In the spring of 1995, Hajduk Split hosted Ajax Amsterdam in the Champions League quarter-finals and drew 0-0. It wasn’t a bad result for the Croatian champions, as the Louis van Gaal-lead visiting side was the best in Europe that season and made up of Edwin van der Sar, Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Jari Litmanen, the De Boer brothers… They would later proceed to lift the European title.
Hajduk weren’t nearly as illustrious, though their lineup did include two players who would win the Bronze for Croatia three years later at the World Cup in France, beating Netherlands (largely made of ’95 Ajax players) in the third-place match. Those two were Igor Stimac and Aljosa Asanovic.
But one more member of Croatia’s Bronze generation kicked a few balls that evening at Hajduk’s Poljud Stadium: Igor Tudor. He was a ball-boy.
Split-born and an ardent Hajduk fan since early childhood, he later became a top defender for Juventus and for his country before being forced to retire in 2008, aged just 30. A nasty ankle injury marred the last few seasons of his career, but he wouldn’t hang his boots before returning home and spending one more year playing for the club of his youth.
Now Tudor is Hajduk’s coach—a progressive-minded tactician who favours a proactive approach to playing football and isn’t afraid to experiment. Last week, after his team defeated Zadar 3-1 in the league, the club’s chairman called up a press conference to announce the coach’s contract had been extended.
And that was when Tudor broke down.
"I’m happy and proud to be Hajduk coach," he told the reporters gathered. "Every day I’m focused on my work here like I’m going to stay for the next 10 years. I’m honoured to be a part of something that to me, ever since I was a kid…" He couldn’t finish the sentence. Instead, he covered his eyes and burst into tears.
Obviously, this was a very personal moment. But it happened on camera and ended up all over the national media. For many who have seen the video, it triggered an emotional response: It was remarkable to see this 6'4" big man, just as intense and hard as coach as he had been as footballer, cry. Can you imagine any boss in today’s football shedding tears—and not after he just won a trophy, but because he signed a new contract with the club he loves?
However, Hajduk is not just any club. Even if they only play in the Croatian league—and haven’t won that in nine years—their stature is not measured in trophies, money or big names on their roster. What makes Hajduk great, even today, is the sheer intensity of emotion they can induce in those who support it.
But that’s just one of the reasons you should consider adopting the Split side as your pet club.
Their fans are another: Collectively known as Torcida, they are the oldest organized supporters’ group in Europe—since 1950, they’ve been adding a special atmosphere to Hajduk’s games, both home and away. They never stop singing—and sometimes they even turn up the volume if the team is losing. In 2011, celebrating the club’s centennial, they lit up the night skies in fireworks so grand that it could have been seen from space.
Hajduk’s history is unique. Founded in 1911, when the city was part of an Austrian province, they borrowed their name from historical outlaws: A "Hajduk" is a romanticized folkloric hero figure comparable to Robin Hood. According to club records, an old history teacher who gave them the name said it symbolized everything that is “best in our people: bravery, humanity, friendship, love of freedom, defiance to powers and protection of the weak.”
An early motto, still very popular today, reads “Kontra mraku, kontra sili” (“Against the Darkness, Against the Force”)—and for the most part, Hajduk’s history has been a history of defiance.
Most famously during World War II, when they acted as the official team of the Yugoslav Anti-Fascist resistance. As Split became occupied by Italy, Hajduk declined an offer from fascist authorities to join Serie A and have a new stadium built free of charge if they change their name to AC Spalato ("Spalato" is the Italian name for Split).
After the fall of Mussolini, they also refused to take part in the Croatian league—because Croatia was at the time also a fascist, collaborationist state that had previously ceded the Split region (among others) to their Italian puppet-masters. Instead the players joined the partisan movement and played friendlies: First with the British Army teams, then across the liberated areas in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the allied planes dropped flyers above occupied Europe, calling sports teams to follow Hajduk’s example.
And when the war ended, they refused another offer: The new communist authorities wanted them to relocate to Belgrade and become an official, Soviet-style army team, but Hajduk chose to stay true to their local roots. In the decades that followed, the club became a part of the Yugoslav "Big Four"—along with Dinamo Zagreb and the Belgrade duo, Partizan and Red Star.
They won nine league titles (two of those before WW2) and nine Cups, also becoming a formidable force in Europe. They have two continental semi-finals and five quarter-finals to their name, having also won six national titles since Croatia became an independent nation in 1991.
But in recent years, their competitive power progressively deteriorated. They have been left in the shadow of their rivals Dinamo Zagreb since 2005, and attempts to compete with them by bringing in expensive signings brought the club on the verge of bankruptcy. The club from the capital earned big money by participating in the Champions League and that, in turn, increased the price tags for their players when they sold them.
With each passing season, the difference in budget only increased. And then Hajduk decided they should change their approach—they had to if they wanted to save the club. Now the squad is made of youngsters from their own academy and players (mainly also young) who came on free transfers. Everyone was fully aware that the results will suffer for a couple of years, but there’s a greater good to be taken into account.
Supporters have significant representation in the board, which was elected by all club members and given the mission of taking the club to financial recovery. Hajduk are slowly reducing their debt and rebuilding the club both on and off the pitch, trying to establish it on sustainable grounds and grow organically. And last summer the City of Split, their majority shareholder, rejected a bid from an American consortium to buy the club, choosing to stick with the board in their mission to consolidate Hajduk and raise its market value before such offers are even considered.
Patience is the key word: Igor Tudor will now become their first coach in 11 years to finish the season he started at the helm. Dinamo are too far ahead again, but the team is fighting for second place in the league with Rijeka, whose Italian investor injected fresh capital into the club and will soon start to build a brand new stadium.
Hajduk will never reach Champions League quarter-finals again—just as former European champions like Ajax, Celtic or Red Star can never realistically expect to compete for the continental title if something doesn’t change very dramatically in football, where money is now often the be all and end all. Clubs from smaller markets don’t stand the chance anymore.
But while you’re enjoying some of the most spectacular elite-level football in history, spare a thought for traditional greats built on identity and a sense of belonging, one that can sometimes be so powerful to make grown men cry.
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