The Croatian Knights have surprised some with their results.

Croatian Knights prepare to show their strength

By Nick Townsend

“I would like us to host a preseason training trip for Hawthorn,” says Kolja Koracak, tongue firmly in check, “replace Kokoda with Croatia.”  Koracak might joke now, but with the enthusiasm and dedication he has already put into building Aussie Rules in Croatia, it might not be long before hosting AFL clubs is a reality.

Kolja Koracak discovered Aussie Rules while living in the US, where he started playing for the Arizona Hawks. When he returned to Croatia in 2005, he teamed up with some other Australians of Croatian heritage and started up the country’s first club: the Zagreb Hawks.

From this humble beginning the emerging Aussie Rules community has quickly expanded to three teams, who play each other regularly in a 9-a-side league. Overall the competition encompasses over 50 players. 

The rise of the Croatian Knights, the country’s representative side, has been just as impressive. This August they’ll be one of eight teams competing in the inaugural European Championships in Denmark and Sweden. To date the Knights have achieved notable success in the 9-a-side EU Cup, finishing an unexpected second in 2008, and third as hosts in 2009. However the European Championships will pose a fresh new challenge to the squad. The competition has been expanded to 16-a-side, and unlike the EU Cup, Australian expats cannot compete. “We have no experience in playing 16-a-side,” says Koracak,  “but we have to start somewhere.”

Most  of Croatia’s recruitment has been done through local universities and through friends. The close ties between Croatia and Australia, through migration between the two countries, has also helped. Current Knights coach Josip Kravar first heard about the game through his cousins in Adelaide. Having played his first game in 2006, he has quickly risen to become the Knight’s coach.

“We train four times a week, and three times in the gym...we train like professionals”, says Kravar of the Knights’ preparations, “We have twenty really solid well-condition players, who are willing to take on anybody.”
For many the Knights will be an unknown entity in this year’s championships, but their intense patriotism and enthusiasm is sure to get them noticed. “We are not favourites but teams in our pool will know the Knights as brave and good players like Croatians are.”

A successful run in the European Championships may also be a huge boost to the sport’s popularity. Local league games already attract crowds of around fifty, and the EU Cup in 2009 attracted over 500 spectators.

“I think Aussie Rules has a bright future in Croatia,” says Josip Kravar, “Because in Croatia people love sports, and Aussie Rules is one hell of a sport.”

Visit the website for the European Championships in Australian Football 2010.

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