Proudly displaying a big flag on his front lawn, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich obviously wants the Croats to win the World Cup on Sunday, but given the recent war-torn, ravaged, hard-knock history of the tiny European nation, New Jersey’s best known Croatian American politician sees their presence on the stage as a victory onto itself.
“It is truly a life-changing experience for this county of four million people,” Sokolich told InsiderNJ a day after Croatia defeated England for the shot at France in the finals. “This was a win once we got into the final four, because soccer has a religious connotation in Croatia and this instills tremendous national pride. Events do that. And this is on a massive scale. You look at our town of Fort Lee and there’s a new pride in this community as a consequence of over a billion dollars in redevelopment. This World Cup is the catalyst for new nationwide pride in Croatia. It’s very exciting.”
The global soccer event has particular meaning for Sokolich now because he’s had that old world pride for some time, although not always.
Sokolich’s father took him to Croatia as a boy and he used to go kicking and screaming.
“Back then, I never thought in a million years that a trip to Croatia would turn into an annual pilgrimage, but it did,” Sokolich said.
He travels to his family’s old country base for two weeks each year.
“The people and the landscape and food are second to none,” said Sokolich, emotion in his voice. “You have to understand, the guys on that team come from little villages of about two and three-hundred people where they kick around a deflated ball over rocky ground.”
He lauded the captain of the team, midfielder Luka Modric, who survived a refuge childhood scarred by the Croatian War of Independence and the execution of his grandfather to become the patriarch of his own family and the key player of his team on the world’s biggest sporting stage.
“To see him standing there on the field with his sons – it’s very moving,” the mayor said. “This guy is not the typical sports specimen like, say, a Ronaldo, but he’s a guy who, because of his passing and intelligence and decision-making – controls the ball better than anybody in the world.”
Sokolich’s too nervous, he said, to watch the games anywhere else but at his home. He and his wife watch, and he paces the room.
He expects Sunday’s tilt with France to be the same.
But Sokolich said he appreciates the outpouring of support as Croatia makes its extraordinary run at France.
“It’s like St. Pat’s Day for Croatians,” the mayor said. “I’ve gotten calls and expressions of support from 500 people. Everybody is part Croatian now.”