CLEARWATER — In front of what looks like a small church auditorium just off U.S. 19, boys in oversized T-shirts kicked a soccer ball between parked cars on fenced-in grass. About 70 anxious adults walked through the doors of the Croatia Club of Tampa Bay to attend what for many was the most anticipated party in years.
Inside, the Croatian and U.S. flags hung from the ceiling, separated by a large cross. A flat-screen TV plugged into a laptop played the Croatian channel HRT 2's World Cup broadcast as fans watched from stiff, padded chairs.
The Croatian men's soccer team's rise to the World Cup final — following down-to-the-wire victories over Denmark, Russia and England and culminating in a 4-2 loss to France on Sunday — motivated members of the local Croatian community to meet each other and celebrate together.
At halftime, as Croatia trailed 2-1 and the crowd opened boxes from Country Pizza Italian Grill, Tanya Weiss of St. Petersburg stepped outside for a cigarette.
"My nerves are shot," she admitted.
Weiss, who was born in Croatia, desperately wanted a win.
"The country's been through so much."
Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, but years of violence with Serbian armies followed. The nation's economy collapsed after the war and fell into crisis again in 2008. Its unemployment rate was more than 12 percent in 2017.
Weiss had just returned to Florida from her last trip visiting family. One of her Croatian cousins studied agricultural engineering in college but was stuck working in a factory.
She teared up.
"Pretty soon, Croatia is going to cease to exist if things don't change."
Fans were caught between reflecting on the state of their country, clamoring for a championship and appreciating what they already had — an afternoon together with family and friends in a small diaspora.
Weiss, who has spent 28 years in Florida, learned of the club this week, looking online for other Croatians watching the final.
Another first-timer, 37-year-old Anthony Kraljic, said he has yearned to get closer to his heritage. The World Cup run was "a catalyst." It provided a set time and easy excuse to meet new people.
At the same time, his mind drifted back to his trips to Croatia.
"We're still feeling the blight," he said. "There are still bombed-out areas." He said he's only visited twice.
Those who return more frequently often visit during the summer, said club President Katica Pavicic, so she wasn't sure how many people would even show up to Sunday's viewing party.
They couldn't start planning until Croatia won its semifinal match Wednesday, said Marina Cordas, who tended the bar
By kickoff, every one of the green glass bottles of Croatian favorite Karlovacko was gone. It's hard to find the authentic beer locally, she said, and once the game started, fans had to switch to Stella or Bud Light.
Cordas, 50, moved from Chicago in 2003. She said Croatians used to meet and throw picnics in Seminole Park. In 2010, the club opened, giving the community a concrete stomping ground.
"It (was) time for us to build a home," she said.
As it became clear Sunday that Croatia would lose, anxiety bubbled into frustration. After a French goal, Weiss got up and left early. Kris Medic, 63 and of Belleair Beach, didn't sit down the entire second half.
Yet as soon as the game ended, the crowd broke into applause.
Medic, who runs the club's website, walked to the front of the room and began recording with his phone. He directed everyone to cheer.
They did, though not as loudly as they did for the team's first goal. Chants of "HR-VAT-SKA" — the Croatian name for the country — faded in and out.
Medic said he was showing "love of the homeland." He's lived in the U.S. since 1981 and says most of his American friends can't find his country on a map.
"America is home, but Croatia is homeland."
To him, the loss is no shame for a country of 4 million, not much bigger than the population of Tampa Bay.
"It's the best ever for a small nation like us," he said, smiling.
A man rushed up, cheering, and brought Medic a small, clear bottle and plastic cup. He poured a bit of Slivovitz, a light-colored plum brandy. Medic threw it back.
Contact Langston Taylor at 727-893-8659 or email@example.com. Follow @langstonitaylor.