You Wouldn’t Read About It, The Story Of The Zagreb Hawks

September. Known in these parts for bringing with it two things that are keenly anticipated following a bitter, protracted winter: springtime sunshine and finals football.

For those clad in Brown and Gold it’s usually a time filled with excitement and expectation; the stakes are higher, the tempo faster and the hits harder.

After all, Premierships are on the line.

As a Club, Hawthorn will see it’s senior AFL, VFL and VFLW programs participate in this season’s finals campaigns, but an unlikely, distant cousin makes for a fantastic four that’ll be donning the Brown and Gold in pursuit of silverware.

But it’ll be as their Summer becomes Autumn.

Founded in 2006, the Zagreb Hawks are Croatia’s oldest AFL side. Not only do they compete in the Brown and Gold, but they do so wearing the mustang of Box Hill after the Club sent over a care package of sorts to prepare them for the new season.

On Saturday, September 1st they travel to Prague in the Czech Republic to compete against club sides from the Czech Republic, Croatia, Switzerland, Austria and, potentially, Italy for the title of Central European Australian Football League (CEAFL) champions.

But first, we must go back to the beginning. This is a story that demands context as a matter of curiosity more than anything else. How did Australia’s indigenous game reach and grab a hold of Croatian nationals?

“A man by the name of Kolja Koračak went to college in Arizona and played with the Arizona Hawks,” says Zagreb Hawks’ president and founding member Josip Kravar.

“It’s weird that he went to America and started to play footy, but that’s how it began.

“After college he came home to Croatia and put posters up around Zagreb that read, ‘Who is interested in playing Aussie rules?’

These posters were enough to pique the interest of locals who had returned from time in Australia and thus had a familiarity with the game, one of whom was Josip’s cousin.

“I was at college in Zagreb and my cousin asked if I’d like to give it a try. I did and have loved it ever since.”

With the help of their American namesake, guernseys were sourced and a club was born. There was, however, an issue. Who to play against? And where to play?

“We were the only club,” begins Josip, “but we found out there were teams in Austria, Czech Republic and a few other countries.

“We had a meeting and set up the CEAFL so we could play tournaments.

“We played on pitches with nine a side and two 15 minute halves.”

As with all start-up enterprises there were teething problems and, in the early days at least, perhaps their grasp exceeded their reach. But you could never question their enthusiasm for and love of the game.

By 2008 the CEAFL had come to an end, with the Hawks resigned to playing in their local competition, the Association of Australian Football in Croatia, alternating use of the University of Zagreb’s rugby field with the rugby team for home matches. As you can well imagine, Central and Eastern Europe is not set up to cater for AFL.

With a ground sourced, guernseys secured and opponents sorted the next thing any football team needs is rivals.

In the neighbouring Velika Gorica Bombers, Sesvete Double Blues and Zagreb Cvjetno Dockers the Hawks had just that.

Whilst the Hawks enjoy a terrific rivalry with the Bombers and Double Blues, their number one focus at the start of each campaign is besting their arch-rival, the Dockers.

A re-launched CEAFL – resurrected at the start of 2013 in response to several neighbouring countries lacking more than one team – was the perfect platform for the two capital-based clubs to stoke the fires of enmity.

Having beaten them once already in 2018 the Hawks know they’ll likely need to best them again to claim the trophy in Prague.

“Between 2013 and 2016 we played the Dockers in four consecutive Grand Finals, we won the 2013 and 2014 Croatian and CEAFL titles, with the Dockers winning the Croatian league in 2015 and 2016.

“They cannot win the Croatian league this season, but they’re a dark horse to take out the CEAFL title.

“Our goal isn’t just to win the tournament, but beat them as we did earlier in the year.”

Football may only be in its infancy in Croatia, but for Josip Kravar the game’s ability to provide social and community utility was obvious from the outset.

“We are not only a football club – we are a social club which tires to gather people from the community together.

“When our clubs started we were mostly students playing one day tournaments, but for us it was more than just fun.

“The dynamics of the game were something so different and unique for all of us, as was the culture.

“Soccer, for instance, sees you praised if you cheat, which isn’t right morally. And for us that’s an important difference.”

And just as it is at home, expansion is high on the agenda.

“We have a plan to start a junior program as soon as possible, have already helped start a women’s team, the Zagreb Panthers, and are keen to see that grow in the coming years.

“Many of our players have a Master of Sports Education from their time at university. We know we’re a small country, but there are many Croatian athletes who punch above their weight and we’re keen to find some more.”

But the central, abiding principles of any Club are underpinned by the identity and sense of unity created by a guernsey – they mean more than letting you know who is or isn’t on your team. They are who you are and who you’ll always be; they are players past and present; premierships long celebrated and those yet to be won.

“We are proud to wear Box Hill jumpers.

“Most of us are Hawthorn fans and some of us had the opportunity to watch them during last year’s International Cup, and now you can be sure we watch Box Hill’s fortunes as well.

“I want to take this opportunity to thank Ian Dicker, who unselfishly helped us some eight years ago.

“We didn’t have enough jumpers and I found his email and contacted him asking for help.

“We’d never spoken, but he sent us a new set without hesitation.

Come Saturday afternoon, two sides in the same guernsey will take the field and enter the fray that is finals football.

One in Prague, the other in Port Melbourne.

One comprised of players for whom a love of the game was instinctive, breed into them; the other whose affinity for Australian football was born out of a curiosity sparked by a flyer.

Though a world away both are connected by and invested in the Brown and Gold, sharing a singular passion for what it represents and the pedigree of those who’ve worn it prior.

September. Known in football circles for finals football.

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