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Croatian fans count on spirit as small in numbers

SAO PAULO (AP) — Robert Muselimovic and his two buddies encountered brightly dressed Brazilians and offered friendly greetings of "Viva Brazil!"

The Croatian contingent of fans was far outnumbered at Itaquerao Stadium for the World Cup opener Thursday against five-time champion Brazil, yet Muselimovic and others were counting on their spirit and ever-upbeat personalities to carry the 18th-ranked Croatians against one of the favorites playing at home on a day declared a national holiday because of the sheer magnitude of this match.

After taking the early lead, Croatia lost 3-1, with small pockets of fans among the 62,103 people in the the stadium. A large contingent packed one upper level behind a goal. "There are a little number of us but we are very loud people," Muselimovic said. "We have a great team. We are very proud people and we love our country, our players, and we are going to support them with all our hearts."

Some 5,500 Croatian fans were expected to occupy seats in the stadium, while some predicted another 5,000 or so Croatians were in the city decked out in those recognizable red and white checked uniforms ready to "do our best to help our guys achieve a historic victory," said Muselimovic, an attorney who lives in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Across the sprawling city, one Brazilian put his arm around a Croatian on Thursday morning and offered "good luck," then stuck out his camera phone to click a selfie of the two in their contrasting outfits.

That sportsmanship seemed to be the norm hours before kickoff on a picture-perfect day under blue skies near the end of Brazil's autumn. "Why not?" said Muselimovic. "Nothing in the world is so unifying like football."

In the area surrounding the stadium, people took in the scene from balconies and busy streets. Josip Galesic, who speaks little English, observed the lively atmosphere and warm day — it was 77 degrees Fahrenheit with a light breeze, and similar to a Croatian summer — and repeated "super" with a big smile and a double thumbs up. He and his son, Davor, figured they had already posed for some 50 photos more than four hours before kickoff.

The 26-year-old from Zagreb enjoyed the pregame camaraderie with Brazilian fans who engulfed him in a sea of yellow, noting, "I don't know what it will be after the game when we beat them." They couldn't quite believe their fortunes to secure tickets to the opener, let alone against the home country.

"If you could choose to get the opening match against the five-time winner, in the world of football this is a dream," Davor Galesic said. "The only better match would be if we met them in the final."

Josip Pejic, from the small town of Buje in western Croatia, believed in his team's aggressive, tactical style. "Brazil is the best team in the world. We are the Brazilians of Europe. If anyone can beat Brazil, it is us," he said. "We don't have anything to lose."

AP Writer Aron Heller contributed to this report.

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