Marinko Buric and his family have their red and white Croatian soccer jerseys ready for when they visit a friend’s house to watch Canada and Croatia play at the World Cup this Sunday.
Buric expects it to be a raucous morning, with a big breakfast and plenty of cheering for Team Croatia, despite it being Canada’s first time at the tournament in decades.
“I’ve always been much closer, when it comes to soccer, to the Croatian national team than the Canadian one,” said Buric, a native of Halton Hills, Ont., who was born in Canada and is of Croatian descent.
“Soccer is a big part of the culture in Croatia.”
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While many Canadians will cheer on their men’s soccer team, many Canadians of Croatian descent say their loyalties lie with the opposing team.
Susan Katana Cork said it was difficult for her to choose between the two teams, but in the end she decided to cheer for Croatia.
“I’m almost torn in a sense because I’m Canadian, but I’m 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 game will be its second game at the tournament taking place in Qatar.
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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 while she loves Canada, she hopes Croatia closes the game.
“When it comes to sports, people have divided loyalties,” she said, adding that she plans to watch the game with her family at home in Toronto.
“Croatia is a very small country with less than five million people. But we have excellent people in sports… For a country that is so small, it is incredible how well we are doing.”
Zlomislic, a Canadian of Croatian descent, spent years as a journalist covering the war in Croatia in the early 1990s. She loves Croatia’s team so much that she even kept its jersey from the 1998 World Cup.
She said she hopes Canada, which plays in Group F, advances to the next stage of the tournament, but she is rooting for Croatia to win the World Cup.
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The World Cup kicked off last Sunday amid controversy surrounding host country Qatar’s human rights record. Human Rights Watch has criticized the alleged mistreatment of migrant workers hired to build World Cup infrastructure and violence against the LGBTQ community. Qatar said “everyone” is welcome to visit during the World Cup, but they must respect the country’s “culture”.
Canada defeated Mexico and the USA, two powerhouses, among other World Cup qualifiers, that defied expectations as it cleared its way to Qatar.
Despite playing in a relatively tough group – Canada lost its first game 1-0 against 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, said.
“If you look at Canadian soccer, I would definitely consider this team in this generation to be the best we’ve had in the history of our game here in Canada,” he said.
“I’m sure they will cause trouble for every team that is in the tournament.”
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Gotovac said the Canadian team has stars like Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David on its roster, and all of the team’s players this year have served as role models for many of the young players he coaches.
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“Canadian boys are going to come out there and have that Canadian fighting spirit,” Gotovac said.
“My wish is for a high quality game and whoever wins that game between Croatia and Canada, I’m sure they deserve it.”
Canada next plays in a match against Morocco on Thursday.
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