Fear and Loathing in Croatia – Can HNK Rijeka break the monopoly?

Fear and Loathing in Croatia – Can HNK Rijeka break the monopoly?

Tom Wood –

Dinamo Zagreb are a club with a fine footballing pedigree. Domestically, Zagreb have won 18 Croatian First League titles, 14 Croatian Cups, five Croatian Super Cups, four Yugoslav First League titles and seven Yugoslav Cups. Historically, on the European front, the Croatians have been almost completely constant in UEFA competition. They have the notable honour of being the first ex-Yugoslav team to win a European Trophy, beating Leeds United in 1967 to take the Inter-Cities Fair Cup back to Croatia and, until Red Star Belgrade’s 1991 European Cup triumph, Dinamo was the only Yugoslavian team to achieve such a feat.

The Blues also came close to achieving European Cup success themselves only 2 years earlier, however a strong AC Milan side put to bed any chance of that.

Dinamo Zagreb have dominated the league since 2004

In recent years, Dinamo Zagreb have achieved dominance over its Prva HNL opposition. Since the triumph of their eternal rivals, Hajduk Split, in 2004, Zagreb have won every year since, establishing themselves in the process as Croatia’s most potent footballing side. To highlight this, one only needs to examine the six-year winning streak achieved at home, to fully realise how much of a monopoly the club held over the entire league.

That was, however, until NK Osijek decided, on a cold September’s evening at Stadion Maksimir, to become the king slayers and end Dinamo’s reign, three matches short of Steaua Bucharest’s record. While the 1-0 loss sent a great deal of Croatia, international football, and the internet into immediate shock, it did also prompt insight into the shocking lack of competitivity in the region.

Osijek’s triumph gave the footballing world a dark reminder of the complete dominance of singular teams in Croatia. Since the Croatian First Divisions inaugural season in 1992, only 3 teams have won domestic titles. One of those teams, NK Zagreb have won the title only once. Hajduk Split, traditionally Croatia’s second biggest side, have not won a league title in the last 12 years.

Post-Yugoslav leagues have become monotonous

In comparison, The English Premier League, which converted from the old first division in the same year has seen 6 different Champions in its history and there have been 4 different champions in the last 5 years. In the 25 years before it’s dissolution, the Yugoslav First League produced 7 different champions. Dinamo’s lone dominance in Croatia has only negatively impacted the country’s domestic game. The competition has been dulled, and the competitive nature and excitement quelled; Zagreb’s success has hushed the innate thrill of footballing uncertainty.

The league’s status and the performance of its teams within Europe has also dropped significantly. Even those who never secured a league title during the time of the Yugoslav First Division, such as Velez Mostar and OFK Belgrade, put on credible performances in European competition. (Velez Mostar who only 25 years ago, were ranked in the top 50 of UEFA’s team ranking list, now play in the Bosnian and Herzegovinian First League).

In 2016 Croatia, however, only Dinamo Zagreb managed to qualify for a European competition, in what some would argue was an incredibly lucky win against Red Bull Salzburg, a team that has notoriously bottled Champions League qualification over the years. Currently they lie bottom of their group with 0 points, and have a -12 goal difference. Hajduk Split were knocked out in the Europa League playoffs by Israeli side Maccabi Tel Aviv on penalties, whilst HNK Rijeka were eliminated in the third qualifying round by İstanbul Başakşehir FK.

Quite clearly, Croatian football is riddled with problems, and the form of its domestic teams in Europe is by no means the sole issue.

Corruption has severely hurt Croatian football

Euro 2016 saw the continuation of protests by Croatian fans against the Croatian Football Federation’s (HNS) Vice-President Zdravko Mamić and corruption within the Croatian football association and The Prva HNL. Mamić is perhaps the most flamboyant and colourful footballing character in The Balkans—and also arguably the most despised and certainly the most abrasive and intolerant.

Anti-Mamić Flyer at last season's Champions League game against FC Bayern München

Anti-Mamić Flyer at last season’s Champions League game against FC Bayern München

Protests were largely headed by Hajduk Split’s Torcida, a club whose own former president came under fire from Mamić after he cooperated with a corruption investigation. He was labelled a “rat” and to this day remains largely run out of Croatian football. During his tenure at the club, however, many Dinamo’s own supporters also turned on Mamić—Bad Blue Boys, for example, have boycotted games on numerous occasions during his reign.

During Dinamo’s recent 0-4 UEFA Champions’ League group stage loss away to Sevilla, the split in their fan base became very evident. If one looked closely at the Andalusian’s away section, it would have been possible to witness a clear divide between those supporters who opposed and those who supported Mamić. Nicknamed the “Mamić Boys,” footage emerged, before the match, of a confrontation between the two sets of fans, and the recent return of a number of BBB’s to The Maksimir after a boycott only heightening tensions within the club.

Mamić’s behaviour has seen him, amongst other things, fight with a pensioner in a VIP box in Split, viciously attack the Serbian ethnicity of the then Croatian Minister of Sports, Science, and Education, Željko Jovanović (who fought against Serbia during Croatia’s War for Independence), and battle members of Dinamo’s own supporters group the BBB. He has been accused on numerous occasions of embezzling money from Dinamo’s transfers—Luka Modric and Dejan Lovren’s transfers to Tottenham Hotspur and Lyon respectively are, in particular, being particularly scrutinised.

In 2015 he was finally arrested and he now faces charges of bribery, tax evasion, and transfer embezzlement. His departure from the position of Executive Director at Dinamo Zagreb after 13 years has been heralded as a step in the right direction, however, he remains an advisor, which many argue still means he can significantly influence and exploit the club.

This is the HNS’ “Puppet Master”. Truly, it is shocking that a man so involved with Croatia’s top domestic football club, has been allowed to hold such a high position and command such a great level of influence within their football association. It simply screams “corruption” and it is not helping Croatian football. Whilst in England, the Telegraph’s recent investigation into corruption has shocked many, Sam Allerdyce’s role in the scandal seems almost child’s play compared to a league in which Dinamo Zagreb’s feeder team NK Lokomotiva Zagreb are openly allowed to play in the same division as their parent club.

Croatian teams struggle in Europe

The question must be asked: How is a league supposed to improve under such conditions? With no credible challengers emerging for Dinamo Zagreb’s crown, how are the team from the capital supposed to be pushed or tested? Croatia’s representation in Europe, therefore, is a Dinamo Zagreb side that steamrolled their way into most Champions League games, and it reflects badly on the state of the Domestic League.

Maksimir Stadium has rarely been this full this season

Maksimir Stadium has rarely been this full this season

Shots of an empty Maksimir Stadium on so many important Champions League and Domestic occasions, for a team regarded so highly in European footballing stature, is frankly embarrassing. Mamić’s role in blacklisting so many fans again and again, and in driving so many more to boycott fixtures, makes the league seem very unloved by its supporters—which is far from the truth.

If teams like Hajduk Split and Rijeka aren’t allowed to improve their game because of the decisions of Croatia’s footballing hierarchy, then Croatia’s Domestic League will not only be being condemned to a boring monopoly, but will also maintain a poor continental reputation.

HNK Rijeka could break Dinamo’s monopoly

As of November 2016, however, there exists a glimmer of hope within the HNL Prva Liga. HNK Rijeka, a team that, while regularly in contention for the League title but never quite victorious, are currently unbeaten in the league, and are 6 points ahead of Dinamo Zagreb. With an impressive 5-2 victory against Dinamo, and a stylish 4-2 decimation of Hajduk Split in the Dalmatian’s back yard, the side of former Slovenia national team manager, Matjaž Kek, isn’t one to be underestimated.

Together, former Schalke and current Swiss international, Mario Gavranović, and former Austria Wien midfielder, Alexander Gorgon, have been a lethal pairing going forward, even without the help of former Ludogorets hitman, the Slovenian Roman Bezjak, who was poached by Bundesliga side SV Darmstadt 98 earlier on in the campaign after he scored seven goals in his first seven appearances. This show of incredible form is greatly welcomed by Gabriele Volpi, the man who in 2013 became Rijeka’s owner and injected a great deal of capital into the club.

The club have also become a fantastic model for business in the league. Whilst other Croatian sides like Hajduk Split have been criticised of late by clubs for selling their talented players at a mediocre price—Andrija Balić’s transfer to Udinese was particularly scrutinised by fans—HNK Rijeka have shown a great deal of cunning in their transfer dealings.

After Andrej Kramarić was forced out of Dinamo Zagreb following a dispute with Mamić and his brother who was Dinamo’s director of football at the time, Rijeka paid a paltry fee of just over £1 million to secure his services. Two seasons later, Kramarić was sold onto Leicester City for a club record fee of £7.5 million, but not before scoring 55 goals and assisting 7 in 64 games, his goals helping Rijeka to beat Feyenoord and draw with European heavyweights Sevilla in the Europa League and beat former club Dinamo Zagreb in 2014’s Croatian Cup Final.


Kek has done magnificent work at the Stadion Kantrida – Image by Roberta F. CC-BY-SA-3.0

Under Kek’s management, and Volpi’s ownership, Rijeka look like a dangerous outfit to come up against. In contrast to Dinamo’s chaotic turmoil in Croatia’s capital, the team from the country’s third largest city seem collectively calm. Their attacking and surprisingly attractive football lead us to believe that perhaps finally Zagreb’s monopoly will be broken.

In 1999 Rijeka was robbed of the title

However, as many older fans will remind anyone who will listen, if anything were to happen, it wouldn’t be the first-time Rijeka’s title hopes were dashed by Zagreb and the establishment. In 1999 HNK Rijeka lost out on the title on the final day by a mere point, after an incorrectly given offside goal ruled out a 2-1 victory over Osijek. An investigation, however, later revealed that former Croatian President Franjo Tuđman, a well-known Dinamo Zagreb fan, had played a role in their loss, using Croatia’s intelligence agency to influence the decisions of league officials and referees throughout the course of the season.

A full 17 years after the ultimate prize in Croatian football was ripped away from the Armada, as the club is often called, it seems that finally HNK Rijeka will have their revenge and take the title that was rightfully theirs. Because of the overwhelmingly positive impact it would surely have on revitalising Croatia’s domestic game, I sincerely hope that they do. Even though it won’t fully eradicate the distasteful stain of corruption and underhanded behaviour in the country, it’s a start. With Mamić still holding so much power within the game, and with competitive football still a distant objective in the Prva HNL 1, a start would be fantastic.

Tom Wood is from South Benfleet Essex, and is currently an A Level Student at Southend High School For Boys, hoping to study History and Eastern European Studies at degree level.Tom is a long suffering but devoted Tottenham Hotspur fan,who is also passionately interested by the culture and politics of European and Eastern European football.Tom is particularly interested in football played in the Balkans, and is fascinated by the immense role that football supporters played in contributing to Yugoslavia’s breakup and the subsequent wars that followed. Follow Tom on Twitter @EFJtomwood.