Few of them expected a victory — at least, not on the field, where their beloved Croatian national soccer team was playing hometown favorite Brazil in the opening match of the World Cup soccer tournament in Rio de Janeiro.
But the final score (3-1 for Brazil, as it turned out) mattered not to the hundreds of Croatian Catholics who, on this bright June 12 afternoon, jammed the parish hall of tiny St. Anthony Church in downtown Los Angeles to view the game on giant-screen television.
“For us, victory is already here,” proclaimed longtime parishioner Ivan Sep, in between playing joyful Croatian melodies on his accordion that prompted exuberant dancing and singing among his fellow football (i.e., soccer) fans. “How many teams get a chance to play opening game of the World Cup against a great team like Brazil? This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The viewing party (to be repeated for Croatia’s games June 18 against Cameroon and 23 against Mexico) was organized as a fundraiser for St. Anthony’s audio and video ministries by brothers Ante and Branimir Kvartuc. Ante is the founder and editor of CroatianSports.com, a website covering Croatian sports in English; Branimir is communications director for L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino who represents the San Pedro area that is home to Mary Star of the Sea Church and a large Croatian Catholic community.
“This is about more than soccer,” said Ante, noting that the local Croatian community recently raised thousands of dollars for flood victims in and near their homeland in southern Europe. “We’ve got many important priorities that go beyond soccer, but we also enjoy celebrating our faith and our heritage. And this seemed like an ideal way to do that, especially with the prestige of opening the World Cup.”
The pride of Croatian Catholics was clearly evident in John Cvjetkovic and John Cadovec, who tended the bar in between cheering for their home team and reciting a list of sports figures with Croatian heritage — baseball’s Roger Maris, football’s Bill Bellichick and Nick Saban, golf’s Fred Couples among them.
“Croatia has been a bulwark of Catholicism for 1,400 years,” declared Cvjetkovic, an emergency services manager for L.A. County and St. Anthony parishioner since 1958.
“And two of Croatia’s team members were born in Brazil,” smiled Cadovec, naming Eduardo da Silva and Jorge Sammir Cruz Campos. “That’s another element of what makes this so much fun.”
The party — which included a boisterous march around the church property, with participants chanting “Hrvatska! Hrvatska!” (Croatia! Crioatia!) — began in earnest around noon, with young and old filing in, nearly all of them dressed in Croatia’s team colors (red, white and blue) and in some manner of uniform, including 9-month-old Michelle Tomas of Burbank, escorted by proud parents Damir and Ljuba.
“Being Croatian and being Catholic go hand-in-hand,” said Damir, who works for the Department of Water and Power. “And it’s fun to have these events where we celebrate our faith with family and friends.” He declined to predict victory, although he admitted to praying the rosary before coming to the party.
Some came from much farther than Southern California. Allen Strk, a 21-year-old college student, flew in from New York at the invitation of friends, taking a day off from his college studies.
“I have friends here who have been great to me, and I wanted to pay my respects,” smiled the parishioner of St. Andrew Avellino Church in Flushing. “For Croatia to be in the world spotlight — that’s a big deal.”
As freely as the singing and refreshments flowed, however, all in attendance were reminded of what mattered most as they were led in a pregame prayer by St. Anthony’s administrator, Father Ivan Gerovac.
“We are people of God,” he said as the assembly quieted. “Let us pray in thanksgiving for the God who gives us so many blessings, and that we may always improve ourselves as disciples. There is a time to lose and a time to win. Let us always remember that the greatest victory is to win souls in the name of our Lord.”