When it comes to soccer, our Men’s A-Team is the showpiece of our Club. In its opening match in 1957 Croatia defeated Hamilton Sparta 2-1, with Pavle Usenica scoring the first-ever goal in Club history.
From the onset, Croatia Hamilton was a local soccer power. In their first season in the Southern Ontario Soccer League, they were League Champions. In 1963 and 1965 they were the powerful Inter City Soccer League Champions and Ontario Cup finalists. Croatia was the Hamilton Spectator Cup champions in 1964 and 1965. As members of the Hamilton & District Soccer League (H&DSL) they won Championships and League Cups too many to list. There were Hamilton Spectator Cups wins in 2004, 2005 and 2007, as well as Ontario Cup runner-up that year. The club was inducted into the Hamilton Soccer Hall of Fame in 2016 as Club of Distinction.
Throughout the years the Croatian National Sports Club of Hamilton hosted international friendly matches with Croatian club teams such as NK Dinamo Zagreb.
In celebration of the 125th anniversary of the City of Hamilton in 1971, the event advertisement included a tagline that read "Come see professional soccer played on turf for the first time!"
Dinamo were only four-years removed from winning the 1967 UEFA Cup when they visited Hamilton. Events like this were monumental for the diaspora, especially during a time when Croatian professional soccer teams were owned by the state and were not always given permission to freely travel around the globe to participate.
Other notable friendlies included matches against NK Medjugorje, NK Croatia Brihovo, NK Vukovar, NK Karlovac and NK Zrinjski Mostar, amongst others. We have also had the pleasure of hosting non-Croatian teams as well. This includes an international tournament in 1988 with Vasas Budapest SC, one of Hungary's major sports clubs.
Considered the heart of the Club, the Men's A-Team has represented the City of Hamilton and Croatian culture for numerous decades. In addition to the many tournaments, leagues, and various league cups, the team has been a part of the Croatian National Soccer Federation of North America's Annual Tournament since its inception in 1964, crowned champions twice in 1965 and 1969.
Croatia enjoyed a successful run in the professional ranks from 1968-1976 when they played in the now defunct National Soccer League. In 1972 an NSL regular season game between Croatia Hamilton and Toronto Italia was even nationally televised by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
Many well known Croatian and international players have worn a Croatia Hamilton jersey. Some notables include Croatian professionals such as Željko Adzić, Slavko Cetina, Vlado Crnjak, Berislav Krilić, Stjepan Loparić, Vlado Palijan, Ivica Tanković, and Nediljko Šimić. Šimić actually played against Hamilton as a member of NK Vukovar in 1991, years before ever moving to North America.
Another legend that cannot go unmentioned is Josip 'Čiki' Dundović. Čiki came to Canada from Jablanac, Croatia at the age of 26. The gifted ball handler starred throughout the club's heyday during the mid-1960s and into the '70s mostly during the professional years. He was inducted into the Hamilton Soccer Hall of Fame in the Player Category in 2017.
Croats were not the only prominent players to wear the Hamilton Croatia crest. 1976 Canadian Olympian Kevin Grant and Olympic team captain Jimmy Douglas played for the Club during the 1970s, as did English mainstay Frank Ellis and long-serving Ukrainian goaltender Tom Bondarenko. These and many other players are just a small piece of what has become a talented soccer mosaic.
Croatia's next foray into professional soccer was much shorter-lived than the NSL days. After years of earning promotion from the city, to the regional, then the provincial league, in 2010 the club decided to take it one step further by joining the Canadian Soccer League.
The adventure lasted all but one season, most of which has been captured in the book "That Year We Went Pro" which describes the experience using a compilation of stories, photos, quotes, statistics, and snippets of game day programs.
Although the Men’s A-Team did a tremendous job promoting the City of Hamilton and Croatia from the start, executive members did not want to leave any resources — which could help solidify Croatia's future — untapped. In the late 1970s it was decided that the Club would include other sports such as bowling, chess, and veteran soccer (old-timers) to ensure that more people became involved in promoting the name “Croatia”.
Ultimately this created more membership, a stronger Club, and a constant sense of community.