If on Thursday evening there is slightly more noise than usual from one of the houses on the Jabaquara Estate, on the south side of Sao Paulo, you can bet that the shouting will be coming from the Sacra Paulistana Croatian Society. The collective, which is dedicated to the Croatian population living in Brazil, find themselves in the unusual situation of having their adopted and native countries playing each other in the opening game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
With its name taking pride of place on the roof of a two-storey building on Avenida General Waldomiro de Lima, the association’s headquarters already has the potential to attract the attention of any passers-by. Since the draw for the group stage of Brazil 2014 on 6 December last year, the building and those who visit it have begun to attract even more curiosity from those eagerly awaiting the arrival of A Seleção in the city. “Now Croatia is getting noticed and is making the news,” Deborah Ivko, a regular at the club since her youth, told FIFA.com. "People are beginning to notice where we’re from."
We’re a small country, but we play great football. We have some fantastic players, such as Modric, Rakitic, Mandzukic.
The ties run much deeper, however, with diplomatic circles even revealing a special interest in Croatia – or more specifically its football. “This has always found its way into conversations,” the ambassador to Brazil, Drago Stambuk, who is also a poet with more than 40 published works, confirmed to FIFA.com during a book-signing session for his most recent work, The Sky in the Well. “We all know that Brazil is crazy about football, but I don’t think Croatia is too far behind. This shared obsession is something that goes well together."
When the FIFA Secretary General Jêróme Valcke opened up the little ball on the World Cup draw podium at Costa do Sauípe, the news quickly reached the entire Croatian community. One can only imagine the conflicting reactions of that group. On one hand, there was delight at the two countries being drawn together, but, for those leaning towards the Europeans' cause at least, there was the less appetizing prospect of having to face one of the title favourites.
As far as ambassador Stambuk is concerned, his compatriots should not feel overawed: “I was delighted. Some have expressed concern at having to confront the hot favourites, but to me it isn’t that bad at all. The pressure is on Brazil. We’re a small country, but we play great football. We have some fantastic players, such as [Luka] Modric, [Ivan] Rakitic, [Mario] Mandzukic and others.”
Mandzukic will not play against Brazil as he is suspended, but his two midfield colleagues are available. Brazilians less steeped in international football may soon be familiar with the names whether they like it or not, a little bit like Deborah Ivko’s experiences during her childhood: “Having a different surname meant always having to spell it so that people would get it right. As soon as I finished saying my name, they would ask me where I was from and, once they had heard, I would have to explain what Croatia meant.”
Modern day Croatia bears little comparison with the country – the former Yugoslavia – that her father had fled from in 1958. That was just one year after the foundation of the Sacra Paulistana Croatian association, a club which today has some 200 members, who can use the space to reminisce about the old days and mix with newcomers.
This week the club’s programme of events is especially packed: midsummer parties, a film exhibition, the launch of the ambassador’s book and, naturally, preparations for the big match. On Thursday the club will open at 1pm and hopes to welcome more than 150 people, while on Friday snacks and drinks from the homeland will be served for a cocktail party in the presence of Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic.
This place is one of the focal points of the community, but there are others scattered around the country, not to mention the thousands of tourists arriving in Sao Paulo. In total there are thought to be around 50,000 people of Croatian descent living in Brazil – a sizeable contingent, albeit less than the amount living in Chile and Argentina. Among that number is Renato Oliveira, whose uncle is Croatian but who does not carry the family surname Knezevic. For him, however, it does not matter: he says that when it comes to national teams he supports Croatia, but on the domestic scene he follows Sao Paulo.
So how does he explain this contradiction to his friends? “They used to find it all a bit exotic,” he said. One wonders what they would have said about his aborted plans to sell his car and travel to France at the very last minute to see his beloved Croatia at France 1998. “That campaign wasn’t good for my health,” he recalled fondly.
Deborah, meanwhile, cannot bear to choose. “Brazil already has history, has already been world champion five times, so nobody’s going to mind if I want Croatia to win, are they?” she said with a smile. “I’m not going to say I’m supporting Croatia, but a draw would suit me fine."
Equally diplomatic was Ambassador Stambuk, who would settle for 1-1, but with a twist: “Maybe one of the two naturalised Brazilians – Eduardo da Silva or Sammir – could score."