When you play in the same tournament, year after year, facing many of the very same opponents, relationships are bound to be forged.
For the better part of the 58-year history of the Croatian National Soccer Tournament (Canada/USA), the Croatia Adria (Sudbury) entry has been a given, assembling a core of local players who would travel to Hamilton, Toronto and London, or cross the border to Milwaukee, Chicago and New York.
And given the fact that Mister Croatia, Ilija Prodanovic – who sadly passed in February of 2019 – enjoyed family ties to the Windy City, it’s not shocking that some of those bonds would live on.
The local crew has seldom been so thankful.
Bolstered by an influx of Chicago talent but with the Northern Ontario flavour front and centre in the mix, Croatia Adria finally broke through to capture this prestigious showdown for the very first time in September, celebrating said victory at their communal gathering place off Frood Road this past weekend.
To some extent, the torch has been passed.
While long-time men’s league defensive stalwart Martin Martic remains aboard, filling the role of team manager after accompanying Prodanovic and so many others on this annual Labour Day weekend sojourn, the influx of another generation was equally prevalent.
Kaleb Mikic played for the second time, Dominik Valentic served as assistant coach and honourary Croatian Brent Huffels guided the good ship Croatia as head coach from the sidelines.
“Brent’s the main guy who puts the pieces together,” suggested Valentic, with Huffels’ involvement on a local level having expanded from simply his playing days to assisting
Laurentian University coach Tony Tagliafierro in his first crack at a lead role on an OUA bench.
“He’s got a lot of connections down south. He recruits the guys.”
So while the Croatia Adria (Sudbury) roster is still dotted with the likes of Mike Asunmaa as well as former Voyageurs Cameron Brooks, Dean Pizolinas, Augustus Oku, Brian Kavaratzis and Nico Correa, many of whom have played summer ball in Sudbury, the need to supplement the core with the Chicago based tandem of Abraham Kanneh (Tournament MVP) and Jose Castillo (Top Goaltender) is a must in order to compete with teams who are often together year-round.
“It kind of speaks to the talent of our team that we were able to pull off the win, considering we were playing together for the first time,” said Mikic, a 22 year-old who played youth competitive soccer locally, but comes by his fascination with this tournament quite honestly.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been involved with the Croatian Centre and the club and all that,” he said. “I had never had the chance to play (for the men’s entry in the local league), but through the family and club, you hear about it. My uncles and grandfather, they all played.”
As he now comes of age, Mikic has garnered a better appreciation of what is required, from a tactical perspective, in order to topple regions of the province and the States that can boast a Croatian population several times the size of that which resides in Sudbury.
“There is an identity that you try and play to and a good coaching staff will pick an identity that fits the players that he has at his disposal,” said Mikic. “Our coaching staff did a very good job of identifying our strengths and weaknesses as a team.”
“Sometimes, when you are a little bit less skilled, you might sit back and defend and try and catch them on the counter attack,” he added. “That wasn’t our goal. We wanted to go out and play a more attacking, free-flowing style – lots of quick passing, utilizing space, running into space and creating chances that way.”
“Playing that style, you dictate the pace of the game.”
That they did – squeezing in a key round robin victory (1-0 over Croatia Mississauga) between scoreless draws with both HRVAT – St. Catharines and Croatia London, slipping past Mississauga for a second time on penalty kicks in the quarter-finals, edging Croatia London 1-0 in the semis and besting Dalmacija from Streetsville in the gold medal affair.
It was an achievement not lost on Mijo Durdevic. The 80-year-old, who was part of the festivities on Saturday, attended the event 10, maybe 12, perhaps as many as 15 times, doing so at a time when there were tales to be told upon their return.
“It means something (that they won) because the best that we did was third place,” said Durdevic, born in Croatia but proudly Sudburian for the past 60 years or so. “In those days, the Croatian team from Toronto was like a semi-pro team.
“One year, we took an overnight bus trip to New York. Once we got there, we didn’t even sleep.
We played in the Bronx and every soccer ball that went off the field never came back.”
The stories are many, filled with the pride of those who love to don the colours of the checkered red, white and blue side.
“Croatians are very passionate with their soccer,” emphasized Valentic.
From Sudbury to Chicago and everywhere in between, that much is obvious.
The 2022 Croatia Adria (Sudbury) roster also included, beyond the gentlemen already mentioned, a lineup of Aaron D’Souza, Tyler Swan, Yordan Stoyanov, Eric Southward, Erick Perez, Edgar Ruiz, Axel Sanchez, Will Butler, Isaac Sutton and Ricky Morton.
Randy Pascal is a sportswriter in Greater Sudbury. Pursuit is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.