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How a bowling alley in a 100-year old church building became home base for Croatian soccer fans

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Croatia's finished in third place in the World Cup. They defeated Morocco in a playoff match that concluded just moments ago. Fans watched from all over the world. And Kansas City, Kan., Croatian immigrants rooted for their national team in a church basement.

(CHEERING)

SIMON: Frank Morris of member station KCUR watched along with the crowd this week when they played Argentina.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: On a hill overlooking where the stockyards and packing houses used to be, there's an old brick Catholic church with a Croatian flag flapping in the cold wind. In the basement, there's a terrific party. Every time Croatia plays in the World Cup, fans like Mario Viskovich (ph) flood St. John's Christian Club dressed head to toe in the flag's red and white check.

MARIO VISKOVICH: I think I'm ready, right? Yeah, I believe so - yeah, yeah, face painting and all, red and white checkers, the shirt, the hat, everything.

MORRIS: Viskovich moved here after fighting in Croatia's war for independence.

VISKOVICH: I'm here only 22 years, but I feel like I've grown up here. This is my home. Oh, my God. This is going to be awesome. Just watch everybody.

MORRIS: It's early, but lots of people packed in here are drinking big Croatian beers from the bar - better still, homemade hooch like the stuff Joe Barrich (ph) is pouring from a huge glass jug.

JOE BARRICH: We use Moscato grapes, put them in a barrel for 21 to 30 days. We take it out of the barrel and distill it. That's grappa. Do you want to try some?

MORRIS: When Croatia fans at the game in Qatar come on the TV screens, they look just like the people standing in this basement. Nick Tomisen (ph), tending bar, is third generation at this club and this church.

NICK TOMISEN: This is not just sport. It's a mixture of family, community, religion - all of those things wrapped into one.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

MORRIS: And at the half, there's more singing regardless of the score. Gorin Georgevich (ph) literally thumps his chest with pride for a scrappy team and the tiny country it fields.

GORIN GEORGEVICH: Croatian soccer - it's the heart. We are always the underdogs. We're only 4 million. We're only 4 million, but we have a big heart.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

MORRIS: And you could say the same for this tight little Croatian community here in Kansas City, Kan.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.