by Jay Soldner
Special to The Leaven
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — On Saturday, St. John’s Catholic Club opened its doors to everyone in the Strawberry Hill neighborhood — and beyond — to watch Croatia vs. Russia in a World Cup semifinal match.
The overall atmosphere at the St. John’s Club watch party was unreal. From start to finish, it was an absolute pleasure to be able to witness such a genuinely passionate and welcoming group of Kansas City Catholics offer their venue to share their love for Croatia and for soccer.
St. John’s Club president, Kenny Yarnevich, ran the bar, while the board chairman, Jaime Clark, welcomed new faces to the club.
An hour before the soccer game was to start, cars lined the streets around St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in downtown Kansas City, Kansas.
Inside the impossible-to-miss club doors, the usual crew sat among a growing crowd of neighbors and soccer fans from outside of the city.
Faces painted with red and white checkered patterns smiled in eager anticipation of the soccer match. The bowling alley (yes, bowling alley) became a makeshift sports bar, with four TVs for the game. People were seated in every chair waiting to see the soccer game.
Past the bowling alley, the smells of garlic and onion and sausage wafted over from the stairs leading up to the gymnasium, where people ate all kinds of Croatian food in rows and rows of folding chairs before two large televisions on the stage.
The hour before the game was to start quickly passed as the club filled up with people. Before long, it was game time, and the soccer game was broadcast live, uninterrupted, commercial free. Everyone focused on their television screens.
In the main bar area of the club sat several St. John’s parishioners with their faces painted to match the Croatia’s Coat of Arms. St. John the Baptist Church was founded in 1904 by Croatian immigrants, and the Croatian language and traditions still run strong here.
The game itself was an intense battle between two very well-conditioned teams. Fans lived every moment of the game from their seats in the club. Emotions were visible on everyone’s painted faces. This was bigger than a soccer game.
Russia scored first, about 30 minutes into the game, but Croatia answered quickly. After 90 minutes, regulation time ended with the match tied at 1-1.
Croatia scored first in overtime, but Russia answered. When the extra time had expired and the score was still tied, the game ultimately came down to penalty kicks. Croatia won in dramatic fashion, scoring on the final attempt to win the shootout 4-3.
As the final penalty kick found the net, the fans erupted from their seats and began jumping, screaming and yelling, crying, hugging and high-fiving.
And above all the din, you could suddenly hear an entire community shouting in unison: “HVRATSKA! HRVATSKA! HRVATSKA!”
“CROATIA! CROATIA! CROATIA!”
Croatia plays England in the semi-finals of the World Cup on Wednesday, 1 p.m CDT.