KANSAS CITY, Kan. — France's victory in the World Cup final, a 4-2 win Sunday against Croatia, capped a month in which the sporting world's attention was focused on the monthlong tournament in Russia.
Despite Croatia's loss in its first championship game appearance in soccer's most important important tourney, St. John’s Catholic Church in Kansas City, Kansas, said it still came out a winner.
The church social club hosted five watch parties leading up to the title match against "Les Bleus" then topped itself for the showdown Sunday against France, hosting the biggest Croatian watch party in the Midwest.
The priest said “winning starts in church” and he could be seen recruiting church members into Mass before the sermon started.
It was a Sunday unlike any other, with church hymns in Croatian turning into cries of triumph during the game.
Croatia's best previous finish at the World Cup came in 1998, when "Vatreni" lost to France in the semifinals that year.
“All this energy, people — I can’t even describe how I feel right now,” said Tomislav Plecas, who is a native Croatian.
He has been living in the Kansas City area for 27 years and was excited to share Croatia's historic run with his family.
A watch party that started with about 40 people eventually bloomed to around 600 guests. Organizers added a tent for outside watching the game after crowds overran an upstairs gymnasium, bowling alley lanes and a bar area.
“It’s like preparing for a wedding every three days," said Kristina Mikesic, who went to watch the team play in Dallas for the friendly match against Mexico. "You don’t know what is happening. All the Mexican fans were looking at us like, ‘Who are you guys?'"
Mikesic was wearing a special hat with “Croatia” across the front topped with styrofoam soccer balls.
Sunday she painted faces for hours in the Croatian national colors.
The celebration let strangers find kinship through soccer, with some reconnecting with friends they have not seen in 20 years.
“It’s heartwarming," Mikesic said. "There are so many of us out there that love this little country."
Volunteers on the church council said they already feel like winners with a renewed interest in Croatian heritage among many soccer fans.
“Some people, when they become Americanized, they forget their roots," Church Council President Don Taylor said. "This kind of event helps them rediscover where they came from.
Taylor said they saw two or three times the number of volunteers that the church and club normally do for the watch parties.