Washington state is home to 13,000 people that have declared Croatian ancestry. Most will be in front of their TVs on Sunday morning as the Croatian national team plays France in the World Cup final.

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With one earbud in place, Zoran Lukic listened intently to the World Cup semifinal game between Croatia and England while inspecting planes at Boeing’s Everett plant on Wednesday.

Due to a lag in streaming, Lukic received a barrage of texts from friends celebrating Mario Mandzukic’s winning goal before word came over his cellphone. The stunning win secured the country of 4.2 million a place in the World Cup final against France on Sunday.

Lukic, who emigrated from Croatia 20 years ago, said he sent a cheer reverberating through the massive 747 assembly hall.

“If I combine all of my important days — my wedding day, the birth of my first kid, the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl — all that excitement, it’s more than that,” he said.

Less than three decades ago, Croatians fought a bloody war for independence. Now, the Croatian national team, known as The Checkered Ones, is hoping to bring history home. The 23 players have the support of Croatians around the world, including many in Washington who plan to gather in bars — Sarajevo Lounge in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood being the central hub — and homes early Sunday morning.

Census data shows that 13,000 people in Washington state have declared Croatian ancestry, with 1,300 of those living in Seattle, according to Sinisa Grgic, the consul general of Croatia in Los Angeles. Grgic’s own independent research, based on family names, estimates 25,000 Croatians live in Washington.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Croatians from the Dalmatian coast settled in fishing communities in Bellingham, Anacortes, Everett, Seattle, Bainbridge Island, Vashon Island, Tacoma, Gig Harbor and Grays Harbor. Croatians from the country’s interior tended to move to Central and Eastern Washington and worked in the coal mines.

“We’re mainly fishing people,” said Cathryn Morovich, a second-generation Dalmatian immigrant who organizes Seattle’s annual CroatiaFest. “When they got to Seattle, it looked like home to them — a main city with lots of islands.”

Morovich said Croatia’s success in the World Cup has further strengthened the sense of Croatian community in the Pacific Northwest. “People who have not been very active in the community, they’ve been coming out and proud of their heritage.”

Morovich sees Sunday’s match as part of the relatively young nation’s upward trajectory. “From being a communist country, fighting a war, and building it up to be a place of destination — and to top it all off — to be in the World Cup and in the final, it’s unbelievable,” she said.

This story of progress is embodied by Nick Bezmalinovic, who left Croatia for the U.S. in the early 1900s when he was 15. Bezmalinovic outgrew work as a deckhand and built a life in Gig Harbor as a successful fisherman, owner of a regional airline and a friend of President Harry Truman through his involvement with the Democratic Party.

Rhea Bez, his granddaughter, said he Americanized his last name in part because Croatians were associated with communism. But now, “people are realizing that they can be proud to be Croatian.”

Yet few know where the Balkan nation is, Bez said. “It’s the backside of the boot of Italy,” she tells them.

The Seattle Junior Tamburitzans, a folk song and dance ensemble of Croatian-American youth, toured Croatia in recent weeks and experienced the “electric” energy in Zagreb cafes during a World Cup game, co-president Shellie Posavatz said.

Posavatz returned a week ago, but other families extended their stay following Croatia’s wins.

The dovetailing of their tour and the World Cup made the performers all the more proud to be Croatian, according to Posavatz. “A lot of the kids — maybe half — had never been over there,” she said.

In anticipation of a Sunday party at her Sammamish home, Posavatz said she is heading to Balkan Market to stock up on Napolitanke, a beloved wafer treat.

Andrea Kunza, a dual citizen of Croatia and the U.S., moved to Seattle to work for Amazon two years ago and said the tech industry has drawn young Croatians to the city. Kunza invited Croatian and non-Croatian friends to watch the playoffs together at her place.

“It’s a chance for all Croatians, from new arrivals to second- and third-generation families, to come together like this all over the country,” she said.

In 1998, France beat Croatia in the semifinals and went on to win the World Cup. But many Croatians said they are hopeful that Sunday’s game will be their comeback.

Anthony Tarabochia, who immigrated from Croatia at age 5, is one such optimist. He said he inherited his love of soccer from his father. 

In their West Seattle neighborhood, his father and his friends set up goals on a dirt field and played with their boots on, because they didn’t have cleats. “The American kids would come and watch and a lot of them started playing. One of the kids went on to play for the University of Washington,” he said.

Now 61, Tarabochia recalls playing soccer in the Greater Seattle area with a Croatian team in the 1970s and ’80s. “Our sisters and mothers would be Croatian cheerleaders. They dressed in old-style folk clothing and they’d cheer with their pompoms.”

On Sunday, Tarabochia will be the cheerleader, along with his family and friends from his days in commercial fishing. He reserved tables at The Bridge bar in West Seattle and plans to bring a good-luck charm. “It’s a Croatian flag that’s been blessed by the Pope.” 

Lukic said he hopes that playing host at his Snohomish County home will force him to take breaks from what he expects to be a tense final game.

“That might help me to put down my blood pressure,” he said.


This update corrects the spelling of Nick Bezmalinovic’s name.