The United States was among the teams in the field for seven consecutive World Cups, before suffering a loss to Trinidad and Tobago in the final match of regional qualifying for 2018.
Truth here: The absence of the Yanks had zero impact on my level of intrigue over the World Cup that concluded in Russia on Sunday. In fact, it might have made the drama more interesting, since what attracts my interest is the nationalistic fervor.
There is more for-God-and-country emotion with the followers of this quadrennial sports theater than you find combined in the other two mammoth events, the Winter and the Summer Olympics.
We’re so late to soccer and so absent of real tradition that even when the U.S. has gotten a few points and advanced out of group play, it always seemed that 90 percent of the Yanks were simply acting as if they were delirious with joy.
Americans as a whole will not be full investors until we would be happier to have the USA team win the World Cup than to have the home state’s favorite NFL team win a Lombardi Trophy. Guaranteed, the patrons of Manchester City would have traded the dominance displayed on the cruise to the 2017-18 Premier League title for an England victory over Croatia in the World Cup semifinals last Wednesday.
Also guaranteed, dang near all of us here on the prairie wouldn’t give up Case Keenum-to-Stefon Diggs for a long run by the United States in the World Cup.
Frankly, what would be more compelling, more mind-blowing, more World Cup at its best: Croatia, an ancient kingdom reborn in 1991 with a population of 4.17 million, or the United States, a country of untold advantages with a population of 325.7 million, playing in the final?
More truth: If somehow the Yanks had managed to get by the combined forces of Trinidadians and Tobagonians and made it to this World Cup, and then made a run all the way to the final, I would have watched from the TV den — occasionally clicking over to see if the Serbian, Djokovic, was going to win at Wimbledon (which he did).
The fact it was Croatia as the opponent for France left a more-appealing option: a visit to Croatian Hall (Hrvatski Dom) in South St. Paul to check on what would be the level of enthusiasm for this fantastic occurrence.
This meeting, eating and drinking hall was established in 1919 by the Croatians that had joined the Slavic immigration to work in the stockyards and processing plants of South St. Paul. There was also a Serbian Hall right down the street, but that operation ceased a number of years ago.
“The Cro’’ remains a much-loved gathering place for locals, even a decade after the stockyards ended 122 years of operation in this wonderful, blue-collar burg. It was called by many an “Iron Range city attached to the Twin Cities,’’ and that was true, all the way to its devotion for hockey.
I had called The Cro for a radio hit on Wednesday afternoon, after Croatia had rallied for a 2-1 win over England, and received a scouting report on what were the plans for Sunday.
Tom, the manager, said there would be sarma (cabbage rolls) and lamb, and also an ample supply of Slivovitz.
I had not heard of the latter, although I did once agree to speak at a torsk-eating club in St. Paul, and wound up being heckled unmercifully by Norwegians after they were served the traditional Aquavit.
“I assume Slivovitz is the Croatian equivalent of Aquavit,’’ I said to Tom.
Tom said: “It’s a high-proof plum brandy. Basically, it’s diesel fuel.’’
The contest was scheduled for 10 a.m., Twin Cities time. One great thing about international soccer: When it is announced for a 10 a.m. start, the ball is put in play at 10 a.m.
I arrived 40 minutes early, and was delighted to see a parking lot crowded with vehicles. There were also several people with the red-checked, Purina-style jerseys featured by Croatia in front of The Cro, enjoying heaters. It is a sad commentary on what’s become of this country when even on a morning that Croatia is playing to win the World Cup, Croatian fans and/or descendants still have to go outside to have a cigarette.
There were 100 people downstairs in the bar (including Buzz Schneider,* a man familiar with frenzy over an international sporting event), where the sarma and lamb was almost ready to be served, and another 80upstairs in the party hall watching on the larger TV.
Manny Hill, one of my radio partners, was do to arrive shortly — and from what I could see, that was going to make him the Jackie Robinson of watching Croatia play for the World Cup in Cro Hall.
“Remember Ron Harper, the NBA player?’’ a Cro Hall historian said. “A friend brought him in one night. First thing he did was buy shots for the 30 people at the bar.
“Most popular guy in town right then. He was leaving about midnight and said, ‘Croatian … like Toni Kukoc.’ We said, ‘Yeah, of course,’ so Harper called Kukoc and we all talked to Toni on the phone.’’
A few minutes later, I was talking to another Cro Hall booster and asked if he had a fondness for Slivovitz. He laughed and said:
“Number of years ago, I came in and ordered a shot. The manager said, ‘I’m not stocking it anymore. People get a couple of shots in them and they either throw up, or fight, or both.’ ‘’
The game was about to start and I went upstairs for the larger TV. I was talking to locals at the bar and was introduced to a young lady, Tate, 8, who lives near Zagreb in Croatia and is visiting an aunt and uncle with her older brother Jack, 10.
I said, ‘’You probably didn’t know Croatia had a soccer team until two weeks ago,’’ and, boom, Tate fired back: “I’ve known we had a soccer team since I was 2.’’
She was witty and fun. Most everyone was having fun on Sunday, even as France broke a 1-1 tie on a penalty kick, and then an own goal contributed to Croatia’s eventual 4-2 loss.
The penalty kick came after a review of a hand ball. There were some American fans of Croatia expressing doubt that it was a hand ball.
I asked Tate, the 8-year-old from the homeland: “Was it a hand ball?’’
She thought and said: “Yes, I think it was.’’
A couple of minutes later, I said to her uncle: “Tate’s quite a sporting person, conceding the penalty kick was deserved.’’
He laughed and said: “Yes, although she did ask me at halftime if she could punch me in the stomach if Croatia loses.’’
Hey, it was the finals. A Croatia devotee had to have a plan for taking out frustrations.
(*Buzz Schneider was part of the Miracle on Ice. If you didn't know that, shame on you.)