Croatia's Cup opens a world of memories
Seattle-area immigrants gather to reminisce, cheer homeland
By CASEY MCNERTHNEY
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Rooting for the home team: This is the fourth in a series of stories created to tap into the passion of soccer through the life experiences of Seattle residents.
The friends gathered on Frank Brozovich's back patio looked like an extended family.
Upon arrival, each guest was swarmed with a hug and "hello," and given a Dos Equis to celebrate the day. Conversations flowed as though there was no gap between meetings. Men in their 60s were attentive to the 30-somethings as though they were their sons.
Jim Bryant / P-I
Luka Radic, 2, tries to untie the shoes of his 5-year-old brother Neven. Their father, Zoran Radic, left Croatia in the early 1990s and found a Croatian community in Seattle.
The group of 14 Croatian immigrants and children of Croatian immigrants usually meet once every month or so at dances, picnics, weddings or funerals. But it was excitement for Croatia's third World Cup that made Brozovich, Washington state's Croatian consul, gather the group at his South Seattle home.
Not all of them were star soccer players, but everyone present has passion for the game.
Milan Stipetic, a 67-year-old Ogulin native, recalled the soccer balls neighborhood kids would make from old socks, and feet so injured from playing that he couldn't wear shoes.
Branko Kukolja, whose father survived the Bleiburg massacres of 1945, despises cable TV but subscribed to watch the Croatians play Brazil today at noon.
"When you see people talking about Croatian soccer, it brings back memories and you feel good about it," said immigrant Zoran Radic. "To be a small nation and to be part of such a world event means a lot."
And each person at Brozovich's home Saturday went through a lot to be there.
Radic was a 20-year-old on the front lines when the Yugoslav People's Army attacked the city of Dubrovnik in 1991, following Croatia's independence. The conflict killed 114 civilians, according to the Croatian Red Cross, and Radic recalls seeing fellow soldiers shot and killed.
He jumped ship as a merchant marine and came to Seattle in 1992 to find an uncle. He met Mike Mikacenic, another immigrant and friend of Brozovich.
Radic said life was harder then, knowing almost no one from the home he wished he could go back to. His outlet was a motorcycle he drove too fast, and parties that never ended too early.
But that changed with time after Brozovich introduced him to others in the Seattle Croatian community. Radic married another Croatian native and has two children: Neven, 5, and Luka, 2.
The self-described rebel is now a dad concerned that his sons would drink too much Pepsi without his attention.
"I was lucky enough to survive," he said, wearing a Croatia soccer jersey.
Mikacenic was, too.
Yugoslavia -- from which Croatia declared its independence in 1991 -- became a federal independent Communist state under the rule of Marshal Tito after World War II.
Mikacenic was 24 when he fled in 1963, dodging police dogs and camping in bushes. He was jailed after arriving in Austria, and was sentenced to 35 days in prison.
When released, he went to Montreal, and came to Seattle in 1969 for a job with Lockheed.
He grew up playing soccer in Zagreb, Croatia's capital, and started a men's amateur team in Seattle.
The team won regional titles in Denver for the U.S. Open Cup and U.S. Amateur Cup. It won the National Amateur Cup in 1982.
Thirty years after arriving in Seattle, his daughter, Nancy Mikacenic, graduated from Lakeside High School, where she was a two-time Parade All-American soccer midfielder and Gatorade Circle of Champions state player of the year.
Bozidar Yerkovich, who sat across a table from Mikacenic on Saturday, said he was nowhere as talented as Mikacenic, but equally as spirited.
Yerkovich was born near Zagreb. Two weeks after completing his undergraduate degree in Croatia, he went to Connecticut for graduate study.
"I cried my eyes out the first night," he said.
He lived in graduate housing, only knowing a few words of English. He woke up the day after his arrival and couldn't cook the canned food he found because he couldn't read the labels.
"You go to bed with a headache for weeks because of the pressure," said Igor Vuletic, an Opatija native.
Friends like those Yerkovich spent time with Saturday have helped him adapt. And watching his team on a global stage brings the fond memories of home.
"We'll watch the games at somebody's house," Yerkovich said. "It doesn't matter what else is happening that day, the game is the most important event that day for us. Because Croatia is smaller than the state of Washington, it's like we are watching our own family. It feels like an extended family."
Official name: Republika Hrvatska
Population: 4.42 million
World Cups: 3rd in 2006
Cup titles: None
Last Cup: 2002 (lost 1st)
Cup matches: 10 (6-4)
Goals for / against: 13 / 8
Coach: Zlatko KranjÃ¨ar
How qualified: Won Group 8 qualifying with a 7-3 record.
Famous players: Aljosa Asanovic, Slaven Bilic, Zvonimir Boban, Alen Boksic, Robert Jarni, Drazen Ladic, Robert Prosinecki, Zvonimir Soldo, Stanic StaniÃ¦, Davor Suker, Milan Rapaic.
Did you know? Croatia has qualified for every World Cup it has entered as an independent nation (since 1990). ... Croatia has won several international environmental awards for having the cleanest waters in the Mediterranean. ... Slavoljub Eduard Penkala of Croatia became a legend for inventing the mechanical pencil (1906) and solid-ink fountain pen (1907). He also built the first Croatian two-seat airplane in 1909.
From Croatia: Cravat (neck tie), electric speedometer, hot water bottle, hydroelectric power plant, parachute, rail-car brake, torpedo.
-- Steve Rudman