Columbus-area Croatians thrilled to see small, young nation reach World Cup final

By Allison Ward - The Columbus Dispatch (TNS)

COLUMBUS — Only 30 minutes after one of the greatest moments in Tomi Matanovic’s life, he learned that another one was on the way.

At Endeavor Brewing Co. on Wednesday afternoon, Matanovic — surrounded by a tightknit group of his countrymen and -women in their adopted home of Columbus — sat watching Croatia win its first berth in a World Cup final. The friends chanted, hugged and cried as Croatia downed England, 2-1, in overtime.

On his drive home from the Grandview Heights area to New Albany, the 36-year-old Matanovic received a call from his wife, Linda. She was in labor with their first child.

“My joy was tripled at that point,” he said. “I had a lot of adrenaline.”

Leo Niko Matanovic arrived at 7:12 a.m. Thursday at Mount Carmel St. Ann’s hospital in Westerville — just in time to share with his dad another “greatest moment.”

“I’m going to wrap him in my Croatia jersey and watch it with him,” the proud new father said of the championship game to be played Sunday.

Like little Leo, other Croatians living in central Ohio will be decked out in red-and-white checkers, their pride unmistakable as their country takes on France in Moscow.

Being 5,000 miles from their homeland in Europe for such a momentous occasion is difficult, but the Columbus-area Croatians said they’re thrilled to be able to share in the team’s success with other Croatians living here.

Matija Zitko said he’ll happily watch the game at Endeavor, where he’ll meet a half-dozen fellow Croatians, plus relatives living here, friends and co-workers.

“Through experiences like these, I’ve been able to meet and grow closer to other Croatians in Columbus,” said Zitko, 38, who lives in Westerville with his wife, Elizabeth, and 2-year-old son Dominik. He moved to Columbus in 1999 to attend Ohio Dominican University, where he played soccer.

“Sharing the finals with them is an experience I will cherish for a lifetime,” he said.

Their entire homeland, it seems, feels the same.

Worthington resident Ivan Feitl said that, even though making the World Cup final is a major accomplishment for any team, it means a bit more for Croatia, a nation of just 4 million that gained its independence from Yugoslavia 27 years ago.

“Other countries, they get emotional — but for us, we’re still working through creating the identification of ourselves, and the most positive identification is through sports,” said Feitl, 38, who moved to the United States for his senior year of high school in 1997 and has been living in Columbus since 2013.

“I know if Croatia spent billions of dollars on marketing, it wouldn’t do what these guys are doing on the field,” he said. “It’s such a positive advertisement of the country.”

Like his fellow countrymen in Ohio and several players on the Croatian national team, Feitl recalls running from grenades as a child in the war that followed Croatia’s declaration of independence in 1991.

“We were all part of the birth of a new country,” he said.

Ivan Kirincic fled the violence with his family when he was about 5, landing in Chicago. He now lives in Dublin, where he works as a physical therapist, but he remembers how he and his family didn’t know whether his father, who had stayed behind in his hometown to fight, was alive for a month and a half.

That turbulent history, Kirincic said, heightens the meaning of the country’s participation in the World Cup final.

“France is trying to maintain its reputation as a powerhouse of soccer,” said Kirincic, 32. “For us, it’s so much more than soccer. It takes me back to when we fought for our independence and brings it to a national stage.”

Although he has appreciated watching the games with his newfound Croatian friends in Ohio, Kirincic said he couldn’t resist a trip to Chicago, where he planned to surprise his family (especially his father) and friends. He’ll cheer the team on Sunday from the Croatian Cultural Center of Chicago, where an estimated 800 fellow Croatians are expected to gather.

“There is a massive Croatian population in Chicago,” Kirincic said. “We’re definitely getting the party started. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d be in the finals.”

Croatia is playing the role of underdog well, given its small size, its history and its relative obscurity on the international map, but the team’s fate isn’t a total surprise, area Croatian fans say. The country finished third in the 1998 World Cup — its first appearance — and has always produced strong athletes who play for Europe’s top clubs. Those successes — combined with a new coach, a favorable draw in the tournament and a bit of luck — have led to the world’s biggest soccer stage, Feitl said.

Soccer is a way of life there — and for Croatians living in Columbus. All those interviewed played soccer from a young age, and most continue to play in recreational leagues.

“We’ve all met through soccer, either watching it or playing it,” said Tomo Yelich, 35, a Cleveland native born to Croatian parents who attended high school in Split, Croatia. The engineer at Honda now lives in Dublin with his wife, who is due with their fifth child in October.

“We’re getting to know people who speak the same language and have the same culture,” Yelich said. “Getting to watch with fellow countrymen — and to watch Croatia win — and to share in the joy has been amazing.”

The stress has lightened since Croatia reached the final, Feitl said. Nothing can diminish the jubilation he felt Wednesday afternoon.

After the celebration at the brewery, he returned home to his wife, Laura, and their three daughters, one of whom had drawn him a picture of the Croatian flag, a soccer ball and fans cheering.

He and his wife are expecting a baby boy later this week.

The boy will be called Luka, a name the couple has had picked out for a decade. He knows, however, that others will think his son is named after Luka Modric, Croatia’s star midfielder.

“But I don’t mind at all,” Feitl conceded.

Especially if Modric helps bring home the cup.

By Allison Ward

The Columbus Dispatch (TNS)

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