Damir Sutevski (rightt) with his Rochester Lancers teammate in 1979 or 1980. (Photo courtesy of Branko Segota)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

Disgruntled with his lack of playing time with Dinamo Zagreb in then Yugoslavia in 1974, 19-year-old right wing Damir Sutevski faced a major life decision: Keep playing with the club or seek employment elsewhere.

He had  been a member of the team since he was 11.

“I would have played for that team for no money at all,” he told this writer in 1980.

There was no slight problem – the promising player never played.

“They loaned me out to other teams for six months,” he said. “I was disappointed. I felt I deserved a chance to play on the first team.”

But then Sutevski received a phone call from Toronto that would dramatically change his life. He was asked if he wanted to play for a Croatian team in the National Soccer League of Canada. The teenager took up the offer.

“I felt I needed a change,” he said.

He didn’t realize what a change it would have been. Sutevski wound up playing for four championship teams in North America – for the Toronto Metros-Croatia, which captured the 1976 North American Soccer League title, and the New York Arrows, who won the first three Major Indoor Soccer League crowns.

Sutevski, who also played for the Rochester Lancers (NASL) for two seasons, passed away on Oct. 29. He was 66.

His journey to glory, however, wasn’t always a smooth ride.

While performing for the Metros-Croatia, Sutevski fell in love with Toronto. Because it had an ethnic name, the club wasn’t embraced by the league.

“We knew we weren’t liked very much around the league because we had an ethnic name,” Sutevski told this writer in 2016. “Considering that the league was in the beginning stages, they had to take, accept the offer, of Croatia but they didn’t like it.”

Despite the great success in 1976, the Metros-Croatia, owned by the Croatian community of Toronto, floundered financially.

With the club deep in debt in 1976, after one Sunday service at the Our Lady Queen of Croatia church, several members of the congregation met in the basement to take up a collection. The goal was to pay the salary of Filip Blaskovic, a superb central defender from Croatia, which at that time was part of Yugoslavia. Hundreds of Metros-Croatia shareholders belonged to the church, which was the focal point of social activities in the community.

“The way the salaries were set up they were based on European standards,” Sutevski said. “You had a base salary and you had bonuses for each win. So the hats were passed to the fans. Basically, they were collecting money for the best players and then we shared between all of the players.”

Sutevski said that each player received a bonus of $1,000-$1,500 a game.

“Of course, as we progressed in the playoffs, the bonuses were getting higher and higher,” he said. “We always remember the fact the people [gave] away from their hard-earned income to satisfy our needs and desires to win.”

But the money got tight in 1977, when the team still averaged around 7,321 fans a game.

“You can’t make a lot of money playing that way,” he said. “I wasn’t stupid. I started to invest money.”

He joined with a friend who was in the health good grain business.

“I got to the point when I made the decision not to play professionally anymore,” he added. “I was ready to quite completely and play semi-pro soccer.”

During the 1978-79 postseason, he earned a degree in architecture at Humber College in Toronto while working at the health food store from 5 to 11 p.m.

“I was so busy,” he said. “If my wife [Lidija] didn’t divorce me then, she’ll never.”

He got another phone call – from Arrows head coach Dragan Popovic, who needed healthy bodies for his injury-riddled teams.

Sutveski thought about it for a minute before saying yes.

“It was such good money. I couldn’t refuse,” Sutevski said. “I talked to my partner and told him I couldn’t quit. I knew I could play until I was 33. It was then I realized I loved soccer so much. I sacrificed a lot for soccer.

“When other teenagers were out having a good time, I practiced soccer and worked at my school work for another two, three hours a day. I missed all that. I didn’t get material-wise out of soccer. Maybe this was my chance. Maybe all those years wouldn’t have been wasted.”

In his third game with the Arrows, Sutevski scored five goals in an 11-7 home win over the Pittsburgh Spirit Feb. 11, 1979. He had tallied only four goals in five years up to that point in the NASL.

“Sometimes you’re lucky,” he said. “In that game, everything I touched went in. The ball came right to me. I had six shots on goal and five went in. I scored five goals, but I wouldn’t say that was my best game. Nobody noticed that it was my fault they [the opposition’ scored two goals.”

On Jan. 29, 1980, Sutevski again struck five times in a 13-7 triumph over the Philadelphia Fever. That occurred on the same night that ther Fever held Steve Zungul and Branko Segota to three goals, total.

He was a member of the first three Major Indoor Soccer League championship sides, winning in 1978-79, 1979-80 and 1980-81. In 1979-80, he tallied 32 goals and 26 assists in 30 matches, finishing ninth in league scoring. He added 21 goals and 15 assists the next season.

Sutevski showcased his soccer split personality for several years. During the winter he was a a goal-scoring terror. In the spring and summer, he was a defensive specialist for the Lancers. He also could play midfield.

Transitioning from indoor to outdoor soccer was difficult enough because different strategies and tactics are used. For Sutevski, he had to go from attack mode to defense.

“In preseason, I had to work on my tackling and being aggressive and going more for the ball,” he said prior to the 1980 NASL season. “Indoors, I was more or less scoring and coming up. I didn’t concentrate on coverage an opponent.”

Early that season, Rochester head coach Ray Klivecka certainly was impressed. “I can sum up his play this season in one word – excellent,” he said. “Along with [center back] Laszlo Harsayni, Damir has been our MVP. Damir always covers our opponents’ toughest forward. That speaks for itself. Offensively, he’s been moving up and adding pressure.”

Popovic coached Sutevski on the Arrows and Lancers and understood the players’ value.

“He is a universal player,” he said. “He can play any position. When he and several teammates started scoring goals this past winter, that’s when the Arrows destroyed everybody. Outdoors last season, I knew he didn’t give me everything he could. He could be one of the best fullbacks in America.”

Sutevski played for the Lancers in 1979-80, performing in 54 matches, scoring once and assisting on four goals.

He also competed for the Montreal Manic (NASL) in 1981 and in the MISL for the Phoenix Inferno, Phoenix Pride and Las Vegas Americans before retiring after the 1984-85 season.

As it turns out, Sutevski adapted to North America quickly. Arriving in 1974, he took an English course and mastered the language. Not surprisingly, he became one of the most popular Lancers.

“My Yugoslavian teammates, they always sit together,” he said in 1980. “They’re making a mistake. Their English never improves at all. It’s much better to sit and talk to different people and teammates. You understand them better.”

And vice versa.