croatian-born, Matura, who lives in Astoria, Queens, was in the minority. Most here Sunday are first generation Croatian-Americans, embracing their American dream while embracing the majestic World Cup performances of their tiny nation. Women wore the Croatian flags wrapped around their shoulders. Kids wore red-checkered shorts. Most everybody wore Croatian jerseys. A few even wore the distinct water polo caps of their country’s world champions. Some of them may have ancestors from Split, but their allegiances certainly weren’t.
“This means the world to us,” said Rob Kraljevic, who lives in Stamford. “We’re a small nation of about 4.2 million and another four million of us around the world, the diaspora. We’re first generation, but our boys are putting it all the pitch for us.”
All the chants were in the mother tongue and accompanied by an arm movement that probably would best be described as Tomahawk Chop with an accusatory pointed index finger. Rob Kraljevic said they are all about the homeland, fighting for the ball, faith in God and patriotism. They especially embraced singing, “Moja Domovina,” a song recorded for charity in 1991 by a supergroup named “Croatian Band Aid” during the war for independence.
“My homeland, my homeland. Has the strength of golden wheat. Has the eyes the color of the sea. My country Croatia.” The team celebrated its quarterfinal victory over Russia in Sochi by signing the song on the bus ride back to the hotel. Then they beat England. A country with a population of little more than Connecticut outlasted every superpower save France.
Casey’s Croatians were not dissuaded by the first own goal in World Cup final history. Yes, Antoine Griezmann took a dive. Marcello Brozovic never touched him. And, yes, Griezmann’s free kick went in off the head of Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic. Yet their team had shown remarkable resilience in continually rebounding from World Cup deficits. Sure enough, Ivan Perisic would quickly tie the game. The reaction by Casey’s Croatians ear splitting.
“If Croatia wins,” one woman said. “They’ll tear this place down.”
“It would be euphoria,” Nick Skara of Greenwich said.
There would be no euphoria. Instead, there would be a handball against Perisic for a penalty kick goal by Griezmann. Referee Nester Pitana overturned his original decision after being advised by the video assistant referee go to the VAR, employed for the first time in the 2018 World Cup. The ball did slip past Blaise Matuidi’s head and hit Persic’s hand, but given the enormous impact of the game I’m with the huge camp that believes the penalty call was excessive. It so reminded me of the pickle the NFL got by eschewing common sense for slow motion, multi-camera angle nuance.
“I think we played them off the pitch in the first half,” Michael Kraljevic said. “A couple of bad breaks.”
“I think you’ll see us turn it around in the second half,” Rob Kraljevic said. “Moja Domovina! We’re going to crush it.”
Croatia did not crush it. Instead France went up 3-1 and 4-1. Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe, France’s excellence and youth suddenly were there for the world to see. The air came out of Casey’s Croatians. Jaws dropped. There was near silence. For all the team had accomplished in Russia it was extraordinarily sad. So it was heartening to see Mandzukic take advantage of Hugo Lloris’ goalkeeping gaffe to make it 4-2. For no other reason to see some life pumped back into Casey’s Croatians. Heads here held high again.
“We’re first generation immigrants,” Skara said. “I remember being a 12-year-old kid in 1990 when Yugoslavia played Argentina and Argentina was our de facto national team, rooting against Yugoslavia because our parents escaped the Communist system. The way Croatia finished third in the World Cup in 1998 and now in the finals is indescribable.
“There are kids playing in the streets in Croatia while our kids in the U.S. are on their Xbox. You have to respect the hunger. This is a great story no matter the result today.”
Eastern European stories often are compelling and complex and this one is no different. Luka Modric won the Golden Ball as MVP of the World Cup. His grandfather was killed by Serbian rebels and he spent his early years living in refugee hotels. His rise among the world’s elite is inspiring. He’s also is looking at perjury charges in an embezzlement case over transfer fees involving convicted former Dinamo Zagreb president Zdravko Mamic.
“In my view, every soccer federation does the same thing,” Skara said. “There’s that old communist regime in there trying to bring down our pride. I think a lot of the [extreme criticism] is from a segment that hates the national team. My American friends ask me why I have such passion for Croatia, it’s because it was instilled by my parents. We are a small country that didn’t even exist for hundreds of years. This is a proud moment.”
They also are proud that HKN Croatia, a two-time Connecticut Soccer League champion, has players from Brazil, Haiti, England, all over.
“My dad, who’s off the boat, says, ‘Mikey, America is America,’ Kraljevic said. “We’re living the American dream. But through communism, through the war, we’re also super attached to our heritage.”
So Casey’s Croatians left with their heads high, their hearts on their sleeve and the checkerboard on their chest.