Sunday, October 11, 2015


The Balkan Connection

Before the former Yugoslavia tore itself apart in a series of bloody conflicts and made a household name of a Red Star Belgrade football hooligan , I was unfortunately already familiar with some of the background. Not the political and nationalist ideology but the simmering tensions that lay under the sheen of Tito’s Yugoslavia. And I have football to thank for it. 

I arrived in Australia in 1987 and as is my wont the first thing I had to do was find a football match to watch. A visit to a local newsagent, the purchase of Australian Soccer Weekly and job done; my first game would be St George BSC against Marconi Fairfield and in my naivety I thought it was a local derby. Well, both teams came from Sydney, that was good enough in most parts of the world! It wasn’t that simple. 

Back in them days football, the locals called it soccer at best, wogball at worst, was definitely a minority sport on a par with kangaroo chess and box jellyfish netball. The fair dinkum Aussie loved his Australian Rules Football, footy, his Rugby League, which at that time was sponsored by a tobacco firm, and Rugby Union. Soccer was for weirdos and odd stereotype in a country of immigrants but there you go. 

A few weeks later and my local knowledge was improving. A game between St George and Preston Makedonia saw the first crowd trouble I witnessed down under as the Preston fans got pissed off with the ref. I say Preston fans, I should clarify. Preston actually came from Melbourne but they were called Makedonia because they were set up by Makedonian migrants, not fans of Tom Finney, and so, according to the perceived logic of the day, they appealed to the whole Makedonian community be they in Sydney, Melbourne or Chattanooga Choo Choo. 

The problem for St George was one of geography. Their decent stadium, St George Stadium, was slap bang in the heart of a Makedonian community in South Sydney. For once, a team’s ethnic roots, in this case St George’s tiny Hungarian base, was not the cause of the trouble. They were too insignificant. Nope, this was a ‘home blown’ Makedonian affair and it was not to be the last I witnessed. A few days later, the ASW was advertising a derby. Sydney Croatia v Melbourne Croatia! Go check it out on a map! At the very best, it was an overnight bus ride! That’s enough exclamation marks, for the time being. 

Then there was Footscray JUST, a Serbian backed team from Melbourne. They were the big ones who attracted the headlines, both positive and unsavoury. I have next to me the programme from when Australia hosted England at the Sydney Football Stadium back in 1991. Sad? Yep, and unashamedly so, I am gutted I cannot find my old team sheets and programmes from my golden years down under, 1987 - 1991, and cling, rather pathetically it must be said, to the idea they will return one day. Sad, yep, but you know what, more than a few people reading this, I hope, will get where I am coming from!

Looking at the Australian line up I see familiar names like Mehmet Durakovic, today coach of Selangor in the Malaysia Super League but then a silky smooth midfielder. Then we have Ned Zelic who I first witnessed as a lanky but elegant player with Sydney Croatia but went on to have an eclectic career with Borussia Dortmund, Queens Park Rangers, Eintracht Frankfurt, AJ Auxerre, 1860 Munchen, Kyoto Purple Sanga, Urawa Red Diamonds, Wacker Tirol, Newcastle Jets, Helmond Sport (from Netherlands, not Afghanistan!) and Dinamo Tblisi! No wonder he only managed 30 odd appearances for his country! 

And there is more including Milan Blagojevic, Branko Milosevic and the Vidmar brothers Aurelio and Tony but if I list all their clubs this diary will never get finished! Looking back from a distance of more than a quarter of a century, it seems that every time I watched a Makedonian team play, there were crowd disturbances of some kind or other. 

There was one time when me and a group of friends travelled to nearby Wollongong Makedonia for a NSL game and things got so tasty we were kept behind after the game by the police who banned us from returning to Sydney by train after the game. Instead, they got the St George coach at the time, Frank Arok, to organise the team and give us rides back! Goalkeeper John Filan, who was to later play for Cambridge United and Wigan Athletic among others, got lumbered with me and he couldn’t wait to drop me off at a railway station in some distant western suburb! 

 One year, Australia played a friendly against Hajduk Split at Parramata Stadium in Sydney. In those days, it was hard for them to find international opponents; I can only recall seeing games against England and Czechoslovakia, most others were against club sides. How things change eh? There were more than 10,000 at the game which featured traditional dancing before kick off. Traditional Croatian dance of course! 

The Aussie national anthem was booed by the majority of the crowd - and when I say booed, imagine a stadium more than 99% filled with visiting supporters. Australia took a very early lead through John Markovski, a Makedonian name, and the crowd went silent. All except for this wonderfully eccentric Fulham and St George supporting migrant who lived in Woy Woy (nope, not Roy Roy) who ran up and down the main stand, waving his scarf and being widely abused in a language he was in no way familiar! 

The game ended 1-0 and most people went home upset. I think there may have been some trouble after the game with the police but my memory isn’t what it once was and anyway, I was just an English guy taking in a match, I pinned my colours to no team. 

For all the trouble brewing on the terraces of Australian sporting venues, I was also becoming aware of an exciting generation of young players coming out of Yugoslavia, thanks in no small part to the efforts of a young Zvoinimir Boban, part of the exciting Yugoslav team that had won the Under 20 World Cup in 1987 and runners up in the Under 21 European Championships in 1990. Much of that team went on to form the rump of the Croatian team that finished third in the 1998 World Cup in France and we can only imagine how good they could have been had Yugoslavia not descended into such chaos. 

The Socceroos played a couple of friendlies against Partisan Belgrade in 1988, one of them at the Parramatta Stadium, and the one player that stood out that night was Boban and I kind of followed his career with interest from afar. Of course, little did I realise that just a couple of years later, he would be attacking a policeman at a game between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade. A riot had broken out between the two sets of supporters and Boban had seen a policeman attack a Dinamo fan so Boban went for the cop. 

 In 1991 Boban moved to Italy where he spent several seasons with AC Milan and I would have probably seen him in action against Cagliari in 1993 in a game that marked their 50th unbeaten but he never said hi. With all the mess in Yugoslavia in those days, many people headed for the exits, not just footballers, in search of a better, safer life and to escape the internecine bloodshed. Freed from the rampant nationalist ideology of all parties, people could get on doing what they had been doing for generations; getting on with each other and ignoring politics and religion and race. Many ended up in South East Asia and of course many continue to head to these shores, players like Aleksander Duric and Mustafic Fahruddin who have found new homes for themselves in this part of the world but there are many more. 

Another Croatian with lengthy experience of South East Asia is defender Mijo Dadic who I first interviewed in 2010. He first arrived in Malaysia in 2004 where he played for MK Land and after a couple of seasons returned to Croatia. He was back in 2006 when a Croatian coach, Bojan Hodak no less, signed him up for MyTeam where he added experience to a team that boasted some of the best young players in the country at the time like Norshahrul Idlan Talaha and Bunyamin Omar. 

Neither MK Land nor MyTeam exist anymore by the way but no one is blaming Mijo! From Malaysia he moved to Persiba Balikpapan, where he was a team mate of Robbie Gaspar followed by shorter spells with Deltras, Kelantan and Pelita Bandung Raya, before returning home again. Singapore has played host to a number of players from the former Yugoslavia and that is not including the likes of Duric and Fahruddin. 

In fact if we take a look at the SLeague handbook for the initial season back in 1996 we come up with the following: 

Balestier Central - two Yugoslavians, two Croatians 
Geylang United - one Croatian 
SAFFC - five Croatians 
Tampines Rovers - one Serbian 
Woodlands Wellington - two Croatian 

And there is more. The top scorer over the campaign was a player of Croatian descent in six of the first seven years. In 1996 it was SAFFC’s Eres Jure then a year later it was Balestier Central’s Goran Paulic. Englishman Stuart Young, formerly an Arsenal trainee who had been part of the youth team alongside Andy Cole, and Ray Parlour, broke the mould in 1998 when he hit 22 goals for Home United. 

 After Young’s interregnum, the top of the scoring chart became the position of another Croatian, Mirko Grabovac who had arrived in the country in 1999. He hit 23 goals in that debut season with SAFFC and went on to score a phenomenal 143 goals for the armed forces side in 137 games which, for the numerically challenged among us, is more than a goal a game. In 2004 he moved to Tampines Rovers where he added a further 83 goals in 100 games before ending his career at Sengkang Punggol nee Hougang United. He also picked up a dozen caps after he took on Singaporean nationality but revoked that after retiring from the game and returning home in 2008.

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