PHOTOS: Enjoying the AFL Grand Final in Croatia
by Jozo Kolakusic
Last Saturday September 25 was the largest gathering of Australian Croats and Australian expatriates in Croatia in 2021 and since the start of the global pandemic.
The scene took place at the Australian Bornstein wine bar on Kaptol, right above Zagreb’s iconic Cathedral, which holds a special place in the hearts of many Croats and the hearts of tourists who have visited this beautiful country. Which made perfect sense to host this long-awaited event.
It was a beautiful sunny last Saturday in September and perfect conditions in Croatia’s capital Zagreb for an outdoor view of the 2021 AFL Grand Final between the Western Bulldogs and the Melbourne Demons. A battle between two other underdog teams, given their history and a more than valid reason to go out in the sun and catch up with familiar faces while taking part in this must-see event with other Australians living in Croatia.
As one of the two teams competing in the game that was to be broadcast LIVE, this is the club that I have supported all my life. The excitement the day before and the morning of the match as they made their way to downtown Zagreb was palpable.
Upon arriving at Bornstein Wine Bar, a plethora of familiar faces from the Australian expatriate and returnee community in Croatia were greeted. All having been warmly greeted by Bornstein owner Ivan Srpek, an Australian-Croatian compatriot returning from Adelaide and a pioneer of the wine distribution industry in Croatia. Also a former AFL player in Croatia, having represented the Croatian Australian Rules national team. As well as the lovely Australian Embassy staff, especially the friendly Consular Representative Dijana Grahovac who handed out mini Australian flags to give to the crowd – a really nice touch. Which was a much-loved sight, having not seen a lot of these people since the last Grand Final in 2020.
Of course I came with my Western Bulldogs gear which mirrored the red, white and blue tricolor of the Croatian flag (points for guessing why I chose to support the * wink * team). Having experienced the magical feeling of the Bulldogs’ first Grand Final victory in 62 years in 2016, it was an important day for me too and a day I was very excited for, regardless of the outcome. Having supported an underdog team (pardon the pun) all my life, opportunities like these had to be savored. Especially by living in the land of red, white and blue. This Grand Final experience had to be special.
The crowd was a healthy mix of Western Bulldogs and Melbourne Demons fans, as well as a large contingent of neutral fans of the game of Australian football. With the occasional Australian tourist (living in other European capitals) passing through Croatia on their vacation. As the 11:15 a.m. local time kick-off neared its start, the sun was building in intensity, as was the excitement of the hundred or so in attendance.
In the background you could hear the sizzle of Australian burgers prepared by Ivan de Bornstein and his attentive staff, while my own homemade meat pies were reheated. On the verge of being enjoyed by punters keen to have an authentic Australian experience after even having the opportunity to visit Australia which has been taken away from them for the past 18 months. It really felt like we were in the big country and the sunny September weather was there to match it.
As the Aussie Anthem aired live on TV in front of the crowd and the opening rebound approached, a sight and sound familiar to anyone who has been to Australia before. Cries of “Carn Bulldogs!” And “Go Dees!” Could be heard, depending on the team preferred by the participant.
The game started off with high intensity, with the Demons taking the lead and then the Bulldogs continuing their lead in the first half. Every kick, bounce, and mark (catch) of the ball was greeted with familiar sounds from the local crowd – which could have been heard at Perth’s Optus Stadium where it was held or at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), home of Australian football. A common feeling among the crowds was that it was as if we had transported ourselves to a pub in Australia for the day, curing the homesickness felt by many and a welcome morale booster in the times we live in.
By the halftime siren, sentiment was very optimistic among the majority of West Bulldogs ‘supporters in attendance – the Bulldogs’ score was 47-39 after coming back from a 3-goal deficit in the first quarter to finally take the lead. Whispers among the crowd in attendance were that it could be a 2nd Premiership win in 5 years and only the 3rd in club history in 144 years. However, as with all the teams I support. I wasn’t holding my breath because it’s a four-quarter game and the oval ball can bounce any way. In addition to the fact that the Melbourne Demons hadn’t won a prime ministerial post in 57 years, since 1964, when they won it against the Bulldogs. Talk about a final full of history and meaning!
The Australian burgers and meat pies were hot and were vividly consumed by the attendees, matching the atmosphere felt so far and the sun shining above us. Taking advantage of the rest between the two halves of the game, it was a great opportunity to chat with familiar faces and meet the very friendly Australian Embassy staff including the new Deputy Chef de Mission and Chargé d’affaires – Phil Shakespear . A native of Canberra and a sports enthusiast who was very friendly to the participants in wishing him a warm welcome to the country.
This creates a great atmosphere at halftime, only to be additionally seasoned with the authentic Australian vibe – through small group play of ‘kick to kick’ and ‘markers up’ by the crowd present with an authentic yellow Leather “Sherrin” soccer ball. Played by a healthy mix of Australian expats and local Croats who play in the AFL Croatia league. An incredible feeling, like we were in the halls and outdoor grounds of the MCG. The grand final experience as authentic as it gets and everyone was in the element.
To also season the atmosphere during the involved crowd play of “Markers up”. A notable and unexpected guest arrived, neither more nor less than the Croatian Prime Minister – Andrej Plenković. Coincidentally, wearing a long-sleeved rugby jersey in navy blue and brown colors (matching the Demons of Melbourne, which may have brought them luck later in the game!). Which was greeted with absolute surprise from the crowd present and matched by the reaction of the Croatian Prime Minister himself. He couldn’t believe how many Australians had made it to the Australian football grand final in the Croatian capital! As he was only going through a quiet walk on Saturday morning to pick up his children in the French classes in the area. However, he appeared to be fascinated by the game and took the opportunity to greet our most notable Australian-Croat returnee in Zagreb, the heroic lawyer Don Markušić, as well as to pose for photos with the staff of the Newly arrived Australian Embassy. Don, proudly donning his old school retro Melbourne Croatia, with Jimmy Mackay’s famous number 10 on the back. Turning out to be an impromptu warm diplomatic exchange between our two dear countries of Australia and Croatia. What a day so far!
After warm hugs, it was back to our places and time for the second half (three quarters). With full bellies and chilled local beer and Australian wine poured out, the roars of the crowd resumed as play resumed with intensity once more. For most of the third quarter, the Bulldogs held onto their growing lead, only for the last 10 minutes of the third quarter to be recaptured by the Demons, whose lead only increased. in intensity after the goal, after the goal has been kicked by the team in navy blue and red. The fourth quarter only matched the intensity of the last 10 minutes, as the Demons absolutely upped their level of play and it became a one-sided game as the Bulldogs’ lead increased every minute. .
Desperation could be felt by the majority Western Bulldogs crowd, however, the strong minority support for the Melbourne Demons has risen in decibels and rightly so. What an incredible performance from Melbourne Football Club, the score became increasingly impossible to catch and as the final siren approached. The excitement and tears of joy could be felt both on television and at the tables in attendance supporting the Melbourne Demons, with the final score ending in a resounding 140-66 victory for the Demons over the Bulldogs. The most enthusiastic and loud cheers could be heard from a table with a small contingent of Dee fans.
Having experienced the excitement of the Bulldogs winning the 2016 Grand Final myself, I knew the incredible feeling such a victory would bring, especially since it had come after 57 years. I made sure to wish them my congratulations as they had been waiting for this moment all their lives and it was definitely a feeling to be savored.
Before the moving award of the trophy to the winning team on television, a groundbreaking announcement was made by Ivan de Bornstein. After the sport having humble beginnings, started by Australian expats of Croatian descent around 15 years ago and playing on all kinds of pitches, from rugby to bumpy football pitches. The following Saturday in a week’s time will be a momentous occasion for the Australian-Croatian community in Zagreb and the sport of Australian football.
The Croatian Australian Rules Football Association (SANH) proudly announced that after many years of planning, paperwork and hard physical work, many years of waiting. Australia’s first full-size football pitch is due to be opened in Zagreb, Croatia in a week’s time on Saturday October 2 at the Mladost Sports Center and Zagreb University of Kinesiology (Sports Science). With all the participants of the grand final invited wholeheartedly by Ivan de Bornstein. What will prove to be another important and historic date to look forward to.
What a game!! What a gathering of Australians in Croatia, the most exciting event on the calendar for local expats and returnees in attendance. It’s worth the wait and an action-packed day to remember for this ever-growing community in Zagreb and Croatia.