European Football

Zagreb and Split, a tale of two cities

In the final part of the Balkan Trilogy, we look at two clubs who were once tricky European campaigners, Dinamo Zagreb and Hadjuk Split.

About 15 years ago, I was in the centre of Zagreb, being shown around the fish market. My guide was very proud of this fairly modest market. Next to one stall, there was a man selling football souvenirs. I asked him if he had a Dinamo Zagreb pennant, to which he said, “Croatia….not Dinamo.” At the time, the team I had always known as Dinamo Zagreb, notably for its victory over two legs in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (the great grandfather of the Europa League) in 1967, had been renamed Croatia Zagreb by President Franjo Tudman. The vendor was not happy about this change in nomenclature, but handed me a small pennant that had Dinamo plastered over it. The locals were refusing to adopt the new name.

Seconds later, a huge flat fish flipped out of an ice-filled tray and landed in my open brief case. The stall-holders laughed and held up the pennant – “Croatia Zagreb….very fishy…very fishy.” Screamed the old man, laughing as he took the small amount of money he was asking for the pennant.

He was right, because the recent history of Dinamo is very suspect. Not only have the government changed the name of the club twice since the Yugoslav war, but the club’s current regime has succeeded in alienating its supporters, so much so that they refuse to celebrate when yet another league title is picked up.

A promise from Split....

A promise from Split….

Tudman changed Dinamo’s name immediately after the war to HASK Gradanski and in 1993 to Croatia Zagreb. Tudman wanted to get rid of a name that reminded him too much of Soviet influence. He also felt that “Dinamo” sounded too militaristic. That didn’t go down well, but by the turn of the century, the club reverted to Dinamo once more. Since 2000, Dinamo have won the Croatian title nine times and in 2013, they are on coure for an eighth consecutive championship.

But while Liverpool fans sing “you’ll never walk alone”, Dinamo’s players are definitely walking alone. The Maksimir stadium, which will eventually hold 60,000 people, is nearly empty when the club play at home, and when the last title was won, the fans refused to celebrate with the team. Furthermore, when Dinamo played Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League towards the end of a disastrous group stage for Zagreb (five defeats in six games), just 3,500 people bothered to turn up.

Why are the fans voting with their feet? It’s all about Chairman Zdravko Mamic, who also happens to be extremely influential at the Croatian FA. The fans believe the ruling body is corrupt and Mamic, a power broker if ever there was one, is milking Dinamo dry. Leading players are sold every year and it is alleged that Mamic gets a cut of the deal and also persuades players, such as the talented Luka Modric, to pay them a percentage of future earnings. Mamic is a dictator who dominates press conferences and hurls insults around at all and sundry.

That said, Mamic has raised around £120m through his policy of grooming players for sale and Champions League cash. But it doesn’t make him a lovable figure and the fans are working on overthrowing him.

Dinamo were one of the big four in the old Yugoslavia – Red Star and Partizan from Belgrade (now Serbia) and Hadjuk Split were the others. Hadjuk are Dinamo’s fierce rivals, but while they are not in the capital city, the fans of both clubs look upon games between the two clubs as “the eternal derby”.

Hadjuk are broke. Fact. They have a fantastic following and attendance figures are excellent, certainly compared to Dinamo. They went into the 2012-13 season with low expectations for a team that comprises a batch of youngsters and a few old lags. But win, lose or draw, the Hadjuk fans – known as the Torcida – make plenty of noise and they’re passionate – one might say partisan. The club’s majority shareholder is the City of Split, so they’re very much part of the community.

Hadjuk’s best moments were in the 1970s, when they won the Yugoslav League in 1971, 1974, 1975 and 1979. That was under coach Tomislav Ivic, a man current boss Miso Krsticevic wants to emulate. With expectations managed by the cub, Hadjuk have surprised a few people this season and should finish in the first three.

It’s only few weeks since the “Eternal Derby” resulted in a 2-1 win for Dinamo at Split in front of 25,000 rabid fans. The win pushed them closer to an eighth consecutive title, but Hadjuk’s fans sang their hearts out after the game.

Overall, however, Croatian domestic football is not in great shape, partly due to the FA’s disportionate focus on the national team. That’s another gripe of fans across the country and there’s some justification in that complaint. At one stage in history, both Dinamo and Hadjuk were regular European campaigners, rubbing shoulders with some of the continent’s top clubs. They might be running the show nationally, but the days when a trip to Zagreb or Split would worry Europe’s crème de la crème are long gone. The question is, will they ever return?

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