Country: Croatia
World Cup wins: 0
Star players: Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic
Conversation starter: "I hear you guys are the second best team from the Balkans?"

It's a good start, says Goran Kacurov after Croatia beat Nigeria 2-0 at the World Cup.

Kacurov watches alongside his sons, Vito, 12, and Bono, 10, who are dressed in Croatian football strips. Vito's arm is in plaster - an injury sustained playing for his football club Western Springs.

Goran, who moved to New Zealand a decade ago, wears a bandanna in the red and white checks of Croatia. Afterwards he unzips his jacket to reveal he too is sporting the full strip.


He's hardcore. He says he made sure the venue is booked for the final. "I always expect Croatia to win," he says.

About 80 people arrived in the predawn to sit in orderly rows in the big hall at the Croatian Cultural Society premises on McLeod Road in Te Atatu South. This is the unofficial "Croatian Embassy" for Croatians in New Zealand. Out the back there are sports fields.

The match is streamed live from Croatia on a huge screen. The commentary is in Croatian, making it sound to unaccustomed ears like the team is full of players whose names end in "ich".

On a long table at the side of the room are urns of piping hot tea and coffee.

The situation is too tense for most to have a cuppa. Long periods of anxiety relieved by moments of ecstasy (or, god forbid, confirmed by disaster) is the lot of the football fan.

They watch silently save for the odd "ooh" or "aah" until the 32nd minute. A deflection from a Nigerian defender. Own goal. The hall erupts, everyone is on their feet, an ocean of arms spike the air. Croatia 1 Nigeria 0.

Croatia dominate the first half and are hot favourites with the bookies to beat the youngest team, but this is the World Cup and outside, where the smokers have gone at halftime and in the kitchen where ladies in aprons serve bacon-and-egg baps, caution prevails. "Nigeria eh," says a man in the line. "You can't guarantee anything."

In the 71st minute Luka Modric converts a penalty.


Goran's fist thumps the air.

Tvrtko Grabaric, who watches the game seated beside Goran, whispers afterwards that Goran is a very important person in the community, the Society's music director. "He has devoted his professional life to presenting Croatian culture. He is very modest. He wouldn't tell you that directly."

After the game, Goran speaks quietly but is not too shy to share a prediction. His final: Brazil v Croatia.

Tvrtko calls as the Herald leaves. "See you at the next game!"

Joseph Ukic will be there. "I'm retired now, I can do as I please," he laughs. Ukic learned only this week that he has a cousin in the team. He shows off the text message that broke the news. It adds to the passion, he says, "so the tears come".

As the fans head into the pale light of their Sunday morning, everyone is happy.