Marinko Buric and his family have their red and white Croatian soccer jerseys ready for when they’ll visit a friend’s house to watch Canada and Croatia play at the World Cup this Sunday.
Buric expects it to be a noisy morning, with a big breakfast and lots of cheering for the team from Croatia, despite the fact that it’s Canada’s first time at the tournament in decades.
“I have always been much closer, when it comes to soccer, to the Croatian national team than the Canadian one,” said Buric, a Halton Hills, Ont., resident who was born in Canada and is of Croatian descent.
“Soccer is a big part of the culture in Croatia.”
While many Canadians will be cheering on their men’s soccer team, numerous Canadians of Croatian descent say their loyalties lie with the opposing team.
Susan Katana Cork said it had been hard for her to choose between the two teams but she ultimately decided to cheer for Croatia.
“I am almost torn in a sense because I am a Canadian, but I am also Croatian because of my family heritage,” said the Markham, Ont., resident. “I would like to see Croatia win despite the fact that … I was born and raised in Canada.”
Canada is playing at the World Cup for the first time in 36 years and Sunday’s match will mark its second game at the tournament taking place in Qatar.
Croatia’s soccer team is making its sixth World Cup appearance since the country gained independence in 1991. The team came third in 1998 and lost the final to France in 2018.
Erica Zlomislic, a director at the Croatian Heritage Association, said though she loves Canada, she hopes Croatia clinches the match.
“When it comes to sports, people have divided loyalties,” she said, adding that she is planning to watch the game with her family at home in Toronto.
“Croatia is a very small country of less than five million people. But we have excellent people in sports …. For a country that small, it is amazing how well we do.”
Zlomislic, a Canadian of Croatian descent, spent years as a journalist covering the war in Croatia in the early 1990s. She’s so fond of Croatia’s team that she’s even kept its jersey from 1998 World Cup.
She said she hopes Canada, which is playing in group F, advances to the next stage of the tournament but she’s rooting for Croatia to win the World Cup.
The World Cup began last Sunday amid controversy surrounding host country Qatar’s human rights record. Human Rights Watch criticized the alleged abuse of migrant workers employed to build World Cup infrastructure, and violence against the LGBTQ community. Qatar has said “everyone” is welcome to visit during the World Cup but they should respect the country’s “culture.”
Canada defeated Mexico and the U.S., two powerful teams, among others in the World Cup qualifier matches, defying expectations as it cleared its path towards Qatar.
Despite playing in a relatively difficult group – Canada lost its first game 1-0 to Belgium – Canada has a chance to advance to the knockout stage given its strong performance during qualifying competitions, said Marko Gotovac, a coach at Mississauga Croatia Soccer Club.
“When you look at Canadian soccer, certainly I would consider this team in this generation probably the best we have had in the history of our game here in Canada,” he said.
“I am sure that they will give trouble to every team that is in the tournament.”
Gotovac said the Canadian side has stars like Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David in its roster, and all the team’s players this year have served as role models for many of the young players he coaches.
“Canadian boys are going to come out there and have that fighting Canadian spirit,” Gotovac said.
“My wish is for a high-quality match and whoever wins that match between Croatia and Canada, I am sure they deserve it.”
Canada is set to play Morocco next in a match on Thursday.
—Sharif Hassan, The Canadian Press