There is a chant that Hajduk Split supporters, collectively known as the Torcida, only sing on special occasions:
“If you don’t become the new champion,” the crowd roars with a sad, but beautiful melody. “Torcida will mourn, will forgive you… Because all of us still know that you’re the best, and we’ll never turn our backs on you…”
Usually as final notes still echo around the stadium, melancholy turns to complete delirium, with thousands jumping and shouting in the stands. It’s a show of desperate loyalty and pride, even in times of loss and adversity—well, especially in those times.
In recent years, the Hajduk faithful have been performing this particular chant much more often than they would have liked. Their club’s adventures in UEFA competitions usually end by autumn, and domestically they have been left in the shadow of Dinamo Zagreb, their bitter rivals from the capital, for nine seasons in the row.
As Croatia’s Eternal Derby in Split approaches (Saturday, 3 p.m. CET), there’s very little hope of breaking the spell. Although Hajduk are unbeaten in the league since August, they are still 10 points behind Dinamo.
Should they win the Derby like they did in September—when Mario Pasalic, the 19-year-old midfielder who will join Chelsea (well, probably Vitesse on loan…) from next season, scored both goals in a 2-0 triumph—the title would still pretty much remain an impossible mission.
Of course, it wasn’t always like that.
In the former Yugoslavia, when both teams were members of the so-called "Big Four" (along with the Belgrade duo, Red Star and Partizan), Hajduk won nine league titles to Dinamo’s four (or also nine if you count the Zagreb side’s pre-World War II predecessor club, HSK Gradjanski). During the 1970s and 1980s, Hajduk were a real force to be reckoned with in Europe, and they reached the Champions League quarter-finals as recently as in 1995—then, of course, already representing independent Croatia—when they lost to Ajax, the eventual winners.
But since 2005, the league title has remained elusive for the Split club. Hajduk’s latest fall from grace coincides with the ascent of Dinamo’s chief executive Zdravko Mamic, the most controversial man in Croatian football. Upon seizing power at the club, he proclaimed that the Blues would be champions for the next 10 years—and they are now marching to their ninth title in a row.
Under Mamic’s tenure, Dinamo have become financially stable, their annual budget dwarfing those of all the other teams in the league. They also regularly play in the Champions League or in the Europa League group stages (though without much success—their last win dates back to 2010) and they sell their players for sums other Croatian clubs can only dream about.
Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, Shakhtar Donetsk’s Eduardo, Bayern’s Mario Mandzukic and Inter Milan’s Mateo Kovacic are all Dinamo alumni: The club received more than €50 million in transfer fees just for those four. In comparison, that kind of money would clear off all of Hajduk’s debt and secure their business for the next few years—and their “Eternal” rivals made almost three times that amount during eight previous seasons, when all the player sales and the UEFA prize money are factored in.
But still, most Dinamo fans hate Mamic more than any of their rivals could, using every opportunity to protest against him.
Legally a citizens’ association that receives public funding and is exempt from paying income tax, the club is supposed to offer all of its members the right to elect and be elected. Instead it’s being run as a family business, with Zdravko Mamic and his lawyers using various bureaucratic trickery to prevent free elections for the Board and preserve the status quo. Interestingly enough, his brother Zoran currently acts in dual role as both sporting director and head coach.
What’s more, the Mamic makes huge personal profits from selling off key players every year—he signed “civilian contracts” with some in their early development, binding them to share their future income with him. Luka Modric is one of those—he’s required to give up 20 per cent of his wages to Mamic (article in Croatian) for as long as he’s playing professionally. That means the Real Madrid midfielder is currently making him €900,000 per year, and the Jutarnji list daily newspaper claims (article in Croatian) Mamic has similar contracts with 14 other players…
All that, along with Mamic’s public spectacles where he insults journalists and fans, while shamelessly portraying himself as a martyr and treating the disapproving club members as enemies, resulted in alienation. Dinamo’s Maksimir stadium saw a disgraceful average attendance of less than 6,000 in last season’s Champions League and the league average for this season is merely 4,600. Most Dinamo fans feel they have been robbed of their identity and no longer feel at home there.
For years Mamic had his way with Dinamo, spreading his influence on the Croatian football federation and the referee’s organization, but recently the Government began to close on him, and it has become evident that the club will either have to hold free elections or go down the long and precarious road to privatization.
This week, a group of club legends, including iconic midfield maestro Robert Prosinecki, publicly stated their intention to support free elections at Dinamo and get rid of Mamic.
To say Hajduk is a democracy to Dinamo’s undoubted dictatorship would perhaps be an overstatement, but there’s a lot of truth in that.
Despite Mamic, the Split club had primarily themselves to blame for the poor results on and off the pitch in recent years. The former boards managed to rack up large debts, unsuccessfully trying to catch up with Dinamo, and in the end the club was forced to let many of their players go for free or at cut-price deals just to survive.
Unlike Dinamo, Hajduk is a joint stock company, but is not listed on the public stock exchange. The majority of shares is owned by the City of Split, some by local companies and businessmen, and the rest belongs to members—these are mostly supporters who could only afford to buy one share to hang on the wall of their living room, plus one or two for their (in some cases, unborn) children.
Their Torcida, the oldest organized supporters’ group in Europe (founded in 1950), are not your average ultras or a firm—it’s basically a popular movement. They outlined the so-called “Kodeks” (The Code)—a set of rules specifying criteria each board member has to meet—and fought for it for two years before managing to get it accepted into the club’s statute.
The new board, elected by members and including representatives from "ordinary" supporters, started to implement strict austerity measures in order to save the club from bankruptcy, while also signing numerous small marketing contracts with local companies. Last summer, the City of Split decided to reject an offer from an American consortium to buy the majority of shares, choosing instead to put faith in the democratically elected board, whose mission is to consolidate the club and raise its market value before such offers are even considered.
The club started to recover, growing organically and reducing the debt. They can currently boast 2,000 more season ticket holders than Dinamo Zagreb’s average attendance—Hajduk’s crowd figures account for a third of all home attendances in the 10-team league.
Hajduk’s lineup for the Eternal Derby is expected to feature more than a half of players from their own academy, with the rest—like Bosnia international Avdija Vrsajevic and Ivory Coast U20 winger Jean Evrard Kouassi—brought on free transfers.
Led by 35-year-old coach Igor Tudor, the former Juventus defender, they try to play good, modern football: a possession-based, high-pressing and high-intensity game. Sometimes they succeed in it, sometimes they don’t—but overall, they have been performing above expectations.
It used to be a fairly classic South vs. North, Province vs. Capital rivalry. Now it’s about more than that. It’s a clash between the poor and the rich; the free and proud against the oppressed and ashamed; the "people’s club" against the toy of one man who doesn’t even own it.
As far as football supporters go, Torcida have been extraordinarily patient and reasonable. They may have to sing their song about mourning once again, but what now gives them strength is faith that Hajduk is doing the right thing. They aren’t chasing titles now—they’re building a better, sustainable future, and they feel they’re a part of something greater.
And their fiercest rivals want the same thing more than any new trophy.