NEW YORK — There are 23,000 Croatians in New York, and about half of them were crammed into Veslo, Mirela Rosini’s great joint on Broadway in Astoria, Queens, for the first game of World Cup 2014.
The incomparable Tony Bennett and the equally incomparable Jimmy Breslin are from Astoria but I didn’t see either one of them Thursday afternoon. Maybe they were wearing Brazil jerseys.
Forewarned by a Croatian friend, I had called the manager of Veslo early Thursday morning, asking what time I should arrive for a seat.
“Yesterday,” he said.
He wasn’t kidding.
“You think you have it bad?” Boris Lovrin said. “I got here three hours before the game and I couldn’t get a seat.”
He wasn’t complaining. Instead, he was holding a fine glass of wine made from Babic grapes, the Croatian red that is as good as anything you’d find in California or France.
Boris builds houses and looks like he eats nails. But, like most Croatians, he is generous and kind. He introduced me to some hulking guy sitting at the bar in front of us who made a much better door than a window.
“He is from Zagreb,” Boris said.
I was about to suggest the dude was the size of Zagreb, embodying the name of the great Brazilian player Hulk, but thought better of it.
Standing at the bar in Veslo, it initially felt like hanging out with Washington Generals fans, about to be slaughtered by the Harlem Globetrotters for the umpteenth time.
Croatia was facing Brazil, not only one of the greatest teams in the world, but the home team in this the World Cup, and the favorite to win the World Cup.
Playing in Arena Corinthians in São Paulo made it feel like Brazil had a head start even before the first whistle. Aside from those who have lived along or seen the breathtaking beauty of the Dalmatian coast, few gave the Croats much of a chance.
But there’s a funny thing about the first game of the World Cup. It feels like spring. It feels like Opening Day at Fenway, when the Sox are always tied for first before the first pitch.
“We can win this game,” Boris Lovrin said, looking at me seriously for the first time in 15 minutes of genial banter. “I believe we can win this game.”
I wanted to believe him. I was with Croatia. Cheering for Brazil is like cheering for the New York Yankees. It’s like cheering for the Montreal Canadiens. It’s like cheering for the Miami Heat. It’s like cheering for Manchester United. (Okay, I take that last one back.)
Just 10 minutes into the game, Marcelo, the great Brazilian defender, kicked the ball the wrong way, into his own net, and, like the Cowardly Lion, I was saying, I do believe, I do believe, I do believe. I think Boris kissed me. Or maybe I kissed him first. I don’t speak a word of Croat, and I was singing at the top of my lungs, some Croatian football song, “Allez, Allez, Allez!”
But then, that’s French.
Or is it Spanish?
What the hell do I know? I’m American. I barely speak English. But Boris heard the name and made assumptions.
“I like the Irish,” Boris yelled in my ear, as we were splashed with beer and wine after the first goal. The stains were red and white, like the Croatians’ checkered colors. Surely, this was an omen.
Then Neymar scored and everybody came down to earth.
By the way, have I mentioned that all the Brazilians are known by a single name? It’s like a team of Madonnas.
“They need to control the midfield,” Boris Lovrin said, after Brazil equalized, and he was absolutely right. “If we control the midfield, we will win.”
If the Croatian national team could control the midfield the way their fans in Veslo control their bladders, they’d win the World Cup. If anybody went to the bathroom during the first half, when about enough Karlovacko to fill Lake Michigan was consumed, they were probably going to powder their nose.
The half ended one-all, and frankly the Croatian crowd looked more concerned than relieved. There was a sense that Croatia had let a hard-fought lead slip away in a routine attack by Brazil.
When, in the 71st minute, Fred -- I would love to see Brazil land a player named Wilma -- fell in the penalty box, all of Veslo, all of Croatia, was aggrieved.
Was it a dive?
All I’ll say is that the Russian judge gave it a 9.5.
When Neymar -- flippin’ Neymar! -- barely put home the PK, off the lunging fingertips of Stipe Pletikosa, the sense of grievance was as thick as the Ćevapčići that the big guy from Zagreb was eating at the bar. It’s not just the Croatians who think Brazil gets all the calls. Everybody thinks Brazil gets the calls. Brazil is the New England Patriots of world soccer.
The sense of injustice grew only more visceral in Veslo when a Croatian goal to tie the game in the dying minutes was disallowed because a Croatian player interfered with the Brazilian goaltender, Cesar.
Cesar was immediately nominated in Veslo for best actor at the Dubrovnik Film Festival.
The Brazilian goal in added time was just an insult, like having to listen to a Slobodan Milosevic victory speech.
Croats are alternately furious and philosophical about the result. They know they got jobbed, just as, deep down, they probably know they lost to a better team. Still, not getting the calls, not getting the result, is a killer.
Boris Lovrin came to the United States 35 years ago. He made a good living here and he made good friends here. He loves this country as much as he loves his native country. But there’s no place like home and some day, he told me, he will go back, to the Croatian coast that is considerably more beautiful than the beautiful coastline he calls home on Long Island.
Boris Lovrin taught me something I will never forget: You can always lose a soccer game. You can never lose home.