Boys from the Balkans don't need a war to go to war



WHEN ACTOR Danny Dyer – who starred in the hit football violence film The Football Factory– decided to make a documentary series, The Real Football Factories International, one of the first of the half-dozen or so locations he visited was in the Balkans

Dyer headed straight to the shores of the Adriatic and to Split, Croatia’s second city. The first port of call was a derby meeting between Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb, the country’s most popular clubs and hated enemies.

The sides also boast two of the Continent’s most notorious supporters groups – the Bad Blue Boys of Dinamo Zagreb (recently blamed for death threats to local journalists) and the Torcida of Hajduk Split, the oldest (1950) organised firm in Europe.

“The Torcida are a firm with a fair bit of previous,” says Dyer in the documentary: “1961, referee attacked after disallowing a Hajduk goal; 1974, fought the Yugoslav army, army evacuated from the stadium; 1988, banned from European competition for three years after rioting in Marseille; 1990, pitch invasion and attempt to attack Partizan Belgrade players.

“And then there’s the Noughties and the cup final riots of 2000 and 2001 against – guess who? – Dinamo Zagreb. And the latest incident occurred just two days before I arrived. Torcida members were among the 183 arrested in Zagreb, for causing trouble at Croatia versus England. But it wasn’t the English they were fighting. Yet again, they were fighting Dinamo Zagreb.”

When the Croatian giants met in the 2000 cup final, hooligans broke down metal fences and the game was abandoned as the pitch began filling with missiles, fans and retreating policemen, who turned to tear gas and water cannon to evacuate the stadium.

Inevitably, one year later, the two met again in the final, which witnessed almost as much trouble inside and outside the stadium.

Right from the start, the derby meetings have been avoided by those with faint hearts.

In the second quarter of the 20th century, Gradjanski from Zagreb and Hajduk from Split regularly clashed in the Yugoslavia Championships. After Gradjanski was forcibly disbanded following the second World War, NK Dinamo Zagreb was formed in its place and retained the old club’s blue colour. Along with the Belgrade giants, Partizan and Red Star, the four clubs dominated in the land of the South Slavs.

In fact, all four were inextricably linked to the upheaval in the early 1990s which led to disintegration of Yugoslavia, and therefore the end of the regular four-way battle at the top of the football league (in fact, a 1990 meeting between Red Star and Dinamo is known as “the match that started a war”; the game is best remembered for Dinamo captain Zvonimir Boban’s attack on a policeman who was hitting a Dinamo fan).

The political divide resulted in the clubs refocusing energies closer to home – and on the task of beating their now only major rival.

The Croatian first division was first staged in 1991/92 and all bar one of the championship crowns have been claimed by the two giants: Dinamo have taken 10 league titles, Hajduk Split six and NK Zagreb muscled in briefly in 2002. The two clubs have also shared 13 of the 17 Croatian Cups.

Tonight, the first leg of the Croatian Cup final takes place at the 40,000-capacity Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb, with the return leg at the similarly-sized Poljud Stadium on Thursday, May 28th. Three days later, the league season will end with another meeting of the two in Split. Currently, Dinamo are holding off Hajduk at the head of the table.

All three meetings this month promise to be red-hot affairs. On and off the field. For the clubs, the biggest challenge is keeping a lid on the build-up.

Last season was a disaster for Hajduk, with Dinamo beating their fierce rivals 3-0 in the home leg of the Croatian Cup final – rendering the second tie almost meaningless. Even worse, Dinamo won the league title with five rounds still to play.

It led to the resignation of Hajduk manager Goran Vucevic at the beginning of this season and the elevation of his assistant, Ante Mise. Originally, Mise was to be a caretaker manager (and Avram Grant was expected to take over), but after Hajduk went on a nine-game winning streak, Mise was handed the job on a permanent basis. This month will be his biggest test to date.

Similarly, Marijan Vlak departed from Dinamo immediately after the last derby meeting – a 2-0 win by Hajduk last February, with Bosnian Senijad Ibricic and young Croatian striker Nikola Kalinic on the scoresheet for the home side.

Tonight, the away side will come up against former Liverpool midfielder Igor Bišcan and the perhaps appropriately named player in a derby that has often been allowed to boil over – Tomislav Barbaric.

Even that latest derby was marred by non-footballing matters, with kick-off delayed by almost 20 minutes due to the amount of paper and missiles thrown on to the Split pitch.

And, after the home side took the lead, the game was delayed again as flares were lit throughout the ground. The riot police were eventually called into action. Called, apparently, by the away fans. And the local police duly obliged. Television cameras managed to cover the action on and off the pitch.

And just to cap it all off, Hajduk supporters were accused (and the club was subsequently fined) for racially abusing Brazilian midfielder Sammir.

This fixture brings pressure that only a select few derby matches can match.

Tonight may well define each clubs’ entire season.

Croatian Cup Final

First leg – Tonight, 8.15pm (local time), Maksimir, Zagreb

Second leg – Thursday, May 28th, Poljud, Split