Croatia is a sports mad country, you name it and they will play it. From athletics to yachting, team sports and individual sports, at some level you will find a club representing their every sporting genre. Whereas the team sports tend to be dominated by football, handball, basketball and especially in Dubrovnik, water polo, there is a new kid on the block – American Football. And Dubrovnik has its own club, the Dubrovnik Sharks, who compete in the Croatian Flag Football League. The Dubrovnik Times caught up with the president of the Sharks, Marko Miletic, to discover how this All American sport has landed on our shores. Whilst faced with an uphill struggle to get the club up and running, “we still come across lots of sceptics” says Miletic, the Sharks have made great strides to bring this sport to Dubrovnik.
Although Dubrovnik is a sporting city it has never had a history of American Football, how difficult was it to set up the first club in this region?
The right description would be “very difficult“. It still is. In order to from a club you have to prepare a lot of papers and go to every various government sections to make it official, that process took about 15 days. The next step was to gathers players, also quite difficult. The main problem in Dubrovnik, in this question and in general, is the lack of playing fields, gyms etc. To find a couple of hours free in order to invite people to join us we had to wait about two weeks before we received a ground at the sports centre. Not to mention that American football in Dubrovnik is not very well known so people were very sceptical about the whole idea. When all of those first steps were completed we had about twenty players waiting to start practicing, but we had no field to practise on. Luckily, with some major help from our PR agent Andela Matic, we managed to make a deal with Dubrovnik's ACI marina director Mato Frankovic, to use the marina's field one year for free. With one big stroke of luck and we were ready to go. After that it was a bit easier, all we had to do from there was to practice, and keep on the lookout for more new members. Don't be fooled. The club has been working for almost two years now and it still isn't easy. Yes, it is easier than the original set up was, but we still have a lot of work to do, but we never stop, and that gives us the results we want.
Where does your love of this “All American” sport come from?
Well the answer to that is quite easy. Every sport as we all know requires a lot of physical strength, preparation, working out etc. But American football is the only sport where there is so much to learn outside of the field. Routes, offensive and defensive formations, rules and so many more little details that can make you the best player on the field, if you grind on the books well enough. The sport itself is filled with unbelievable measures of adrenaline, competition, sportsmanship and above all, friendship. Despite the popular belief, it's not just a bunch of guys running around and searching for ways to beat each other up as much as they can. It's about players, gathering so much strength, energy and stamina, and yet focusing it on sportsmanlike competition rather than on destruction, and trust me, if they wanted to, they could harm you in so many ways, but they won't. Every football player I've meet so far, and heard of, has been a good and a decent human, full of courage and ambition, aware of the fact that he has to work hard in order to make himself and his team, his family after all, great. That is where my love comes from.
What are your memories of the first time that you saw the sport being played?
I've always known that the Super Bowl is one of the most watched sports event in the world, and that made me wonder. American football and not the soccer World Cup or the Champions League? No way. I had no idea what the sport was about, except that you have to get to the end zone to score a touchdown. I Googled up some rules and found a match on TV to watch. I think I was 19 at the time and I think my first reaction, to be exact was: “What? The? Hell?” A team of guys running around, throwing, jumping, running in all directions without stopping?? Woah. I think that the first game I ever saw was a regular season matchup between New Orleans and Dallas. In that whole mix up I noticed that the Saints (New Orleans team) quarterback, Drew Brees, was throwing amazing passes and he made want to watch them more often. I watched a couple more games, I started noticing patterns in the Saints plays and with some more research online, I started to understand what was actually going on and when I did, it made me start loving the sport that is football.
How popular is gridiron in Croatia, would you say that the interest is increasing?
The popularity of gridiron in Croatia has definitely risen over the past few years, but it still doesn't have that kind of popularity that would make it a boom and the main news. There are people everywhere interested in playing football, but sometimes the lack of the right leadership and of course the funding and help from their local government in order to successfully form a club and work. Several clubs have started and failed because of the earlier said reasons. It requires a lot of personal sacrifice to be a leader of a football club, and you can't do it alone. You need people to come and train with you, help you with everything but we still come across lots of sceptics. You have to make them come and try it, and you can be sure that after that they will stay and play. Needles to say you need money, which is hard to get these days and the popularity of American football, or should I say lack of popularity, with sporting authorities is a big problem. Croatian teams are making a very good effort to bring more people in and they are succeeding. Every day more and more people get to hear about the sport and more and more want to join, we just have to dig them out.
Unlike football, which just requires a ball, American football requires more equipment to play. Is it a problem to fund the club and how successful have you been in attracting sponsors?
Since the club's main occupation is currently flag football, the equipment itself is not so hard to get. All you require is a pair of “flags,” which are held with a vacuum cap on the side of a leather belt, and a jersey made out of special material that cannot rip. A pair of cleats and a pair of specially made receiver gloves, and you are ready to go. Still all together a set of gear for flag football sums up to about €150, which is much cheaper than for “tackle” football, but can’t put a price on playing football? A full set of new gear for tackle football (helmet, pads, jersey, girdle, pants, various body protection) will cost you roughly around €500, if you want decent gear, and not have a headache five days after a simple collision. To get all this, you obviously need a lot of money, which we don't have, yet. The club's sole funding is monthly membership payments from each player and that is 100 Kuna per member. With that money we manage to travel around Croatia to play in the Croatian flag football league. Finding sponsors is very hard today, since everybody who would like to help is usually struggling with today's financial crisis. We manage to find people who help, however they can, they are usually good family friends, cousins and other relatives, godfathers or members parents. To get some help from Dubrovnik's government, I guess we will need some time to prove ourselves and show them that we are a good image for the city and that we work hard to accomplish our goals. Some of other clubs in the country and in the Balkan region have managed to connect themselves with American and English clubs and colleges who help them in sending used gear and coaches to help their development, so maybe something can happen for us along those lines. Needless to say, we try every day to show people what we do, mostly through social media and local news but also through making events, charity tournaments and other activities. We try to do our best to show everyone who needs to know what we do, and we hope that will reach someone who can help us either in a financial or a football way.
How many members do you have and are you on the lookout for new players?
We currently have 23 members, including an offensive coordinator and the coaching staff, who also play matches. On our last new player tryouts, eight people joined our A squad, and a couple more are interested. We always welcome new members, we would especially like to have some girls join so we can form a women's flag team. We are about to visit the city's high schools with presentations of our work, in order to find more members. In short, everyone is welcome to join, from 15 years up to any age if you think they can play. We need numbers to form a tackle team and to grow over the years to become the best club in Croatia and beyond.