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For Him, American Dream Is Old-World Soccer Game

January 17, 1988|PAUL McLEOD | Times Staff Writer

As assistant coach, the Yugoslavs have Novak Tomic, a former Yugoslavian world cup star and an original member of the old Los Angeles Toros of the NASL. Novak is also a salesman in Cucuk's company, which makes precision aircraft parts for major aeronautic firms.

McConahee was a champion national youth soccer coach in Scotland.

"Gabe is a super person," McConahee said. "He gives me the freedom to choose who to have on the team. He could tell me who to play, but he doesn't."

Cucuk believes in America. He points proudly to the fact that nine of the 16 players on the active roster are American-born.

"The purpose of this team is to keep young boys from South Bay together," Cucuk said. "It's better than running around on streets."

Cucuk's heavy Eastern European accent is offset by his disarming smile. He is a flag-waving patriot. Futbol and the American way. That is life.

"I love U. S.," he said.

Put another way by Tomic: "Here is our country. We are going to die here."

Over a lunch of squid and smelts at a San Pedro restaurant, Cucuk told a story that personifies his belief in America.

He came to the United States in 1956 and settled in Milwaukee with his father.

"I was machinist," he said.

Two years later, a wave of layoffs hit the area and Cucuk lost his job.

"You know, I drive to Chicago. In one day, I find three jobs. If you want to work, there is work. I never been on unemployment. I never taken welfare."

Cucuk says it's important to keep that in mind when dealing with soccer players. So many good players, he says, lose interest in the sport because they need a job.

"You want to keep them, you train them," he said.

Cucuk views the Yugoslavs team as an extension of his family. As many as eight players at a time have worked in his machine shop, a brick building adjacent to the Harbor Freeway near 223rd Street.

Today, two players have jobs at the plant. Temisanren has been there about seven months.

"Gabe has done so much for me. He's like a father," he said. "He's helped financially and in every aspect of life."

Cucuk is known for picking up the tabs at restaurants. But the players receive little renumeration for playing other than the satisfaction that success brings. About all they receive is gas money.

That doesn't matter, according to Moraldo, because "When I die, I want to go to heaven as a soccer player. I don't want to get a job."

Attitudes like that, according to Tomic, have helped the club in the 20 years Cucuk has run it.

"If you don't take care of your own kids, someone else will," Tomic said.

"This is an excellent team. They're special," said McConahee. "Real nice people, very easy to coach."

Cucuk and Tomic say soccer in the United States has improved greatly. They foresee the United States qualifying for the Olympic Games.

"Soccer is growing up, no question," Tomic said. "There's a real future here."

But they say the country must do a better job of organizing the sport.

"The bureaucrats are killing us," said Tomic.

He points to an National Collegiate Athletic Assn. rule that prohibits high school players from participating on club teams in the off-season before they go to college.

Cucuk thinks a good professional soccer league, composed mainly of native-born Americans, could survive if it were started on a regional scale, such as within California.

In addition, both he and Tomic say the large influx of people into Southern California from Mexico, where futbol is king, will eventually increase the talent pool.

"The door is always open for good soccer players," Cucuk said.

A gold rope chain hangs around the neck of Gabriel Cucuk. Hanging from that is a custom-made gold charm. It reads: "100% Sibencani."

"My hometown," Cucuk said. "My wife had it made for me."

Cucuk hasn't forgotten the home country. But his life is in America now.

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