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For Him, American Dream Is Old-World Soccer Game

January 17, 1988|PAUL McLEOD | Times Staff Writer

Gabriel Cucuk is an American success story, an immigrant from Yugoslavia who entered the U. S. melting pot 30 years ago with two simple values:

1. Work hard and you will succeed.

2. Play soccer.

Cucuk has held fast to those principles, first in the machine shops of Milwaukee when he came to this country in 1956, then five years later in San Pedro where he was lured to play semi-pro soccer by a cousin.

You work hard. You play the same way. No difference for Cucuk.

The gentle man from the Dalmatian Coast, sponsor of the San Pedro Yugoslavs soccer club, expects the same from his team. When the Yugoslavs square off against the arch-rival San Pedro Croats this afternoon at 3 at Daniels Field, it should be a semi-pro soccer match like no other. They are the top two teams in the Greater Los Angeles Soccer League, considered by many to be the strongest semi-pro soccer league in the nation.

This season there is great hope among the Yugoslavs. They're considered contenders for the national title for semi-pro soccer teams. Cucuk has worked hard to see that the team has the players to get to the finals, which take place in St. Louis in July.

"I want to go all they way," he said.

But first the Yugoslavs need to get by the Croats this afternoon. The clubs are natural rivals, dating back to their conflicts in the old country, where different religious beliefs often cause friction between Croatian (Croats) and Serbian (Slavs).

"They don't get along very well," said Tony Morijon, president of the Greater L. A. League.

Actually, few of the players on either team today hail from Yugoslavia or even descend from there. The San Pedro Croat team counts most of its members from Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. That has changed the nature of the rivalry some. But to international soccer buffs, the intensity is still apparent.

"There's always a bit of friction between the two," said Yugoslavs Coach James McConahee. "Some of the spectators are from the old country. They're the ones that bring it (to the game) with them. It's not a problem with the young players."

Tension between the rivals upsets Cucuk, a Serbian who grew up in a Croatian neighborhood.

"In this country, the Croatians and Serbians are extremist groups," he said. "Back home it doesn't matter what you are."

Cucuk, who budgets $40,000 a year on the Yugoslavs, is open in his dreams of his club winning the national semi-pro title. The team has been to the national cup championship game three times before, the last time in 1986. This season, promises Cucuk, the team will win it all.

"I won't be ashamed to match this team with any professional team in Central America, South America or Canada," he said.

The other day "the boss," as they call him at the Torrance machine shop he controls with a partner, let go of one of his most prized possessions.

Cucuk's son, Nick, who prepped at San Pedro High School, left town to play in a professional soccer league in Yugoslavia.

Nothing could have made the elder Cucuk--they call him "Gabe" around the soccer fields of San Pedro--more proud.

The telephone in his office rang the other day. A reporter from a newspaper in Belgrade wanted to talk about Nick. Cucuk excused himself and used his secretary's phone to accept the call. After a five-minute discussion in his native language, Cucuk returned.

"They say Nicki is doing very good," he said, a broad smile crossing his face. "He scored four goals in first game."

Futbol , as the boss calls it, dominates most of the conversation around his Rancho Palos Verdes home. Nick is the first American-born player to play in a European professional soccer league. It is a dream come true for his father.

Dreams are what life is made of for men like Cucuk. Only he usually converts his to realities.

Like the goal he had since he was 14 to come to the United States. The Yugoslavian government refused his visa request in 1954. It took another two years to get one.

"I get it. I leave," he said.

He returns home for a month each summer. It was through contacts in his hometown that Milan Ribar, the Yugoslavian national soccer coach, visited San Pedro last month and discovered Nick.

"They say he just needs some polishing and exercise," Cucuk said.

The loss of Nick will hurt the Yugoslavs, but not significantly. Cucuk has given McConahee enough talented players to fill the void.

For starters, there is Ramon Moraldo, a former member of the national soccer team from Trinidad and sweeper for the Los Angeles Aztecs of the now-defunct North American Soccer League.

Then there is Lucky Temisanren, a 24-year-old native of Nigeria, an intense player with an easygoing attitude and sheepish smile.

There's Chicago-born Marcelo Balboa, currently playing a U. S. traveling team in Guatemala. He hopes to return for most of the national cup play.

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