A huge crisis is shaking the very foundations of football in Croatia. After Hajduk Split refused to play in the national derby against their bitter rivals, Dinamo Zagreb, the future of the league—and the federation—has been put into question.
Nothing like it has ever been seen in these parts. As football fans sat down in front of their TV sets last weekend to watch the game, they could notice that the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb was almost empty. There were no more than 1,000 people in the stands.
That in itself was not so strange—meager crowds are unfortunately a common sight at Dinamo home matches these days. But this was the Derby, the biggest game in Croatian football, which used to be a magnet for both sets of fans.
Even if it had lost much of its allure in recent years, there were supposed to be more than 2,000 travelling Hajduk fans alone, according to previous media reports.
And yet, apart from the stadium security and stewards, there wasn’t a single soul in the away end.
Then things got surreal. Dinamo players took to the pitch, they shook hands with match officials and lined up to observe a minute of silence, because it was the anniversary of the Fall of Vukovar, a tragic event from the Homeland War.
They stood there—steady, silent and alone—only accentuating the absurd drama of the moment.
Their opponents never came out of the locker room. As Dinamo proceeded with team practice instead of playing the game, Hajduk were already on their way down south and back to Split, where—as we would soon find out—preparations for a homecoming party had already started. Later that day, the team would be greeted by 8,000 supporters in their Poljud Stadium, lighting flares, singing and jumping as if they’ve just been brought a trophy, or at least an away win against Dinamo.
The story of what happened prior to the kick-off that never was soon unfolded.
Some travelling Hajduk fans were denied (personalized) tickets because they were on some sort of a “black list.” Others—a majority of them, as it turned out—were held up by the police on the other side of the city.
The Torcida, as Hajduk supporters are collectively known, is a well-organized group. When it became clear that some of its members couldn’t get into the stadium although they didn’t have a police record (at least not one that they knew of), the word spread quickly and the rest refused to enter the ground, returning their tickets instead.
Those guarded by the police were promptly contacted and told not to come, because everyone was going back home to Split.
And then the team decided they wouldn’t play the game.
“Hajduk is a people’s club. We are a club of our members, our fans, and it’s our duty to stand by them—like they always stand by our team,” says Hajduk chairman, Marin Brbic. “What happened in Zagreb was the last drop and we had to say that that was enough. But we all know it wasn’t just about this. We’ve been systematically targeted for a long time, because Croatian football is set up to serve one club and one man—that club is Dinamo, and that man is Zdravko Mamic.”
Brbic feels that Mamic, Dinamo Zagreb's chief executive, holds all the power within the Croatian Football Federation, with Hajduk being disfranchised. He believes the CFF has double standards when it comes to the nation’s other “big” club.
A vast majority of supporters share this view, because Hajduk has no representation in the key bodies of the federation or the league. To add to that, evidence shows that Hajduk fans have been sanctioned more severely than others for similar offences, like fans lightning flares and chanting insulting slogans aimed at the CFF and Mamic.
Whereas other clubs get away with small fines, Hajduk regularly have to pay bigger sums and have recently been given a one-match crowd ban just after serving a previous two-match punishment—for something that took place in an away game.
But it’s not just Hajduk fans who are complaining. In every league match that attracts at least a half-decent crowd, you will hear the same chants.
When the Croatian national team played Italy in Milan earlier this month, their supporters stopped the game twice by throwing flares and chanting those slogans. While there can be no justification for that kind of behaviour, it’s important to note that it wasn’t just a random act of mindless hooliganism. It was a planned cry for attention to problems within the CFF and a message to its leaders.
Ironically, Dinamo fans are the ones who have been most systematically oppressed.
Ticketing at their stadium has been personalized, supposedly in a bid to prevent violence in the stands. But a controversial section of the law enables clubs to work with the police—or even act on it themselves—in banning anyone they label as “troublemakers.”
Dinamo have an ever-expanding “black list” of their own supporters, and protesting against the boss, Zdravko Mamic, is enough to get your name on it.
Thomas Bauer, co-owner of a Zagreb-based advertising agency, says there may now be around 2,000 “blacklisted” Dinamo fans.
He is one of them.
Earlier this month, the club decided to ban the entire section of the stadium where people chanted and demanded from Mamic to leave: Bauer was there, and now he can’t get into the ground he has called his second home since the 1980s.
Other fans showed solidarity with those who had been banned, and they don’t come anymore, either. Many more have simply become estranged with Dinamo under Mamic. “Too much is being written about Hajduk now,” says Bauer. “And too little about the fact that Zagreb is boycotting Dinamo.”
So some of the travelling Hajduk supporters have been blacklisted as well at the Maksimir Stadium. Then the rest of the group refused to enter and the team backed them, deciding they won’t play the game without their supporters. They all acted as one, which came as a shock to others, especially to the people at the federation.
The paradox of the whole situation lies in the fact that Hajduk are a joint stock company, whereas Dinamo are a citizens’ association that receives public funding and should offer all of its members the right to elect and be elected.
But even though the majority of Hajduk shares is still owned by the City of Split, it’s the members who elect the Board and they have a significant say in club affairs. Dinamo, on the other hand, have one boss—Zdravko Mamic—who decides on everything and uses various bureaucratic trickery to prevent free club elections, although almost 50,000 people signed a petition demanding them.
The “Zajedno za Dinamo” (Together for Dinamo) initiative, which campaigns for member-based democracy at the club, publicly stated its support to Hajduk for refusing to play in the Derby.
Other league clubs are divided in their views, but everyone acknowledges there are deeper problems in Croatian football, reflecting wider issues in the nation that is still struggling with economic recession, high unemployment rates and an ongoing political crisis.
The federation has been plagued by various high-profile scandals in recent times, including corruption in the referees’ organization, convictions for match-fixing and even a physical attack on the Hajduk chairman by a highly ranked CFF official.
All that discontent has been boiling among fans for a long time; regardless of whether they support Hajduk in their refusal to play or not, the prevalent opinion is that things have gone too far. It’s impossible to ignore problems and expect football to just normally continue in Croatia.
It would seem that federation leaders acknowledge that as well. Instead of just hitting Hajduk with another set of sanctions (apart from registering the cancelled match 3-0 to Dinamo and ordering Hajduk to reimburse their rival for the cost of the organisation), they first invited Brbic to a “constructive meeting” (per CCF official website, article in Croatian). They admitted that there were mistakes on their part as well, but said they wanted to openly discuss things in the best interest of Croatian football.
But it may be already too late.
Hajduk accepted the invitation, but prior to that they had already called for the entire CFF’s Executive Committee, including Zdravko Mamic, to resign. Their “black list,” so to speak, also includes federation president, the once-iconic striker Davor Suker, who has been away on business for days. The time of the meeting hasn’t been disclosed yet.
On Saturday, Hajduk are due to play NK Zagreb on an empty Poljud Stadium, serving a crowd ban. But there will be a crowd in the streets of Split that day, as the supporters are organizing a mass protest against the CFF.
Tens of thousands of people are expected, the atmosphere in the city is extremely explosive and it’s starting to look like some sort of an uprising.
It’s simple, really: When you ban people from protesting in the stadium, they take it to the streets. And no one can tell what will happen then.
Quotes in the article were acquired firsthand.