NEW YORK - What is more satisfying than to enjoy, celebrate and honor your Croatian roots through the sport of soccer. This to a great extent is what the 50 year anniversary of the soccer club, Croatia New York is about as well as honoring one’s own local community and life. In a fast paced metropolis a half century of existence is no easy task considering the various burdens, economic, logistical and otherwise that are faced by individual members and the team. The celebration of the occasion was held in the Croatian (Center) Church in Manhattan, St. Cyril and Method on June 2nd of this year. The church itself is fast approaching a 100 year anniversary. In excess of 300 present and past players, their families and friends were on hand to be part of this grand anniversary. To an observer it was beautiful and heartwarming to see a group photo of over 100 players representing different generations. There in front of our eyes was the practice of constructive generational succession, the idea of an uninterrupted legacy. Experiencing the continuity from one generation to the next was emotionally overwhelming and soul pleasing as the players hugged one another.
The first goalie of the 1962 team, Vedran Vucemilovic (76), was there to honor the anniversary. He played the goalie position from 1962 to 1970 and prior to that he played from 1958 to 1962 for soccer club Croatia France in the city of Paris. “I always played for the Croatian code of arms and we looked at ourselves as ambassadors for Croatians living in New York, at home and throughout the world. Our club was the root from which other clubs in North America, Australia spread. I will like to congratulate present team members and their supporters for continuing the legacy of something that is very dear to my heart, being Croatian and soccer. It wasn’t easy back then for our team, transportation and finances was a problem. I hope and strongly believe that Croatia New York will exist indefinitely,” said the warm, impressionable and well spoken gentlemen.
In every sport as in life there is triumph, loss, pleasure and pain, all are an integral part of our life on Earth. It was in early 2000 that Croatia New York had its greatest challenges; the team broke apart for a period of five years. It took the young generation of players and participants to bring the team back to life. Players: Filip and Marko Loncar, Vjeko Luburic (27), Tommy Mustac, Chris Krcz, Eric Kopynski, Alex Luna and coach John Grbic were among the core building blocks of the comeback Croatia New York soccer team as are: Kristopher and Tomislav Bistre, Kevin Skrivanic, Christien Ciklic, Ante Rogic, Dumancic, Antun Grancaric, Joni Skoblar, Augustin Saric and the president of the club Tommy Radalj and others. “When I was seven years old I joined Croatia New York’s youth team, Miho Miketic and Claudio Grdovic were our coaches. For three years I began to learn the basics of soccer, though the youth soccer program. Though the youth program was discontinued Croatia New York remained in my heart as I went to play for other teams. Soccer and being Croatian are an integral part of who I am as a person,” said the friendly, intense and well spoken Filip Loncar (28) who plays a defensive position on the team. “Discipline, knowing to stay in your position and communicating with other players are key elements of being a good defensive player. I have the never give up attitude, knowing that every time I take the field I represent the Croatian community and my Croatian heritage,” said Filip who also substituted as a bartender the night of the anniversary. Brother Marko Loncar (26) plays the midfield position. One can make a comparison with Niko and Robert Kovac the brother duo who for years played for Croatia’s national team in the same positions and both sets of brothers have a very similar passion for sport and country. “In the midfield position there is lots of running, endurance is one of the key components of the position because you’re playing both offense and defense. It’s important to keep the ball moving and take players on with your dribbling skills but at the same time a midfielder has to keep his hear up so as to be able to pass the ball when the opportunity arises,” said Marko who was also playing a support bartender role during the anniversary dinner. There is another brothers/father combination playing for Croatia New York: Tomislav and Kristopher Bistre along with their father Zoran who is one of the new main coaches for the team.
Croatia New York plays in the division one Metropolitan League, the most competitive league in America, since the teams in it won 5 out of the last 7 national titles. There are 12 teams in the first division of what is a semi-professional league, it has four divisions. When Croatia New York restarted in 2006 it took the team three years to climb into the first division. One can say that in life there are always politics involved when competition between teams or groups of people ensues. The two top teams in the division tend to be Greek: New York American Atlas and New York Pancyprian Freedoms. One of the reasons for these teams being on top is a budget that can exceed 100 thousand dollars per team. This means that the above teams can draft top players from the metropolitan area as well as from division 1 colleges and pay them hundreds of dollars per game to give them the desired result. This seems to be a common practice with some of the teams that have large budgets but is not the case for Croatia New York team. Croatia New York had their moments of glory winning the championships in: 1985-86, 1988-89, 1997-98 and making it into the playoffs in 2009 – 10 season. This year the team was plagued with injuries and other logistical problems and faired into the 8th place position. The rules of the Metropolitan League are that an organization has to have two teams: the first team and the reserve team. The teams play back to back games. According to the coaching staff and some of the players I’ve spoken with in terms of improving the organization they agree that the reserve team runs on thin reserves. Croatia New York home field is in Boonton New Jersey (The Croatian Highlands or Hrvatska Zemlja). The logistical problem for the team is that its players come from the tri-state and Pennsylvania thus for some of the players the drive and traffic is problematic since all of the players have full time jobs.
One of the atypical faces that make up Croatia New York is Alex Luna (31) with roots in Peru and the Dominican Republic. Alex is the goalie for the first team with a long track record of accomplishments in the game, having played for the USL league with teams such as Carolina Dynamo and Tampa. Soccer is big in Alex’s family, both his grandfather and father played for the Peruvian national team. “I like playing for Croatia New York, the players and fans show me appreciation when I play well,” said he well spoken, fit, 3 year veteran who plans to retire when the time comes with this team. Alex’s commute to team obligations is 1.5 hours one way. Former player Vedran Nazor who was in attendance said of coach John Grbic (53): “John is one of the greatest motivators Croatia New York ever had.” What does it take to be a good coach? “You have to have at your disposal all elements of the game: Know your players, have a system and strategy in place for the team, improve players, be a motivator by example, mutual respect is important, lead by example, understanding psychology is important,” said the strong minded, competitive, athletic coach. According to John Grbic one of the most prolific center forwards and leading scorers that ever played for Croatia New York was the late Ivan Mustac. Ivan’s son, Tommy Mustac (30) has very similar traits of his father; having a great instinct for the game as well as being able to play any position on the field. The former 1999 goalie for the team and now president is Tommy Radalj. “I have several functions as president of the team: I’m a liaison with other teams, I have to keep up with the latest rules and regulations of the league, I have to make sure team members are registered and comply with the league requirements,” said the energetic young president who works as a project manager for Excel company.
The legacy of a team is directly related to believing in one self, one’s roots and community thus allowing what is good and beautiful in the human experience to propagate indefinitely. This is partly what the 50th anniversary celebration of Croatia New York was about. God bless Croatia New York going forward and God bless our heritage.