October 25, 2007 CSL Serbian White Eagles vs Toronto Croatia Finals pregame story (from Toronto Star)

CSL keeps Balkan fans apart

Oct 25, 2007 04:30 AM

In many ways it's a dream final for the Canadian Soccer League – the Serbian White Eagles versus Toronto Croatia. The two historical rivals are two of the league’s biggest draws. But the intensity of that rivalry has prompted the league to take the unusual step of dividing the final into two matches and segregating the stands.

Only Croats will attend Saturday's first leg of the final; only Serbs will be in the stands Sunday. At least, that's the hope. The clubs themselves are charged with selling the tickets and policing prospective purchasers.

Both matches will be held at North York's Esther Shriner Stadium. The aggregate two-day score will determine the champion.

"Our first concern was safety," said CSL executive director Stan Adamson. "Number two, we found that the stadium could not accommodate the numbers the clubs are forecasting to attend."

The White Eagles and Croatia are the hinge of the league's "international division," launched two years ago. It was hoped the pull of ethnicity – Italia Shooters, Portuguese Supra - would draw fans away from Toronto FC and Major League Soccer. The strategy is having some success, but it also has its costs.

Last year, the White Eagles reentered the league after a long absence. There were minor troubles at the two games they played with their rivals from the former Yugoslavia. Flares were thrown, seats damaged and there was some skirmishing in a parking lot after a game at Hamilton's Ivor Wynne Stadium.

"We shudder to think that something worse might have happened," Adamson said. "We took a big risk forming this international division."

This year, both White Eagles/Croatia games were played at Centennial Stadium. At the insistence of the league, one game was for Croats only, the other for Serbs. The more extreme option was to play both games in front of empty stands.

As it turned out, there was no trouble at either segregated match.

"But there were some Serbs at the Croat game and some Croats at the Serb game," Toronto Croatia president Joe Pavicic said yesterday. "They were both very quiet."

Nonetheless, with as many as 6,000 locals of Croatian and Serbian descent interested in this weekend’s match (now matches), the CSL worried about the crowd mixing.

The league attempted to rent BMO Field, whose opposing stands provide a natural barrier between supporters. But the ground is closed this weekend for the erection of a weather-proof bubble.

Instead, the match was divided and will be held at Esther Shriner, which has a capacity of 2,000. About a dozen police officers and an equal number of private security staff will be on hand.

The first, Croat-only match in the CSL final will take place Saturday at 5 p.m. The second, Serb-only match will follow on Sunday at 3 p.m.

The two-game format doesn't sit particularly well with the management of either team.

"Players and coaches are not too happy about it. Nobody's very happy," said White Eagles president Dragan Bakoc. "To play two matches in less than 24 hours? There is no time to recover."

Both clubs believe that fans could mix without violence. The league is acting more cautiously, but wants to hold non-segregated games beginning next year.

"We believe there's a future, there's a process," Adamson said. "Next year, we hope to be back with all the fans."

To that end, the leaders of both teams have been working together to police their own supporters.

"I spoke with Joe (Pavicic) ... and he said, 'We're going to show these people that we can leave our differences in the past.'" The White Eagles' Bakoc said. "We're going to be assisting each other. If there are troublemakers – a small minority – we're willing to identify those persons."

Pavicic reflected on the now notorious matches played between Croat and Serb émigrés in Stanley Park in the 70s. Those games sometimes resembled mini-riots. Times have changed, Pavicic said.

"Things are getting much more calm," he said. "We have meetings with these guys (the Serbs) now. We never had that before."

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