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Saturday, 31 May 2014

Croats, Australia, Football, Soccer.....

I'm kind of tired of trying to come up with catchy post titles, so the above will be good enough. I'm not going to add much here, it's all in the article. Even with the 2014 World Cup just days away, this post has absolutely nothing to do with the Croatian National Football Team at all. I've already known for quite some time the role that Croatian descent soccer/football players have played for the Australian National Football Team, but probably many people out there don't.

There's a substantial Croat population in Australia, be it direct immigrants from over the years or 2nd and 3rd generation. (Even a former Miss Universe Australia, Laura Dundovic, has Croatian descent). I did a post not that long ago about Australian artist Charles Billich you might find interesting, you can read that one HERE) I've posted previously about Croatian-Canadians and Croatian-Americans, so this is a continuation of the same theme. The Croatian population has blended into Australian society pretty easily and without any obstacles, the sunny beaches, swimming, boating and windsurfing in Australia are nothing new, especially to Croats arriving from near the Adriatic coast. (The extra added bonus of besides being ambassadors of the great game game of soccer, is of course the Croatian food that comes along with them). I also decided to throw in a couple of photos I came across while doing this post, some local Croatian girl soccer teams from around here. I'm liking those jerseys and overall look of the kit, very cool. Anyway, if you weren't aware of this particular Croatia-Australia subject before, now you know........


Previous related posts: croatian-australian-artist-charles-billich


Croatian community's proud role in Australian soccer still reaping rewards 

Generation next: The Socceroos will be led by Mile Jedinak (centre) travelling to Brazil, and joined by Matt Spiranovic, Eugene Galekovic, Ivan Franjic, Oli Bozanic and Dario Vidosic as the Australians with Croatian heritage. Photo: Getty Images


“I ran into a Croatia fan in Stuttgart during the 2006 World Cup before the Socceroos’ game,” former Sydney FC coach Branko Culina recalls, “and he said, ‘We are playing Croatia B,’ and I laughed and said, ‘No, we [the Socceroos] are playing Australia B'.”

Friendly sparring aside, both protagonists had a point. That Australian World Cup squad contained six men of Croatian heritage, including Culina’s son, Jason, while the Croatian squad had three players who were born and raised in Australia.

It was emblematic of the close football relationship between the two proud sporting nations, which stretches back generations to when the first Croatian migrants set up soccer clubs in Australia in the 1950s, and continues today.

Although people of Croatian heritage make up less than 1 per cent of the Australian population, their presence in the A-League is disproportionately high: nearly every club has at least one player of Croatian roots in their run-on side (Western Sydney Wanderers have five plus coach Tony Popovic, his assistant Ante Milicic, and one Croatian national) while six of the 27 (22 per cent) in Ange Postecoglou’s World Cup squad are of Croatian descent.

Captain Mile Jedanik and his 2006 predecessor Mark Viduka are products of the two most famous Croatian football nurseries in the country: Sydney United 58 FC [formerly Sydney United] and Melbourne Knights FC respectively.

Jedinak are joined by Matt Spiranovic, Eugene Galekovic, Ivan Franjic, Oli Bozanic and Dario Vidosic as the Australians with Croatian heritage.

Even the commentary box is heaving with Croatian-Australian voices: SBS has Lucy and Ned Zelic, David Zdrilic, Zeljko Kalac and Jason Culina; Fox Sports has Mark Bosnich and Mark Rudan.

It all adds up to a profound influence on Australian football.

But unlike nationalities such as the Greeks or Italians, who once provided the Socceroos with a healthy quota of talent but no longer contribute in the same quantities, the Croatian production line keeps on churning out quality players en masse.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact there are more than 30 Croatian-backed clubs in Australia, clubs with names that echo their distant homeland such as Fremantle Croatia and St Albans Saints Dinamo.

They come together every year to contest the Australian-Croatian soccer tournament, which has been played for 40 years. But this community tournament alone can’t account for the enduring influence on the local game.

Former Captain of the Australian National Football Team Mark Viduka led Australia to the 2006 World Cup, along with midfielder Josip Skoko, centre back Tony Popovic and goakeeper Zeljko Kalac.

Branko Culina, now the coach of Rockdale City Suns, traces the phenomenon back to the old yugoslavia. In that Communist state, which brought together serbs, Slovenians, Croats, Macedonians, Bosnians and Montenegrins under the one banner, nationalist sentiments were repressed.

Croats, in particular, felt their culture was under threat, and many migrated to Australia in the '70s and '80s, though primarily for economic reasons.

Here they were free to fly their flag, practise their religion, which was frowned upon at home, and pursue their sporting passion: football. The round-ball game became an avenue for national identity – and later – assimilation.

“Sure there are proud football communities here like the Italians and Greeks, but they didn’t have the same pride as we did,” says Culina, whose family immigrated to Melbourne in 1968. “That’s because we didn’t even have our own country again yet, we were regarded as Yugoslavian – they already had their own country.”

It meant talented sons of migrants from Zadar, Rijeka, Split and Zagreb were encouraged to turn out for one of the plethora of Croatian-Australian soccer teams.

Of course, these clubs were also places where the community could socialise.

Western Sydney Wanderers goalkeeper Ante Covic has fond memories of the barbecues and get-togethers at his junior club Hurstville Zagreb [now Hurstville FC] but he also recognises the significance of the struggle for national identity: “We had something to prove – and then there was the war [for independence in the 1990s] and that made us even harder.”

Independence in 1991 coincided with a golden era for Croatian-Australian clubs, and the Knights, and to a lesser degree Sydney United, dominated the National Soccer League.

  Melbourne Knights FC was founded in 1953 as SC Croatia by a group of Croatian immigrants in Melbourne. (they were even two-time Australian National Champions and four-time Premiership winners in the former National Soccer League of Australia that existed up to 2004). And interestingly again, they are just one of 34 active Croatian football clubs presently operating in Australia, the first one was HSNK Zora which was founded in 1931 but no longer in existence, currently the oldest surviving Croatian club in Australia is the Adelaide Croatia Raiders founded in 1952 as Adelaide Croatia. The most successful and largest Croatian clubs in Australia are the Melbourne Knights and Sydney United 58 FC, (see also Croatians in Australia: Pioneers, Settlers and Their Descendants)Image:

Former Socceroo and Sydney United striker David Zdrilic says as a young player it was a tremendous time to be learning his trade: “It felt like a massive celebration; there was a massive togetherness at the club in that period.”

His is the classic migrant story: his Zadar-born dad was more concerned that he should get a good education than play football, and he didn’t take the game seriously till he was 17.

He can’t quite put his finger on why the Croatian community continues to supply so many good footballers but he says the fusion of Croatian passion with Australian resilience has helped created a better and in some ways superior footballer.

“Croatians are very passionate and it might have been that they got angry over a decision in a match, and maybe then they would have given up, but you combine that with that Australian never-say-die attitude and you get the best of both worlds: a much stronger player.”

The idea that Croatian-heritage footballers possess exceptional mental and physical toughness has been around for a while.

In the 1990s, Culina asked then national youth team coach Les Scheinflug what type of player he preferred.

Scheinflug was in no doubt. Players of Croatian descent were better because they weren’t afraid to get stuck in, and were technically proficient.

If it weren’t for his parents, Mark Bosnich could have ended up tackling front-row forwards and packing down in rugby league scrums.

Fortunately, his mum and dad, who hailed from Dalmatia, steered the ex-Socceroo, Aston Villa and Sydney United keeper towards soccer. For Bosnich, football was a way of integrating into the mainstream. He says Australians place a high value on sport, so it’s only natural ethnic communities would try to excel at the sports they had a passion for. “I always consider myself Australian first, but the Croatians love their football, so it was their way of assimilating.”

A flyer advertising a summer football camp. Image:

Beyond Brazil, will Australians of Croatian descent continue to star for the Socceroos in the same numbers? Will we see, for example, the sons of the 2006 generation sporting green and gold at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar? Culina is not so sure. He does a lot of coaching at grassroots level and doesn’t see as many Croatian-sounding names on team lists.

“It will trickle away because there isn’t the same level of immigration,” he says “I think 2006 was probably the high point.”

Another mitigating factor is Sydney United 58 and the Melbourne Knights no longer play in the elite league, so fewer players will make it to the top. More significantly, the nature of the migrant experience means the old home culture dilutes from one generation to the next, and in a multicultural society, that means being opened up to other leisure pursuits and, somewhat ominously, the more dominant Australian football codes.

One man who is confident about the future is the Sydney United FC director of football, Sam Krslovic. United fields 12 teams from under-nines to first grade. He says on average about 30 per cent of the club’s players are of Croatian descent, and he is already seeing the next generation coming through. “Tony Popovic’s sons play in the under 11s and under 13s and they’re better than he was. It’s really very strong.”

He says the club has never had a policy of recruiting Croatian-heritage players, but because it is professionally run and employs mentors who have played at the highest level – current coach is former Sydney FC defender Rudan – will continue to be a breeding ground for the A-League. “We recruit the best of the best – that is the way we do it. Croatian players had to be strong because they had come from a totalitarian state, but even now, we are still seeing good players coming through.”

The New Zealand Football Club With Croatian Heritage

Central United, in their Croatia-inspired kit, win another domestic trophy in 90's

And here's another interesting Croatian-New Zealand football connection, Auckland City, a football club with strong Croatian roots in New Zealand, was formed in 2004 out of Central United when a new national league system was created in New Zealand. Central United, whose emblem features the Croatian red and white checks, was formed by a group of Croatian immigrants, mainly from the coastal Dalmatia region, over 50 years ago. Auckland City have dominated domestic football in New Zealand for the last decade, and even though the jerseys have changed they still maintain a strong Croatian connection from the club's origins. (This is similar how today's Toronto FC has it's origins from the Toronto Blizzard which has it's origins from Toronto Croatia and Toronto Metros-Croatia of the North American Soccer League, both also founded by the Croatian diaspora)

Today Auckland City’s President, Ivan Vuksich, and assistant coach, Ivan Vicelich, both claim Croatian heritage. The squad also features former Zadar and Slaven Belupo defender Mario Bilen. “(Those migrants) had come to New Zealand and just wanted to somewhere to play,” Vuksich says, explaining how Central United was formed. Vicelich is also New Zealand’s most-capped international in history.

Central United in 1997 (Photo: Central United)

And here's a couple of local girls soccer teams with some cool looking jerseys and kit designs I like, I wouldn't have any problem with these designs being used for the national team. Image:


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