The legacy of 19th century migration of Dalmatians to Auckland lives on in one of New Zealand’s most celebrated Football clubs.
1858 saw the first significant number of Dalmatians migrating to Auckland to work in the Kauri gum industry (the giant tree that New Zealand is famous for). According to records, their population stood at around 1500 in 1898 and around 6500 in 1919. Attempts in this era by a very anglophilic New Zealand government to discourage further Dalmatian immigration by allotting Kauri reserves to workers of British origin ultimately failed. The fledgling Dalmatian community in Auckland held on. Technological innovations such as refrigeration and transportation in the turn of the 20th century resulted in increased demand for New Zealand’s agricultural products. Kiwi economy and industry boomed, which in turn incentivised immigration. In the mid-20th century, many Europeans were aching to leave their war-torn continent behind in search of a better life elsewhere, and Communist subjects in for example Yugoslavia were coming to terms with the failings of their government. The poor, disillusioned and desperate of for example Split were among those to look to their distant relatives in foreign Diasporas for opportunity. In the 1950’s and 60’s, Auckland’s Dalmatian community grew even larger as Croats set sail for New Zealand, bringing with them “old country” cultural norms and traditions.
It did not take long for Football-playing members of this Dalmatian community to realise that they had the capabilities to found their own club. Central Soccer Club, later Central United FC, was born. According to official club legend, the Central moniker was chosen due to the club’s original central location in Hobson Street; a location convenient for the Dalmatian community spread across much of the city. Naming the club after just one of Auckland’s boroughs was viewed as inappropriate. However, the club’s application to join the Auckland Football Association in 1961 was almost rejected on the grounds of that strong Dalmatian association. The various governing bodies of New Zealand Football had observed the ways in which relationships between fans and “ethnic” Australian Football clubs had frequently resulted in confrontation and violence. The Auckland Football Association was concerned about the notion of a Football club run exclusively by and for the Auckland Dalmatian community.
Mladen Urlich, one of the club’s founders, was summoned to the AFA headquarters. The club was not intended to be an organisation exclusively serving European-born Dalmatians, he explained. Many players and club associates simply were Auckland-born Dalmatians. The AFA decided that the founding of Central could proceed under condition that a competitive youth team also exist to encourage diversity among players (over the years the club embraced a large amount of Scottish players in particular). The Dalmatians of Auckland got their Football club, which was due to begin competition in 1962. Little was known of the success that it would be destined for.
Freyberg Field located at Kiwitea Street (by which the ground is more commonly known) was chosen as Central United FC’s home. 57 years later, Freyberg is still the home of the Yellows, but the site has seen much change and renovation in that time. 1974 saw the first major period of work at Kiwitea Street, with fans, staff and associates alike volunteering to keep costs under control. The outcome of this work served perfectly well for another three decades until the New Zealand Football Championship was created in 2004. The competition dictated a season that began around October and ended around March for financially-steady franchises that were exclusively semi-professional with stadia featuring sheltered tribunes capable of seating around 500. On all accounts, Central United FC was ineligible to compete, but the club’s directors founded its sister outfit Auckland City FC for the very purpose of competing in the new nationwide league. The legendary Freyberg Field was duly renovated again and exists as Central’s home ground in the winter months and Auckland City’s in the summer months. While still being a small and humble facility, the charming Freyberg Field still hosts excellent community Football in 2018.
Is Central United’s Dalmatian heritage relevant today? Unquestionably yes, for a couple of reasons.
The Central United clubhouse at Kiwitea Street is filled to the brim with memorabilia from clubs around the globe, but an overwhelming number of contributions come from Hadjuk Split, Dalmatia’s leading Football club. A full (and deadly attractive) Hadjuk replica kit stands on proud display as you enter. Additionally the Auckland-Dalmatian community continues to produce many of the club’s employees, most notably the club chairman, Ivan Vuksich. Indeed, Central has never had a chairman without Dalmatian roots. What’s more, the club’s origins are visible in its very fabric. Central United FC’s badge clearly pays tribute to the famous red and white chequered Croat crest. Its striking resemblance to Hadjuk Split’s badge is absolutely no accident. And finally, Ramon Tribulietx, longstanding manager at Auckland City, believes that the Croatian Footballing mentality is visible within both clubs when it comes to the actual Football on display. Unlike the very physical style of Pacific Football that may be more typical of other Kiwi Football clubs, the club’s staff and members have always stressed a preference for a style of Football that is both technically elegant and strategic. It is difficult to argue that this has not been a factor in the club’s success in the 21st century. The club acknowledges former manager Luka Bonacic (another Croat) as the man who revolutionised the internal playing philosophy of the club in 1988, which survives to this day.
The aforementioned success came after decades of progression through the lower regional leagues. Central United FC has won the Northern Region Football League on 4 occasions, has been New Zealand champions twice, and has lifted the Chatham Cup, New Zealand’s oldest and most prestigious Football trophy, 5 times. Sister-team Auckland City has also brought great honour to both Freyberg Field and to Auckland’s Dalmatians by winning the OFC Champions’ League cup a record 9 times, 7 of which were consecutive between the years of 2011 and 2017, along with 8 Premier and 6 Champion titles in the New Zealand Football Championship. Both clubs are powers in their own right in New Zealand club Football, and their relationship with Auckland’s Dalmatian community has never been forgotten.