October 26, 2007 CSL Toronto Croatia vs Serbian White Eagles Championship Final pre-series comments (from Citynews.ca)

Local Soccer Playoff "Segregation" Sparks Controversy
Friday October 26, 2007
CityNews.ca Staff

Sports are the one thing that's supposed to bring people together, as the spirit of the Olympics is designed to prove. But for two upcoming playoff games in the Canadian Soccer League this weekend, it will do just the opposite.

The contests between the Serbia White Eagles and Toronto Croatia are considered among the league's biggest draws. There will be a two game playoff at Esther Shiner Stadium, but the CSL has decided to separate the fans. It means the first game, scheduled for 5pm Saturday, will be open to Croatian fans only. The second match, the following day at 3pm in the same venue, will only allow Serbian fans in.

The reason for the controversial separations goes back to last year, when the league claims there were "problems" at both Lamport Stadium in Toronto and Ivor Wynne in Hamilton where the two tilts were held. That led to a new policy that saw specified fans excluded during the regular season for the two occasions the teams faced each other. It worked so well, the league has decided to extend it to the playoffs.

The news isn't going over well with fans, who believe it's excessive and possibly even prejudicial. And the teams aren't happy, either, saying their fans aren't violent - just passionate. "Personally I don't like it," worries Joe Pavicic, Toronto Croatia's president. "I don't see [the] reason for it. I was talking to the Serbian side ... and they're really thinking the same way we are thinking, and personally, we don't think this is necessary."

The White Eagles are taking it in stride. "Saturday the league decided to go with only Croatian fans, and Sunday is going to be only Serbians," shrugs coach Branko Pavlovic. "So that's the final decision."

The Serbs and the Croats have a long history of animosity both on the field and off. Some of that pain comes from the recent past, when the two nationalities became embroiled in a bitter war during the 1990s, as Croatia broke free from Yugoslavia.

Those long smouldering feelings have now reached across the ocean and led to the extreme precautions. But the CSL is hoping it's just a one time thing. "We have to err on the side of safety," explains commissioner Cary Kaplan. "We haven't had any major instances. No one has ever been hurt. But there's two volatile groups and there's a history. ...We had a lot of games. Italy against the Caribbean, no problems. It's the history that's there ... Nobody is necessarily happy. But we feel good it's the right thing to do."

"I don't think it's segregation, it's safety," he concludes.

He's warning security will be heavy for both contests with an expanded police presence. And all fans entering both games will be searched for flares, fireworks or "anything else that might spell trouble." Anyone causing problems will be instantly ejected and could face arrest.

How will those in charge stop opposing fans from infiltrating the other's specified day? Kaplan concedes it won't be easy. "If someone shows up on Saturday with a big Serbian flag and, you know, their face painted and a sign we're going to say come back tomorrow. So I mean we just have to use our discretion."

Ironically, all this might have been avoided if the schedule could have been changed. The league tried to rent BMO Field for the contests, with the idea of putting opposing fans in opposite stands and keeping them away from each other. But the stadium is undergoing some work and wasn't available. Neither was any other venue large enough to hold the crowd. So Esther Shiner, near Finch and Bathurst, was chosen - and the segregation policy reluctantly put back into place.

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