Only emerging as Pula’s prime football club in the early 2000s, Istra 1961 have been under foreign ownership since 2009 with no significant improvement to results on the pitch.
Top flight for ten of the last 12 seasons, Istra 1961 have failed to win any silverware or qualify for Europe. If anything, the situation in 2015-16, after US lawyer Michael Glover and his consortium bought out previous Russian owner Mikhail Shcheglov, has been even more chaotic. Poor league form and unpaid salaries have characterised the campaign under the new management. In October 2015, after a 3-0 defeat at Hajduk Split, long-term manager Igor Pamić was sacked, ending his second stint at the club.
The first came in 2004-05, the club’s first season in Croatia’s top flight. Previously, as Uljanik, the club had been confined to the lower flights, both in the Yugoslav and the independent Croatian set-up. Uljanik, the name of Pula’s shipyards, could trace their history back to 1948, their star player striker Aldo Drosina.
In 1961, Uljanik merged with NK Pula to form NK Istra, who would Pula’s top club until the early 2000s. In 1964, another Uljanik was formed, overshadowed by NK Istra. When a new Croatian league started up in 1992, NK Istra were Pula’s representatives.
NK Istra also occupied the city’s main stadium, revamped and officially opened by Aldo Drosina in 1995. After the player’s death in 2000, the stadium was renamed after him.
Around this time, former NK Istra striker Elvis Scoria took over as coach of Uljanik. With goals from Igor Žiković, second-flight Uljanik reached the Croatian Cup final in 2003, losing both legs to Hajduk Split. Halfway through the following, decisive campaign, another former NK Istra striker, Igor Pamić, replaced Scoria as coach and took Uljanik to the Second Division title. The club had at last eclipsed their erstwhile city rivals, NK Istra, relegated from the Second in 2003, never to return.
After promotion, Uljanik took the name of Pula 1856, stayed up for two seasons, only to go down again in 2007. Renamed Istra 1961 in 2007, the club also changed to colours of green and yellow upon the insistence of fans who had switched allegiance from NK Istra to Istra 1961.
It took the return of Elvis Scoria as coach, the arrival of midfielder Goran Roce and the goals of Malian Kalilou Traoré to bring the Green-and-Yellows back up.
After the club’s promotion, Mikhail Shcheglov, once on the board of Spartak Moscow, took over Istra 1961. The Aldo Drosina was already undergoing major renovation, which would be completed by early 2011.
After Elvis Scoria left for Rijeka, Istra 1961 went through six managers in under a year, but it wasn’t until Igor Pamić returned in 2011 that the club found a modicum of consistency.
He arrived just as the club had moved into a revamped Aldo Drosina and the Green-and-Yellows would achieve sixth place in 2013 and 2014.
Having failed to take over Hajduk Split in 2013, an American consortium led by lawyer Michael Glover bought a majority share in Istra 1961 from Shcheglov in June 2015. Promising investment, the new ownership soon ran into problems. With results not coming on the pitch, off it team-mates Stefan Nikolić and teenager Miloš Ostojić were involved in a dressing-room brawl.
Something had to give – Pamić was let go after four-and-a-half years in charge. For the spring campaign of 2016, the management has put its trust in ex-Yugoslavia international defender Andrej Panadić as the coach to save Istra 1961 from a first relegation since 2007.
Named after the striker who played for all three key local clubs after World War II – Uljanik, NK Pula and NK Istra – as well as coaching the latter, the Aldo Drosina is one of Croatia’s better football grounds.
Rebuilt and reopened in 2011, the stadium dates back to 80 years before when it centrepieced an impressive sports complex as the Campo del Littorio. It was first home to flagship local club Pula Grion, soon to play two-and-a-half seasons in Italy’s Serie B.
Capacity back then was 8,000, the Campo surrounded by a running track, tennis courts, a sports hall and extra pitch.
Renovation was long overdue when an independent Croatian league was set up in 1992. An ageing Aldo Drosina himself cut the ribbon after a first stage of modernisation in 1995. Back then, the host club was NK Istra, the then more modest Uljanik (later named Istra 1961) based at the equally modest ŠRC Veruda Uljanik, about 1km south-east of the Aldo Drosina on Veruda ulica.
As Istra 1961 eclipsed NK Istra as Pula’s main club, so the former Uljanik moved into the Aldo Drosina and the previous hosts over to the ŠRC Veruda. Just as the clubs swapped grounds, so the main fan group, the Demoni, changed allegiance to the more prominent club.
Both shared the ŠRC Veruda while more major reconstruction took place at the Aldo Drosina from 2009 to January 2011. The main feature was a new, covered West Stand, with individual seating throughout. A month later, Croatia played a full international there, a 4-2 win over the Czech Republic. It has later also hosted the visits of Estonia and Cyprus.
Currently home to both Istra 1961 and NK Istra, the Aldo Drosina has a capacity of 10,000. Home fans, the Demoni, occupy the North Stand, Tribina sjever. Away fans are allocated the South Stand, Tribina jug, accessed through Ulaz jug 2 gosti. The best seats are in the West Stand, Tribina zapad.
The stadium is a 10min walk south-east of the town centre – head for trg Republike then down ulica Marsovog polja. If you’re at the bus station, then you’re about 1.5km away. Nos.2a and 3a go every 20min, daily, direct to trg Republike.
For bigger league games, such as against Dinamo Zagreb, tickets go on sale two days before the game, from the kiosk (10am-6pm, from 10am on match days) behind the North Stand, Tribina sjever. In most cases, simply pay on the door.
It’s 20kn in the home end (Sjeverni tribina), 30kn in the East Stand (Tribina istok), and 40kn in the main West Stand (Tribina zapad) and away South Stand (Tribina jug) – all cash only.
There are no online sales.
The club has no official shop – green-and-yellow souvenirs are sold on the day.
With the closure of the popular Kora bar, choices for a pre-match beer are quite spread out. Some fans meet at the Bulevar on Arsenalska, parallel to the waterfront, a classic fin-de-siècle building that housed the Yacht Club in the Habsburg days. Nearby, and slightly nearer the ground, another option is the Rojc, a former military barracks converted into a multifunctional arts and social centre.
Nearer to town, bars around the market, Tržnica on Narodni trg, are also a handy stop off – the most popular is the Beer Garden, Vrt piva.
At the ground itself, you’ll find the adjoining standard Samson and San Marco bars by the training pitch – look out for the yellow umbrellas outside.