Though it may be argued in a local drinking establishment or two, the golden era of soccer in Sudbury was likely the 1960's, perhaps capturing the tail-end of the previous decade as well.
Given that this was a time of adult soccer only, many of those who participated have passed along. Each and every spring, these days, as Sudbury soccer folks reconvene, they do so knowing they are likely paying tribute to another fallen soldier from the pitch.
Few, however, touched the local scene quite as much as Ilija Prodanovic, the Croatian legend who left this earth in mid-February, after gracing us with his presence for more than 75 years. While some make their name in one very particular aspect of the sport with which they are passionate, this native of Viskovci (Croatia), who moved to Canada in 1967, touched all aspects of the beautiful game.
“He was Mister Croatia Adria,” exclaimed long-time friend and former Sudbury Regional Competitive Soccer League (SRCSL) administrator Jimmy McPherson, a “Croatian by association”, in his own words. “Everything he did, he did for the club. The man was 100% about soccer, and 200% about Croatia Adria.”
No argument from two gentlemen who are most closely linked to the work of Prodanovic, most notably over the course of the past twenty years or so. “Ilija was always there, he was that steadying presence,” noted long-time player and friend, Martin Martic. “He was there on time, he was there every time, and everything was in order. That's also why he was so good at his job as a mechanic.”
Though he would suit up on the field long after his prime had passed him by, stepping in when needed to fill in a void, it was more on the administrative front where Prodanovic's efforts were recognized and appreciated.
“He always seemed to know what had to be done,” Martic reminisced. “Some people just have that in them. He was always on top of things, even though he never had a calendar or anything. It was always in his head.”
It was in this role, as the public face of Croatia Adria for years on end, where Prodanovic most excelled, where he seemed most at ease. “He liked being in a group, he liked being around people,” said Martic. “And he liked to talk about the old times, the players from before.”
“I've always said he was a good historian. He had a great memory for stories from the sixties or seventies. He remembered names and dates, right off the top of his head.” Of course, it didn't hurt one bit that Prodanovic had experienced so many of these memories first hand.
Jumping head first into the club soccer scene upon his arrival in Sudbury, the talented sweeper would suit up for his first Croatian North-American Soccer Tournament that same September, attending the Labour Day tradition for more than fifty consecutive years. In 2018, despite dealing with illness, Prodanovic would make his way to Toronto to receive the tournament Lifetime Achievement Award.
“He planned his holidays around that tournament,” said former player Ivo Beljo, the man to whom Prodanovic would hand off his coveted number five Croatia Adria uniform when the latter ascended to the ranks of senior soccer in Sudbury.
“He is a legend in that community," Beljo continued. "Every manager, every coach, every player knew who Ilija was when we showed up, whether it was in New York, Cleveland, Toronto, Chicago, Milwaukee. They all knew him, because he never missed.”
While their relationship grew over the years, Beljo can still recall his first introduction to the man. “Soccer was big back in the day, so my parents would take us to watch Croatia Adria play, and we got to see Ilija in full form,” he said. “We got to see how soccer, when it's played the right way, how great a sport it is. It was pretty cool watching him all those years.”
Gradually, awe would give way to a more deeply-rooted admiration, one that comes from an appreciation that blossoms over time. “He commanded authority and respect,” said Beljo. “Even with work, he would show up early for his shifts, never late, never called in sick. He showed up to the games, super early, with all of the uniforms washed and cleaned.”
“Everything that he did, he did well.”
No surprise that he had some help on the home front. “As much as he did, his wife Anka (Ribic) also did a ton for the team,” stated Beljo. A native Sudburian, she clearly is a great judge of character, judging by the words of praise that have been uttered time and time again by those who recall their interactions with Prodanovic.
“He was the most honest, loyal guy, so that when he told you something, it was 100% honest, 100% accurate, every single time,” said Beljo. “I don't know anyone that did not respect the guy.”
And while some might maintain their affiliation with their native land with work through the church, through cultural folklore involvement, Prodanovic was all about the soccer. “Different generations would come up and move on, but he was always that guy that stuck with it, after he was done playing,” explained Beljo.
It stands to reason that time honoured traditions would mean the world to the man.
“It was important, after every game, to go to the Croatian Club and have a beer, win or lose,” said Beljo. “If we won, sometimes he would splurge and buy us pizza and chicken wings.”
The very same venue where those that are left behind now raise a glass in his honour, in memory of Ilija Prodanovic, “Mister Croatia Adria”.