The performance of the Croatia World Cup squad is touching a nerve with ethnic Croatians now living in the Okanagan.
As Croatia prepares to play the World Cup soccer final on Sunday against France, members of the Okanagan Croatian Cultural Club from Penticton to Vernon are caught up in a global groundswell of pride for their heritage and their team’s undergo-like performance on the pitch.
Kate Sarac, the incoming president for the club, said with a population of only four million, the success of the team so far has unleashed a renewed sense of pride in their country, both back home and abroad.
“Soccer is a uniter. It is bringing us together,” Sarac said.
|Croatians catching World Cup fever in Kelowna are Karla Gill and Maryann Gill. Photo: Contributed|
“If they win, the players on the team will be a part of Croatian folklore for the rest of time. We will be the smallest country to ever win the World Cup since 1930. Our team has played amazing, faced some tough overtime games. It’s been a struggle but they have pulled through.
“They must be exhausted from having to work so hard to reach the final. It has just been incredible to watch.”
Led by the diminutive Luka Modric, a star with Real Madrid, and others such as Domagoj Vida, Ivan Rakitic and goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, Sarac says this is the best team Croatia has fielded since the ‘98 squad that reached the World Cup semi-finals.
That year, it was France that eliminated Croatia 2-1 in the semi-final.
“It is so weird that 20 years later we are playing France again, ” Sarac said.
Sarac said she was living in Croatia back then, and was caught up in the excitement with all her native countrymen, a similar scene today she calls “just nutty.”
“In the town square in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, people are gathered to watch the games on the big projection screen along with live music, fireworks and people waving flags. We are not the richest country in the world but our country’s economy is expanding and we are culturally rich.”
Asked why soccer is such a unifying force around the world, Sarac said for Croatia it’s because everyone can play and identify with the sport like no other.
“Everyone can play. All you need is a ball and group of players and you have a team. Everyone knows the rules and how to play. In Croatia, kids play everywhere—on the street, grass fields and even gravel.”
As a young team, the national Croatia soccer squad is also emblematic of a regeneration of their country’s heritage among young people in the Okanagan and across Canada.
“When I started with the club two years ago we had 88 members on Facebook, and today that is now about 160. We are trying to get the younger generation more involved in our club,” she added.
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