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World Cup match some Croatians want to avoid

Australia's match with Croatia will be spiced up by the prospect of playing against three Australians who turned their back on the country of their birth to represent the country of their ancestors.

india Updated: May 05, 2006 11:55 IST

Australia's World Cup match with Croatia in Stuttgart next month will be spiced up by the prospect of playing against three Australians who turned their back on the country of their birth to represent the country of their ancestors.

The June 22 showdown could decide which team goes through to the second-round knockout phase of the World Cup tournament along with expected Group F winners and defending champions Brazil.

But when Australia's national anthem is struck up before kick-off it will be a poignant moment for three potential Croatian team members— Ante Seric, Josip Simunic and Joey Didulica— when they finally come to face the decision they made to choose Croatia over Australia.

On the other side, seven Australian squad members have Croatian ancestry, including captain and star striker Mark Viduka.

Seric and Simunic were graduates of the Australian taxpayer-funded national Sports Institute while goalkeeper Didulica was picked to play for Australia at the 2000 Sydney Olympics before injury ruled him out of the tournament.

Seric, rated one of Australia's best young talents before he defected to Croatia in 1998, says the playing of the national anthems for the Stuttgart game will also be a moment of pride.

"I'll be there representing Croatia and I'll be there representing Australia," he told The Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday. "I'll be there for both countries. And even if I don't sing the Australian anthem, I'll definitely hum it. I will hum at least."

Seric said his decision to quit Australia was the hardest of his life.

"Growing up, my dream was always to play for Australia," he said. But at the time football in Australia was in a mess reeling from the sickening World Cup loss on away goals to Iran, hamstrung by a faction-riven administration and the dream of qualifying for the World Cup seemed as distant as ever."

Meanwhile, the Croatian national team had finished in third place at the 1998 World Cup in France.

"I can't hide the fact that I'm Australian, but I can't hide the fact that I'm Croatian as well," Seric said.

"If I went back and the circumstances were different, I may have made a different decision. But I decided the way I did and I stand behind that. If the circumstances were exactly the same, I would make exactly the same decision. I can't regret it because it's given me so much."

But in the wake of significant advances over the past two years— establishing a viable national league, leaving Oceania to join the Asian confederation and qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 32 years— Australia look better placed now to resist Seric-style raids from countries like Croatia.

"I think players will always have the temptation to be called by other countries," Seric said. "But I can feel that things are changing for Australian football. They're obviously doing something right if they qualified for the World Cup."

"I will go back and live in Australia when I've finished playing football.

"I want to give back to the game. I owe the AIS. I owe the people who were there and who helped me because I think it was the pivotal moment of my career. I will help anyone who needs help in Australian football."