A revived Hajduk are threatening Dinamo’s dominance.

By Zdravko Reic in Split
The rivalry between Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb is unimaginably fierce. Dating back to 1946, it has intensified since Croatia gained its independence and remains riven with deep social and political overtones: a clash between the country’s rich north and the poorer south.

Formed in 1911, Hajduk are the country’s oldest club, but even this causes arguments. Dinamo have recently claimed they are the successors of the Gradjanski club from Zagreb, who were disbanded in 1945, and as a result they, just like Hajduk, will now celebrate their centenary in two years time.

For many years Hajduk crept along, never far from bankruptcy, while Dinamo enjoyed the plentiful support of their sponsors and the patronage of the late president, Franco Tudjman.
Since Croatia gained its independence in 1992, Dinamo have dominated the domestic game, winning 19 trophies to Hajduk’s 10. They have also won the league for the past three seasons, doing the double twice, and amassed 86 more points that Hajduk.

However, this season it’s nip and tuck at the top of the table as the Whites from Split seek to end their bitter rivals’ dominance.

Much has been made of Hajduk’s improved form since the appointment of Ante Mise as coach in December. He had been Goran Vucevic’s right-hand man and was seen only as temporary replacement when Vucevic resigned in October. At one point, Hajduk were close to hiring Avram Grant, but after Hajduk embarked on a nine-game winning streak Mise was handed the job on a permanent basis.

Over at Dinamo, executive director Zdravko Mamic has already fired two coaches this season. Branko Ivankovic went in November, while Marijan Vlak departed days after defeat by Hajduk and was replaced by Krunoslav Jurcic, a member of Croatia’s 1998 World Cup squad.

Mamic isn’t the most popular man in Zagreb at present, with Dinamo supporters blaming his brother Zoran, who is the club’s sporting director, for selling the club’s best players – Eduardo, Luka Modric, Vedran Corluka, Nikola Pokrivac, Ognjen Vukojevic and others have brought in around £50m – and bringing in unknown South Americans.

However, the real turning point in the two clubs’ fortunes came last year when the government passed a new law aimed at saving clubs from bankruptcy. Clubs were privatised and debts, often in the form of unpaid taxes, were wiped out by the state.
Hajduk, who were some £20million in the red, were the first club to go private, with the city of Split acquiring a large stake and the rest of the shares going to the fans. A year later, they are £8m in the black and the future is looking rosy.

Hajduk have beaten Dinamo home and away in the league this season – 2-0 on both occasions – with Mamic complaining about the hostile atmosphere in Split in February, when the kick-off was delayed by 19 minutes after two tonnes of paper was thrown on to the pitch. After Hajduk took the lead through a soft penalty, the game was delayed further as Hajduk fans lit 150 flares, covering the pitch in a blanket of smoke.

In addition, Dinamo’s Brazilian midfielder Sammir was subjected to racial abuse from sections of the Hajduk crowd, for which the club were fined £25,000 and forced to play one match behind closed doors.

The pair will meet twice more before the end of the season when they contest the two-legged Cup Final on the first two Sundays in May.

Generally, Hajduk supporters, who are known as Torcida, are better behaved than their Zagreb rivals, whose hard-core fans, known as the Bad Blue Boys, have a well-founded reputation for hooliganism, especially in European competition, where they caused trouble in Udine and Prague.

If past encounters are anything to go by, the battle for domestic supremacy in Split and Zagreb will be no place for the faint-hearted.