Tears followed by dancing in San Pedro: Proud Croatian community celebrates amid World Cup loss
By Donna Littlejohn, staff writer and Louis Casiano, contributing writer
It was not a typical reaction you’d expect from the losing side.
Following Croatia’s heartbreaking World Cup soccer loss Sunday morning, fans in San Pedro took a few moments for tears and consolation hugs — and then they broke out in dance.
Around they went, arms waving and shouting as a band played music from the homeland.
After some tears, Croatian pride breaks forth in San Pedro #2018WorldCup pic.twitter.com/ZjJXDCLauV
— Donna Littlejohn (@donnalittlejohn) July 15, 2018
It wasn’t the party they’d hoped for.
But it was a party nonetheless.
“We made it this far and I’ve never been more proud,” said Frances Mayeda of San Pedro. “This is still a victory for us. It stings a little, but there is something about the Croatian culture that is so special.”
An estimated 1,200 fans turned out to watch the final game against France on a giant outdoor screen set up outside the Croatian American Club on Ninth Street.
They arrived early, many just after the sun came up, wearing the team’s red-and-white checkered T-shirts and jerseys and sipping coffee purchased from the Starbuck’s on the corner.
Ben Rosenberg, 23, cut off most of his long blond hair Saturday night and woke up early to dye it in a checkerboard pattern with red squares to symbolize the Croatian flag.
Along with his Croatian-born wife, Nada, 24, and his two daughters, Rosenberg praised the team’s performance throughout the World Cup, given they were not expected to advance so far.
“I’m hoping for the best,” said a hopeful Javier Gonzalez. “My wife is Croatian and I’m Mexican. I think (the game) is going to be great. It’s a Cinderella story.”
The crowd included an array of nationalities.
“Everyone’s Croatian today,” one fan said as she arrived.
Croatia made a surprisingly close run for the coveted World Club. A running commentary on the BBC said the team dominated much of the game against France and had “pluck.” They played well, they just didn’t win.
“For Croatia, it’s a boulevard of broken dreams, but they can go home with their heads held high,” a commentary on The Guardian read.
Nicki Jazdez, standing in the middle of Ninth Street after the game, wiped away tears.
“But I’m also proud,” she said through her tears.
“We made it here and we weren’t supposed to,” Rosenberg said after the game. “We did our best and played our hardest. We’re very proud.”
Mayeda said the sheer determination of the team was something to cheer about, even amid the loss.
“No one expected this. They played with all heart,” she said. “I could cry thinking about it, but this is huge for us.”
La Mirada resident Anny Antunovich, 19, arrived from Croatia Saturday night after visiting family in Split and the coastal city of Dubrovnik. Dressed in the colors of her homeland from head toe, including tights designed in the look of the Croatian flag, she said the team lost momentum in the game’s second half.
“I think we’re a way better team … but I’m so happy they got this far,” she said. “It could have been a lot closer. Our goalie was really injured too.”
For Paulina Skelin, 39, of San Pedro, Sunday’s the loss was a reminder of Croatia’s loss to France in the 1998 World Cup.
With her daughters Antonela, 8, and Mariana, 6, Skelin said the team put up a fight but weren’t able to capitalize on opportunities the way France did.
“I was impressed because they didn’t have much possession on the ball but they were able to score,” Skelin said. “It just really hurt because we lost to them in ’98.”
Logan Brown of Arizona, whose fiance is part Croatian, wore much of the game’s ups and downs on his face.
“But we’re second in the world,” he said afterward. “And that’s pretty good.”
His future mother-in-law, Diana Gusich of San Pedro, praised the team’s performance as well as the crowd’s positive response as applause broke out and the dancing began.
“I like the team spirit,” she said. “They gave it everything … It just seemed like luck wasn’t with us.”
Though he supported the Croatian team, Everett Emerson, 56, of San Pedro, gave all credit to France after the match, saying the team showed momentum in the second half.
“I wasn’t convinced about France in the first half because they just got it on fouls and penalty kicks,” They were the Goliath and Croatia was the David and it was not to be today. We’re proud to support the Croatian team. They never gave up heart today. To come from behind against three teams to get here today was amazing.”
After a while, the crowd dwindled but the party wasn’t dying down.
Around and around in circles they went as the tempo of the band picked up. And the fans who remained danced on.