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World Cup in LA: Croatian-Americans rally around Balkan nation in San Pedro

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This is the first in KPCC's occasional series on the World Cup in Los Angeles, which takes a look at the diverse communities of Southern California through the lens of their love for their country's teams. Let us know whom you're rooting for in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter (@KPCC).

Croatia faces steep odds winning the World Cup as the competition kicks off this week, and some betting sites give the small Balkan nation an 11-to-1 chance of besting host country Brazil in the opening match.

But that didn't weigh on the soccer fans at the 24th annual celebration of Croatian independence in San Pedro, many sporting their team's red-and-white checkered jerseys.

"Against the great teams, we always play great," said local longshoreman Joseph Ivcevic, who is flying to Brazil to watch Croatia compete.

RELATED: World Cup 2014: Where to watch your country’s team

National pride goes hand-in-hand with the World Cup. But fans of Croatia's national team are of a die-hard variety known for their passion and patriotism.

When Croatia was one of six republics in the former communist Yugoslavia, it couldn’t have its own team. Since breaking away in 1991, Croatia’s made all but two World Cup tournaments, and came in third in 1998  — a point of pride for a country with just over 4 million people.

Immigrants from the fledgling nation are arguably as passionate as their cousins in Croatia, with some like Icevic making it a common practice to travel the world for matches. And nowhere is the fandom more apparent than in San Pedro, the hub of Croatian-American life in Southern California.

Of the 45,000 or so Californians who claim Croatian ancestry, many live here or have family in this port community. And the place to go watch soccer in San Pedro is the Croatian-American Club.

The club

Domagoj Gotavac, 38, has watched Croatian soccer at the club since he was a kid, and always enjoys the running commentary from the retired men. 

"These guys are all soccer fanatics so it’s fun to watch," Gotavac said. "The way they talk, you’d think they were all better than Pelé when they were younger."

Don't be late, warned Adriana Blazevic, or you'll get yelled at to shut the door. Zatvori vrata!

Blazevic, 32, and her husband Loren grew up in San Pedro, him playing club soccer, her going to matches.

"His dad and my dad emigrated to San Pedro from Croatia and the first thing they did was they started a soccer club," she said.

Croatians started to come in large numbers to San Pedro at the turn of the 20th century, drawn by the similar climate to the Adriatic coast, ample fishing stocks and cannery work.

"Most people who came here they all came from islands and they were fishing over there," said Vlado Huljev.

Huljev helped to found the Croatian-American Club in 1958 to strengthen identity among overseas Croats. He said many immigrants thought of themselves as being from Yugoslavia, or the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

“We told them you are Croatian and that’s what you should be," Huljev said.

RELATED: World Cup in LA: Video of Garcetti bouncing a brazuca, talking soccer

Croatian soccer fans are known for being some of the enthusiastic in the world.

The most nationalistic fans, however, have run afoul of soccer authorities. Most recently, FIFA effectively banned defender Josip Šimunić from the entire World Cup for leading fans after a match with Iceland in a chant associated with a World War II-era, pro-Nazi regime in Croatia.

In the past, fights have broken out with Serbian fans. Croatians and Serbians have clashed over the last century. The most recent conflict erupted after Croatia declared independence: Serbs living in the country rebelled and were backed by the Serb-led Yugoslav Army. Four years of ethnic warfare displaced and killed thousands. 

Joe Ivcevic said he felt satisfied when Croatia beat Serbia in a World Cup qualifying match last year.

"If you beat Serbia, you feel good about everything. Put them out of the World Cup, kick them out. There was something in me like, 'We got ‘em,' you know what I mean?" Ivcevic said.

Second-generation Croatian-Americans are too young to remember the war, many of them only babies at the time, such as 23-year-old Ivan Glamuzina of Monrovia.

Glamuzina stays connected to his parents' culture through dance — he and his touring troupe performed a Croatian folk dance at the independence celebration — and through soccer.

"It was a pretty big thing for my dad so naturally it became a big thing for us," Glamuzina said of himself and his siblings.

He and his friends are starting a new tradition of World Cup viewings at the St. Anthony Croatian Catholic Church in downtown L.A. A rally will take place at noon - an hour before game time.

For many of the younger Croatian-Americans, what’s at stake, really, is bragging rights.

"When we’re in the midst of the game, when a goal’s about to be made and you’re on the edge of your seat, you’re not thinking about history, you just want your team to win and for the world to see it," Glamuzina said.

Sometimes, a game is just a game, albeit a beautiful one.

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