Hundreds of soccer fans flooded St. Anthony Croatian Catholic Church in downtown Los Angeles on Sunday to cheer for Croatia’s national team as it took on France for the World Cup final. Some travelled from as far as San Diego to watch the game with LA’s Croatian community, while others just happened to be visiting from Croatia.

St. Anthony’s Croatian Parish Center.

Though the game didn’t start until 8 a.m., by 7 the seats were packed and the standing-room-only crowd had already formed a sea of red and white checkers. Croatia fans had arrived in force, not merely to watch the game, but to watch it with a community.

“I just moved from Croatia two years ago,” explained Diana Perez, who came to watch with her husband, Ian. “I wanted to be surrounded by my people. You know, sing my songs, get the atmosphere, speak my language.”

The same could be said of Helena Herceg Burke, who had just recently returned to Los Angeles after a vacation in her home town of Zagreb. She watched the last three games surrounded by the Croatian people and culture and wanted the same experience during the final match.

 “I can’t imagine being anywhere else than right here for this experience,” said Perez. “Just seeing the excitement in the air, with everybody else wearing the red and white checkers … it’s so exciting to see so many Croatian people together here at St. Anthony’s.”

As fans first arrived at the game watch, they were met with the opportunity to buy some gear —  flags, stickers, car decals, and more — to show their team spirit.
Heading the sales was a parishioner of St. Anthony Parish, Mate Vukojevic, a new father of two twin boys. The World Cup final was the first game he has been able to watch with the St. Anthony community.

When asked where the proceeds would be going, Vukojevic said that it was all going to St. Anthony’s Church. “And the children’s schools!” his own father, Milenko Vukojevic, interjected, lest his son forget to mention the Croatian cultural school attached to St. Anthony’s. “Both combined,” the younger Vukojevic conceded.

The elder Vukojevic, like many of those in attendance, is originally from Croatia, and was thrilled to see his homeland make it to the World Cup finals for the first time.

“It’s a big deal for us, it’s a small country,” Vukuojevic said, “We tell people about Croatia, but [they say] ‘Where’s Croatia?’ And now they will know, you know? At least if we don’t get a golden medal, at least we’ll get silver, and everyone will know where is Croatia.”

To the fans’ great disappointment, Croatia lost 4-2 to France. Despite the loss, many of the fans were happy just making it to the finals.

Karla Bekic, a recent immigrant to the US, believed she was speaking for all Croatia fans when she said, “No matter what happened today, I think we all are so proud of the guys and how they played this whole World Cup, and we’re so happy for them.”

Earlier, before the game had began, Father Vlatko Polijicak, former pastor of St. Anthony and current resident of Croatia, had made the prediction that, “If Croatia wins, and I hope that they win, you will hear singing here.” 

Even without that win, singing was heard, as crowds sang along to “Lijepa li si,” by Thompson after the game ended.

Bekic explained the importance of the song to Croatia fans, saying that it “says about every part of our country something, and how beautiful it is, and how we all are one.”  

Many even stayed long after the game had ended, either to chat with friends and relatives, light a candle and say a prayer in the church, or wait for Mass -- which was said in Croatian -- to begin. 

Diana and Ian Perez pose before the game showing off their Croatian red and white checkered jerseys.