Tom Wood –
After finishing a respectable third in Croatia’s Prva HNL behind a wild HNK Rijeka side and a Dinamo Zagreb team heavily favoured by the countries footballing hierarchy, Hajduk Split have got off to a respectable start this year, in both domestic and European competition. The Dalmatians eliminated a competent Levski Sofia side, beating them twice over two legs to triumph 3-1 on aggregate.
The fixture’s second leg in Sofia stood out as an excellent performance, Hajduk coming away 2-1 winners. Despite Levski going ahead in the tie early on, the Croatian’s mostly dominated their Bulgarian opposition and could have won by a much greater score line. Hajduk then proceeded to eliminate one of Danish football’s best teams Brøndby, 2-0 on aggregate, despite not being able to find the net in the opening fixture. Picking up from last season, both Nikola Vlasić and Ante Erceg have looked very formidable going forward, while new signings Borja Lopez and Savvas Gentsoglou have helped to sure up Hajduk’s defence, the inadequacies of which prevented the Dalmatians from exploiting Dinamo Zagreb’s subpar season last time around.
On August 4, in perhaps their biggest fixture since facing Internazionale in 2011, Hajduk Split drew Everton in their Europa League play-off match. To say that Everton have “spent big” this summer is an understatement. Everton’s prodigal son Wayne Rooney has re-joined the club after spending 13 years at Old Trafford while Jordan Pickford, one of English football’s most promising young talents has also joined the Evertonian ranks to add to their depth between the sticks.
Alongside that, Michael Keane has joined from Burnley, highly rated ex-Barcelona prospect Sandro Ramirez has joined from Malaga and Nigerian youngster Henry Onyekuru has joined from KAS Eupen in Belgium. To top it off, Everton have also signed arguably the Eredivisie’s best all round midfielder, Ajax’s Davy Klassen. So, despite the loss of Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United, Everton look more than prepared for the season going forward and will look to mount a decent challenge for the Premier League’s top 6 positions.
Hajduk vs Everton was a Fantastic Draw on Paper
For both sets of fans, the draw was excellent. For Everton, their side has a chance to play a historically massive football club, in a match that they are more than likely to win. Their fans have the opportunity to witness some of the Europe’s most explosive and passionate support first hand. For Hajduk Split, the team has the chance to face a high-level English Premier League side, which will lend the club publicity and extra revenue. An upset on the pitch would indeed create some extraordinary memories for the fans. However, the fixture’s integrity to an extent seems largely up in the air as of late, some ugly off the field incidents rearing their ugly head on Croatia’s Western Coastline.
Following their game with Levski Sofia, Hajduk Split were charged with racial chanting. Evidence put forward by FARE, a FIFA backed counter discrimination network, clearly identified racial chanting from a section of the Split crowd. The chants that FARE picked up on were anti-Serbian, translating directly to the phrase “kill a Serb”. The decision was eventually appealed by Hajduk Split, and the proposed punishment of playing their next few games behind closed doors was dropped in favour of a substantial €35,000 fine and a section of the stadium, which equated to 500 seats, closed for the next three games. UEFA’s decision, however, was made only three days before their game against Brøndby. This further complicated travel arrangements for supporters of the Danish club, many of whom struggled in the short space of time to find flights, accommodation and secure tickets during the high point of Croatia’s tourism season.
While it did negatively affect the experiences of the away fans and hamper match day arrangements somewhat, one can hardly blame Hajduk for appealing the decision. A stadium ban before the biggest tie of their season would not only rob well-behaved fans of a fantastic game of football but hand an advantage to Brøndby, who were able to play with their fans rallying them along in Denmark. And while many blame UEFA’s slow decision making for the fixture’s confusion, it is certainly more intelligent to tether almost all the blame to the “first mover”, the section of the Split crowd that sung the disgusting chants.
Despite being a traditionally anti-fascist, left wing football club, right wing elements can be found within the organisation and its fan base. The brutal suppression of nationalism of all forms in Yugoslavia under Tito’s tenure as the countries leader, combined with an unfavourable economic track record which was frowned upon particularly in areas of the country like Dalmatia, had allowed the dictator’s image to sour beyond repair in many parts of the country. Ultra-nationalism and independence replaced the code of the partisans and the goal of a Slavic brotherhood. Under Franco Tudjman’s brand of nationalism, Croatian politics began to see elements of the countries right wing past creeping into modern political opinion.
Amplified by the shockwaves of a bitter and bloody war between former friends, family and neighbours of different nationalities, in the Balkans today there is certainly a massive nationalist and right wing sentiment, and it has shaped the way many football supporter’s groups operate in the region. Torcida Split have been criticised in the past over their incorporation of the Confederate flag in displays and their merchandise.
Those within Hajduk have often argued that Torcida’s position on the South of Poljud and the club’s white strip make the flag appropriate to the team, despite its racist undertones. Again, it’s important to emphasise that one can’t simply tear a fan base with one stereotypical label. Torcida have raised lots of money for charitable causes within Split and around the country. They are also playing a significant role in attempting to bring down Zdravko Mamić’s reign at the top of the country’s footballing hierarchy, which could prove to be the breath of fresh air that Croatia’s domestic game needs for competition to flourish. However, the recent racially charged incident has made news worldwide, and alongside the disruptions from Euro 2016 during Croatia’s game against the Czech Republic, Torcida’s “bad boy” reputation across Europe has only been emphasised further.
Hajduk Fans are Part of a Wider Problem in the Balkans
It would be foolish to suggest that the issue of violence and hate within the Balkans is merely limited to one corner of Croatia. During Croatia’s 0-6 away win against Kosovo in October 2016, both sets of fans joined in unison to sing “kill the Serbs”. In the now infamous Euro 2016 qualifier in Belgrade between Serbia and Albania, Serbs chanted “Kill, slaughter Albanians, so they stop existing”. For almost all in the region, the echoes of war between 1991 and 1999 are still very much intact. To an extent, therefore, it is understandable how easy it is for hardwired and embedded hatred to boil to the surface, especially in high-intensity atmospheres, atmospheres standard at a football match.
It is incredibly detrimental to the domestic and national games for each country in the region. Instead of being recognised for the club’s many positives, Hajduk Split are now facing being tarred as bigots by Europe’s footballing community, and are facing a hefty fine from UEFA. It also further provokes tension with those across their border, also negatively attacking the Serbs within the Croatia itself. It tarnishes the domestic league somewhat, allowing some rundown and backward impression of the country’s top division and its supporters to rise above the real positives that the league produces. Positives like insurmountable amounts of incredible talent, alongside fantastic rivalries and stunning fan support.
Through an economic standpoint, investment is key to any successful football club in the 21st century. However, the likelihood of a wealthy investor willingly inserting his capital into a football club perceived to be ‘morally corrupt’ is almost impossible, as we have seen in Israel for example with the case of Beitar Jerusalem’s tenuous relationship with former owner Arcadi Gaydamak.
Without investment, the level of competition within the league surely can’t improve. Many have proposed the formation of a Balkan Football League; however, it seems like again this will be almost impossible because of the longstanding tension in the region, security, policing and other costs and risks now certainly outweighing the positives that the league would bring to the domestic game.
Fan Violence has Damaged Croatian Football
Not only are these incidents poor for investment and the game, but it also risks damaging the reputation of the country abroad. For many, the only time countries like Serbia and others in the Balkans are thrust into the media spotlight are during controversial incidents of racist and violent behaviour. Unfortunately, this damages the reputation of the country abroad, as it allows an extraordinarily uninformed view of a country, ignoring that the said country is full of welcoming, hospitable and surprisingly progressive people. Therefore, the reputation of countries like Croatia, Serbia and Albania suffer heavily because of bigoted chanting, rioting in stadiums and violence, even outside the circles of football.
The first leg finished 2-0 to Everton. However Hajduk Split made a respectable account of themselves, particularly in the second half where their forwards produced several excellent saves out of Jordan Pickford, Vlasic also missing a good chance to get a vital away goal. However, once again, the fixture was overshadowed by what happened in the stands. During the first half, the away section spilt over, and Hajduk Split’s away fans attempted to breach the line of stewards and head for the home team’s stand.
It was a poor advert for football in the country and has increased the notoriety of Toricida tenfold, playing Everton lending them a huge platform to showcase themselves on. An active family club, many Everton supporters have voiced their displeasure at the events on the that took place during the first leg of the tie. The second leg in Split on August 24 as of yet is under no immediate threat of being played behind closed doors. However, many travelling Everton fans are still questioning their safety in Croatia.
The first tie has unfortunately built on the recently unfavourable stereotype of the club, a stereotype that has the power to undermine the moral goodness that club was founded and built on. Hajduk Split now hold a significant amount of responsibility to prove on and off the pitch. They have to show that despite the fiery atmosphere of aggressiveness that has defined the Balkans since the turn of the millennium, they can reverse the pre-conceived perception of the club by many and become the glowing example of passion, devotion and a measure of tolerance within the Balkans.
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 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