Croatia. Its not the most likely place in the world to hear about a flourishing Australian Football competition. Some have heard of Denmark, Canada, the US and UK sides, but few ever talk about the sleeping giant that is the Croation league.
In 2005, half a dozen expatriate Australians began to play footy in Zagreb, however today the Croatian Association has no Australians playing in the competition. The league has grown from one to four clubs – three clubs from Croatia – mostly in and around Zagreb, with an additional club from Austria, about 2 hours drive from Zagreb.
The President of the Croatian league is Josip Kravar. who was introduced to the game by his cousin from Adelaide. He supports Hawthorn, who are also partnered with the Zagreb Hawks. He says he’s had a good year.
Kravar tells me that the league plays matches every second week on University Rugby Union pitches, and due to this restriction the league plays 9 a side – not uncommon in Europe, although like most teams the national side, the Knights, plays 18 a side. He says that this makes it easier for people from soccer and rugby union to adapt to the Australian game.
The league has grown from those 6 expatriate Australians to around 50 players, with no expatriate Australians. Recruiting is done mainly through schools and Universities. Josip says that University teams play in Croatia and Austria, and have even played Oxford in England.
‘A couple of the young guys who lead the Association said we just had to go hard if we wanted the league to survive for the next ten years’, says Josip. That hard work has partly paid off with Zagreb University granting them some land to play on. Next year the new facility will have its first locker rooms, posts and the first Australian football oval in Eastern Europe.
Recruitment is an intriguing process with the league utilising a draft process for University and senior recruits to ensure a spread of talent. This may be the only Australian Rules league outside of Australia to use such a system. Clubs visit schools, and recruits from the schools in question are deemed to be zoned to the club which visits.
The National side competes in the EU Cup where they are something of a powerhouse. They recently placed bronze, but have collected a few medals in recent years. They’ve finished 1st, 2nd, 2nd and 3rd in the four previous EU Cups.
The Knights intend to go the International Cup in August, with expected costs of more than AU$2000 per player. Kravar says the team for the Cup will include 26 players, coaches and other staff. Costs are prohibitive and like many national sides trying to get to Melbourne in 2014, the Knights are on the lookout for sponsors.
If you’d like to know more about the Association of Australian Football in Croatia, please visit the website at www.sanh.hr. Please note the site is presently only available in Croatian.