Hrvatska! Hrvatska! Hrvatska!
In a basement of the typically quiet Strawberry Hill neighborhood in Kansas City, Kan., those words could be heard echoing repeatedly from over 200 strong over the course of three hours on Saturday afternoon.
Hrvatska means “Croatia” in the native tongue for a Croatian, and a strong band of Croatian soccer fans had gathered in the basement of St. John’s Catholic Club, where through an inauspicious set of doors down a spacious alleyway, a bar and bowling club played host to the hopes and dreams of generations of Croatian fans in the KC area, as their team competes in the 2018 World Cup.
Matej Batinic was only 4 years old the last time Croatia made a World Cup semifinal in 1998. He remembers watching a game in a hospital while visiting his grandfather.
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“I remember all of the halls of the hospital were empty,” Batinic said. “So I went to the top level, and everybody was gathered around a TV, watching Croatia — IV’s and all.”
Twenty years later, Batinic was one of many Croats crammed into the St. John’s basement bar and bowling alley to watch Croatia move onto their first World Cup semifinal since 1998. He and many others still exhibit the kind of passion and national pride as those in the hospital did 20 years prior.
He is also one of hundreds of Croatians to have called Strawberry Hill home. Batinic moved to Kansas City from Split, Croatia, when he was 8, to escape the still recovering nation of Croatia after its War of Independence from Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
But he is part of just one of many to have left Eastern Europe and arrived at Strawberry Hill in the past century. The first original waves started in the late 1890s into the early 1900s.
“My grandparents immigrated in 1903, so it’s been a long time,” said Doreen Draskovich, who grew up in Strawberry Hill.
“They lived across the street, and that was the place where everybody in the neighborhood grew up together,” she continued. “Every Saturday, they would put lamb on a spit, and everybody came, and it was always every weekend, it was a family dinner.”
Hordes of Croatians made the long journey to America for the hope of a new life, like many of those before them. Kansas City was home at the time to a Swift Meat Packing factory, which brought in and gave work to many of the Croatians who arrived in the Midwest.
The small community in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood that has housed Croatians for over a century has a very European feel to it, too. Small streets with cars squeezed on either side are lined by tight, yet neatly kept houses.
Everybody also seems to know everybody else. On Saturday afternoon, there weren’t many people in the streets, because they were inside St. John’s Catholic Club. But inside the tightly cramped bar, there didn’t seem to be a face that was unknown by somebody else.
Even the beer being served in the bar was native to Croatia — a beer called Karlovačko, which translates roughly to 'made in Karlovac.'
“There are people I’ve been around with who I went to 12 years of school with them and we ran around the families that were here,” Draskovich said. “So we’ve known each other for years, and that’s the best part of it. Because even if we don’t see each other regularly, we all come back here at least three or four times a year, for events like this.”
The Catholic Club goes so far back that Draskovich’s father, John Draskovich Jr., was president of the club in 1974.
So when Ivan Rakitić scored the winning penalty for Croatia to win the penalty shootout against Russia on Saturday and advance to the semifinals of the World Cup, you can only imagine the scenes of pure jubilation and noise that came bursting from that basement.
“When Russia took the first kick, we didn’t know what to think. Everybody was holding onto each other,” Batinic said. “And when that ball bounced out, out of our goal, we just knew we had a shot. It gave our boys a chance to drill that ball into the back of the net, and we knew we would take care of the rest.”
With Croatia’s 4-3 penalty shootout victory, Batinic and the rest of the St. John’s crowd can celebrate for the weekend, before turning their minds to the next challenge.
Croatia will face England in the semifinals on Wednesday at 1 p.m. at the Stadion Luzhinski in Moscow.