Cooma Tigers team 1970s
The construction of the Snowy Hydro Scheme brought many new things to Cooma; business, diversity and football.
Tens of thousands of workers from more than 30 European countries emigrated to the Snowy Mountains during the 1950s and 1960s, bringing with them a love of the round ball.
Capital Football tracked down former local Henry van Zanden who was there when the Cooma Tigers were established in 1952 and actually introduced the first ever soccer ball to the nearby town of Nimmitabel.
Q – Can you set the scene of what it was like for players back in 1952 when the team was established?
A – Cooma made their own ground in a paddock in Cooma North on the left-hand side when entering Cooma from Canberra. I think they initially played a few games against one another so they could decide upon the first team and the reserve team for the following year.
They did try and play at Cooma Showground. I know that they played at least a couple of games there because I remember watching them. This would have been at the start of the 1952 season. They wore similar colours to the Italian national team or Rangers in Scotland – royal blue, with white shorts and white socks with red hoops.
The Rugby League didn’t like soccer playing there so they were relegated to what was considered then to be an inferior oval at Nijong not far from Cooma prison.
Cooma attracted a great deal of support. A thousand spectators was not unusual especially when we played our greatest rivals, Canberra Juventus. Croatia Deakin and Downer-Olympic were also formidable opponents.
The games against Juventus were always massive. There was a great atmosphere. The Juventus fans would fill the line next to Nijong 2 while the Cooma fans would crowd the line near the trees and behind the goal where the canteen is situated. Both sets of crowds were ALWAYS good natured in their rivalry. Sometimes they shouted comments from the sideline which were so funny, even the players were laughing. It was always a very happy atmosphere at the soccer. It was just good fun.
Unfortunately, when the crowds were too big, Cooma police thought it was a good idea to push people back from the sideline. They did the same thing at Narrabundah or where Juventus used to play. In fact, it was even on the ABC news.
Although Cooma was nearly always close to the top, I don’t think they ever won the competition. As a young boy I could never understand why as they seemed to be such a good team.
Q – With some many players working on the Snowy Hydro Scheme coming from Europe, it must have been such a talented and diverse group of players?
A – The players lived in Cooma or the towns in the Snowy region. Henk Koops, who used to deliver coal and gas, used his delivery run to also pick up players to ensure we had a full team. This sometimes meant driving back and forth to towns with bad roads. It was an amazing effort. Without him, Cooma could not have had the extraordinary talent of footballers.
We had players from England, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Hungary, Croatia, Italy and Greece. I’m sure there were other nationalities as well, but these are just the ones I remember.
I can’t remember the names but I do remember the shoe salesman and fullback, Pat Reilly. He was a fantastic character but he did have a temper on the field. There was the forward, ‘Mario’. Everyone loved him because he was so enjoyable to watch. Although he had a powerful shot, all too often it sailed over the bar and as far as the roadway. Gerry Rietman, a tall, strong Dutchman, with a powerful shot and very good in the air, was one of the dominant characters and players. He would purposely pump the ball up too hard so that no one else was game enough to head the ball or could hit the ball as hard as he could.
Possibly the best player, and certainly one that may have had the hardest shot in Australia, was Bobo Basic, who had excellent prospects of a good career with Melbourne Croatia. He was purchased from Melbourne Croatia for 800 pounds which was an enormous amount of money. He was a sensational player to watch especially when he struck the ball towards goal. He was a big strapping guy with black hair with a curl at the front.
Q – What was it like when you showed the Nimmitabel community their first soccer ball?
No one had ever seen a soccer ball let alone watched a game. We used to be always kicking the round ball around. One day, when other kids wanted to play, I explained to them that they could not touch the ball with their hands, so they picked the ball with their fists. ’Not hands, no fists!’ I yelled. So, they picked the ball up with their elbows! I think it was the early 1970s when Jim Walshe was the Principal of Nimmitabel Primary school that Nimmitabel had its first soccer team and soccer ground situated opposite Nimmitabel Primary School.
Q – What was the support like?
Many of the spectators and player’s wives worked very hard behind the scenes especially in the canteen. We had a mute Dutchmen who served as a medic, and I remember Mrs Schoon and Mrs Condie in the canteen. Later on, these ladies formed a women’s team in the 1960s. However, I think it only last a year or two as there was not enough competition or maybe they played just a few games amongst themselves. I’m not sure.
Unfortunately, there were no referees. In order for Cooma to have a team in the Canberra competition, the club had to supply a referee and linesmen. My father, George Van Zanden, became Cooma’s first referee and he trained a few others to become linesmen. Sometimes he would referee from the morning until the late afternoon.
I should mention that a lot of the small businesses in Cooma provided the club with a lot of support. It wasn’t just a few people that made the club, it was the many. Their background ’team’ was better and bigger than I have ever seen, both men and women. The supporters were the most enthusiastic and fun-filled than I have ever seen, especially in the early days. I think that most people today will have forgotten the amazing work and support from the committee, assorted helpers and supporters. Everyone had a job and it was not left to just one person.