SYDNEY Croatia meet Melbourne Croatia in a national league match at Edensor Park this weekend, and Bradley Report or not, these two clubs have some serious soul-searching to do. The basis of this introspection should be whether sport and politics mix, and whether the motivation which led to the clubs’ foundation has a great deal of relevance today.
These are sensitive subjects, and certainly emotional within the Croatian community, but that does not mean they should not be addressed. In the end, unless the wider view is taken, these clubs face the danger of going the way of so many other soccer clubs who have not branched out from their ethnic base- into oblivion.

The problem is that a core of people who have supported these clubs over the years, both by standing on the terraces and providing financial assistance, have done so because they want to be seen waving the flag.

The majority of the Australian Croatian community came to this country to escape what they perceived as the persecution of the Communist Government in Yugoslavia. They have believed, quite strongly, that it was important to show the power-brokers in Belgrade that their Croatian heritage was alive and well in a far-off land. And there was no better platform to display their nationalistic fervour than at the soccer ground.

Whether you agree with this argument or not, the fact is the lie of the land has now changed, probably for good. The winds of change swept through eastern Europe last year, bringing the mood of reform to Yugoslavia.

The Croatian republic, one of six in the country, wasted no time in capitalising on the disintegration of communism, and by mid-1990 a democratically elected government was installed in Zagreb, with complete independence from Belgrade now firmly on the agenda. What this means is that the reason for political agitation has now all but disappeared – no longer do local Croatians need to wave the flag. And because they don’t, the crowds which support their soccer clubs may start to dwindle away.

There is already evidence of that trend this season. At the half-way mark of the NSL contest, attendances at Sydney Croatia games are down just over 9 per cent on last season, while at Melbourne Croatia the crowds are down by almost 33 per cent. Whatever the final tally at the end of the season, a core of regular followers have deserted these clubs, possibly for ever. The message is that if both Sydney Croatia and Melbourne Croatia want not only to survive, but flourish, as soccer pushes towards the 21st century their emphasis must change significantly.

For so long, that emphasis, from committee level down, has been politically-based. Now, with those political grievances essentially solved, the onus must be switched to soccer. Both clubs have to broaden their base to include their local communities, they must promote themselves in the wider marketplace, and develop their juniors on a geographical, not ethnic, basis. Sydney Croatia and Melbourne Croatia have a lot to offer the game in this country, but only if they are strong enough to handle the transition from what they have been in the past to what they must be in the future. The people who run both clubs should be aware of that responsibility.

* THE Australian under-17 team, the Joeys, begin their campaign to qualify for this year’s world championships in Ecuador when they meet Fiji in the opening game of the Oceania series in the New Zealand city of Napier this afternoon. While we wish them well, and they must have a decent chance of qualifying given their impressive results during a recent tour of South America, there is a tinge of sadness about these championships.

With the late withdrawals of Tahiti and Papua New Guinea, just three teams(New Zealand and Fiji are the others) will be competing to qualify direct for Ecuador – a farcical situation which will not impress FIFA.

As a result of the withdrawals, which will add to the already poor opinion of the Oceania Confederation in the soccer world, the Joeys will almost certainly be forced to qualify in at least two stages in future, just as our other national teams do. And the tragedy is that this is no fault of their own. Rather it is another example of the way in which Australian soccer is being hindered by its membership of such an underdeveloped footballing region

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