Croatia fan Keith Wade proudly waves the Croatian flag as the World Cup championship match telecast begins at the Croatian American Culture Center in Biloxi.

BILOXI – They call themselves the “Iches” and “Viches” – and there are some Sekuls and Skrmettas and Vollmuths as well.

They are Croatian Americans, who settled in Biloxi in the late 19th and early 20th century, taking on work in every aspect of the seafood industry – with the emphasis on work.

“They worked hard and played hard,” says Fofo Gilich, a proud “Ich” who also happens to be Biloxi’s mayor and a second generation Croatian American. “They did work nobody else wanted to do.”

Nick Skrmetta was the first of the Croatian immigrants to Biloxi in 1897. He took a job in a seafood canning factory and legend has it he did the work of a dozen normal men. The shop foreman asked Nick if there were more like him where he came from, and Nick said there were hundreds.

“Tell ’em all to come over here,” the foreman said. “We got jobs for all of them.”

Rick Cleveland

And so they came. And they settled. And their numbers grew quickly with huge families. Those first Croatian Americans put an emphasis on education. The fathers didn’t want their sons and daughters doing the same dirty, smelly work they did. And now there are doctors and lawyers and business owners – second, third and fourth generation Croatian Americans – many of them with ich or vich at the end of their names.

About 200 of them gathered Sunday morning at the Croatian-American Culture Center to watch tiny Croatia, a country of slightly more than four million, go against France for the World Cup championship. They waved Croatian flags, they wore Croatian jerseys, they danced to Croatian music. They ate delicious Croatian pastries. They cheered and waved the flags some more. Liquor flowed and toasts were made, mostly to the old country and to Luka Modric, the remarkable midfielder and captain of the Croatian team.

Eugene Ellzey (left) manages Biloxi’s French Club. Michael Kovacevich manages the Croatian-American Culture Center.

Said Michael Kovacevich, manager of the culture center (also nown as the Slavonian Lodge), “Win or lose, it’s source of pride that such a country as small as Croatia could be one of the last two teams playing in the world championship match.”

It is remarkable, particularly remarkable when you consider that the United States, with a population of 327 million, didn’t even qualify. Croatia has fewer citizens than Alabama.

So maybe it was predictable that France, a country of 67 million, defeated the Croatians 4-2, putting a slight damper of what was otherwise a splendid party.

You should know that it will take more than a World Cup championship loss to kill the spirit of these people, who came here with nothing and became a thriving, integral part of the community. They have rebuilt from the ground up after Hurricanes Camille an Katrina. Indeed, the Croatian- American Culture Center, founded in 1913, is now in its third building, completed in 2010 at a cost of $4 million.

“Already paid for, no public money included,” Gilich, the mayor, said earlier in the week from Cuba where he was on city business. “We’re extremely proud of it.”

Gilich, as many of the Croatian-Americans in Biloxi, has visited the old country often. In fact, he and his wife, Serena, recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Croatia where they watched a Croatian early round World Cup victory.

“If you can imagine the excitement of watching the Saints win the Super Bowl in New Orleans, it was that way all over Croatia,” Gilich said.

You should also know that Biloxi also has a French Club, just two blocks down the street from the Croatian club.

No, the French Club did not host a similar World Cup party. I checked.

But Eugene Ellzey, who manages the French Club, watched the championship match at the Croatian-American Culture center as a special guest of Kovacevich.

Beverly Kovacevich, of French descent, married into the Croatian-American community. She was dressed in Croatian attire and waving the Croatian flag.

“We’re all good friends,” Ellzey said. “We work together on some of the same projects.”

That did not keep them from making a bet. If Croatia had won, Ellzey and the French Club would cook French toast for the Croatian-American members. And since France won, Kovacevich and his club provided Ellzey with a bag of Pusharatas, a delicious Croatian pastry.

Beverly Kovacevich, Michael’s mother, could tell you how to make them. She can also tell you plenty about the hard-working, hard-playing Croatian-Americans on the Gulf Coast. Michael recently hosted his mother’s 90th birthday party.

“She closed the place down at 4 a.m.,” Michael Kovacevich said. “She can still go.”

You should know Beverly married into the Croatian lifestyle. Her heritage? French.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.