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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Pagonis

"These people aren't normal!" - Croatian Soccer Tournament celebration returns to Adelaide

Adelaide is set to host the 2023 Croatian Soccer Tournament. On the eve of this four-day celebration, Front Page Football had the privilege of speaking to Adelaide Croatia Raiders Head Coach Vlado Blažeka, who shared his insights into the profound significance of this tournament to Australia's Croatian diaspora.

The Adelaide Croatia Raiders taking on Dandenong City in the tournament's 2016 edition, the most recent one hosted in South Australia. (Adam Butler/@8zerokms)

Australia's recent history, forged on a migration foundation, has left an enduring mark on its football landscape. Unsurprisingly, many clubs in the country are characterized by their ethnic heritage, and the Croatian diaspora is a prominent and widespread community with numerous clubs proudly celebrating their origins.

Like clubs from other ethnic backgrounds, the Croatian community employs various means to connect with their members beyond their respective leagues' regular home and away seasons. One such tradition is the annual Croatian Soccer Tournament, an event bringing clubs from all corners of the nation together to a single location, where the celebration of culture takes centre stage, and football is its focal point.

After last hosting this tournament in 2016, Adelaide once again welcomes the Croatian community for four days of competition at the Croatian Sports Centre in Gepps Cross. Adelaide Croatia Raiders Head Coach Blažeka shared his perspective on the profound significance of this event for the Croatian diaspora.

“Croatian teams from all over Australia come and play; it is from semi-professional players, so you will have Melbourne Croatia, Sydney Croatia, Canberra Croatia, Gold Coast Croatia, St Albans; all the NPL teams come," Blažeka told Front Page Football.

“You also have the amateur teams, like Adelaide Croatia Vukovi, different amateur teams from different states are all coming; you’ve got Over 35s teams coming, Over 45s, the veterans, coming, and you’ve got women’s teams coming, so all up 52 teams have registered.”

The proximity of the Football South Australia State Centre for Football, just a five-minute walk away from the Croatian Sports Centre, adds to the overall atmosphere of this year's tournament. This unique feature of accessibility to facilities makes the Adelaide version stand out to visitors. The sense of unity and community created is easier to attain compared to larger cities like Sydney or Melbourne.

“What happens here in Adelaide, that no other Croatian club in Australia can do, is we can actually facilitate all the games in one location. A lot of the time, when it is in Sydney or Melbourne, there are only two to three pitches, and then they have to hire another facility a few kilometres away, and people go on buses in between. But what happens when they go to those grounds is that they don’t always come back, whereas here in Adelaide, everyone from interstate loves it because everyone is in one spot, and with the help of FSA’s facilities as well, we will have seven pitches going,” Blažeka said.

The annual Croatian Soccer Tournament creates a sense of community for members of the Croatian diaspora in Australia. (Croatian Soccer Tournament - King Tom Sydney Facebook)

The tournament has been operating since 1974, and Blažeka has been involved in multiple events as a player and volunteer. He has fond memories of driving to Mildura with his father as a 13-year-old to attend his first tournament, which was hosted by Zagreb Mildura SC, currently known as Irymple Knights Soccer Club. It was a tournament ironically won by Adelaide Croatia Raiders, the side he coaches presently.

While Blažeka has competed in tournaments held in Geelong and Adelaide, he has devoted his time and effort in a voluntary capacity during the two most recent occasions when the Raiders hosted the event. He fondly recalled those events that have seen his kids gain the same valuable experience connecting to their heritage as he did when he was younger.

"Over the years, you are just catching up with people you haven’t seen for years because you miss a tournament here or there, so you haven’t seen some people for a while, and you catch up again, and it is like you only just saw them last week!" Blažeka said.

"It is a very social event where everyone just catches up, and now us, the guys that attended when we were kids, our kids are now friends and catching up at tournaments; it is a good weekend and safe environment, everyone is in one place, with a lot of drinks, good food, and music.”

The event spans four days and goes well beyond the realm of football. In 2023, the Adelaide Croatia Raiders are hosting a lunch in the club's olive grove and organising a Gala Night at the Adelaide Oval to supplement the football. However, the celebration's true heart lies in the club gatherings. Blažeka recalled one such memory from the Croatian Sports Centre on the opening night of the 2009 tournament.

“I’ll never forget 2009, the late Ivi Jurković, our President back then. Usually, on a Thursday night, everyone comes in and registers their team, and you have a couple of drinks before everyone goes back to their hotels and comes back on Friday morning to start. We were there on Thursday night, and teams started coming and registering. Then the beer started flowing, and by the end, there were about 500-600 people at 10 o’clock on a Thursday night, without a ball even being kicked, and Ivi looked at me and said, ‘These people aren’t normal!’ We hadn’t even started; we had three more days of this!”

Blažeka shared that the tournament often gains attention in Croatia, and 2023 promises to be an extraordinary occasion for all attendees for an additional reason. A highlight of this year's event is the appearance of the renowned band 'Zaprešić Boys', who are making the journey from Croatia for an Australian tour and stopping by the tournament to perform.

The band is widely recognised by Croatian football fans, with many of their songs chanted when their national team plays.

The tournament creates a crucial sense of belonging for the Croatian community. However, for Blažeka, it holds an even more profound significance. It serves as an event helping the younger generation maintain a strong connection with their heritage.

The coach pointed to other cultures in Australia that have gradually faded due to a lack of connection, highlighting the importance of events like the Croatian Soccer Tournament in preserving cultural roots.

“There is definitely a sense of belonging, but there is also a sense of, you know, back in the old South Australian league, you would hear about the Austrian team and the Hungarian team and teams like that, where unfortunately, the communities have slowly died away, whereas this definitely keeps our community going around Australia for generations to come," Blažeka said.

“Unfortunately, we all get old, and our older generation, the ones that started the club, are slowly starting to pass away. But the younger ones, I am the first generation, my kids are the second generation, are keeping the culture, the respect we have for our homeland. We still respect where we live, too; Australia is the lucky country, and it has given our parents and grandparents a safe and great place to live. But we still respect and celebrate our heritage.”

The tournament is made up of exclusively Croatian teams. But all players, Croatian or not, are invited and encouraged to participate in the football and the events that accompany it. An example of this inclusivity was seen in Adelaide's last tournament in 2016 when María José Rojas, a Chilean international, proudly represented Canberra Croatia.



Rojas celebrates her Canberra Croatia side defeating Auckland Croatia for silverware at the 2016 Croatian Soccer Tournament in Adelaide. (Adam Butler/@8zerokms)

Blažeka emphasised the welcoming nature of Croatian culture by citing the continuing connection Nestor Irankunda has to his junior club and the commitment of Raiders defender Rhys Thompson to the club's community.

"Nestor, whenever he doesn’t have training, is down at the club with us, and he’s not the only one. Someone like Rhys Thompson, the left fullback, used to be a striker all his life, and I’ve thrown him at left fullback and what a job he’s done this year for us. He’s said, 'I’ll never leave this club," Blažeka said.

“There is and has been a lot of stigma of people saying “only Croatians can play for Croatia”, or “only Serbians can play at Beograd” or “only Italians can play at Italian clubs”, but it is not like that. You come here, and you respect us; we will respect you, and that is how it is. I tell my kids now that if someone is good to you, you are good to them; it doesn’t matter who they are, what nationality they are, or what religion they are; if someone is good to you, you are good to them, who cares about anything else?”

After years of disappointment left their community crestfallen, the Adelaide Croatia Raiders are again finding their spirit. The club earned promotion back to the NPL SA as champions and recently received a $1.5 million grant from the State Government.

This grant will facilitate the completion of essential work on their facilities, which were first built predominantly by volunteers. The club's revamped facilities, including a new function room, will enable them to generate revenue year-round.

The Croatian Soccer Tournament could not have arrived at a better time for Raiders, with the event promising to further galvanise a rekindled community in 2023.

Click here to read more of FPF's coverage of Australia football culture!


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