The historic Roman city of Pula, at the southern tip of Italianate Istria, has always lacked a football club to match its cultural and touristic importance.
Home of Croatia’s most venerable film festival, held in the signature local attraction, a 2,000-year-old amphitheatre, Pula lags behind Croatia’s coastal giants of Split and nearest main rivals Rijeka where football is concerned.
While Hajduk Split attract a significant holiday crowd to their home games in high season, Pula’s main club, Istra 1961, fail to register with the many visitors who flock here for seaside fun and summer music festivals. Few, in fact, even know that Pula has a top-flight team or where they play.
It’s a situation that recent Russian, and now American, ownership of Istra 1961 has failed to redress. Pula’s convoluted history, both geopolitical and sporting, hardly helps.
Istra 1961 – the date is important – are one of two similarly named clubs playing in the same city, playing at the same stadium and playing in the same colours. Istra 1961 fans, the Demoni, were the first in Croatia to sport scarves bearing no club name at all, only the bright signature stripes of green and yellow, the colours of the City of Pula.
These same fans used to follow now lower-league NK Istra, the stronger club in the 1990s. Their gradual demise coincided with the rise of Istra 1961, who have now spent ten of the last 12 seasons in the top-flight 1.HNL. The chant of ‘Istra! Istra!’ was easily transportable.
The situation is further complicated by the history of Pula itself. As Pola, the city was Habsburg until 1918 then part of Italy until 1945.
An FC Istra, with no connection to either modern-day club, was founded in 1907. A first football pitch, the Gambal, was created in 1914, on the road between Pula and Medulin. Local Olimpia FC were the first club to play there – against a team from Rijeka, instigating a century-long city rivalry.
After 1918, the main local club was Grion Pola, formed by Italian fascists and disbanded in 1945 before Pula became part of Yugoslavia. Originally named Gruppo Sportivo Fascio Giovanni Grion after a local soldier who died fighting for Italy in World War I, they wore black shirts with a white star, the same as those sported by Casale of Piedmont, Italian champions in 1914.
Grion produced Pula-born Antonio (aka Tonči) Vojak, a Scudetto winner with Juventus in 1926, whose younger brother Oliviero (aka Olivero) also later won the Italian league with Juve in 1931. He died a year later, only 21, his coffin carried by his title-winning teammates.
Back in Pula, a well equipped sports complex had been built just south of the town centre, the Campo del Littorio, its main stadium holding 8,000. In the same season of 1931-32, host club Pola Grion made Serie B, a stint cut short to two full seasons after a pitch invasion at the Campo in 1935.
Post-1945, the football scene in Pula shifted with the change in state, from Mussolini’s Italy to Tito’s Yugoslavia. Named after the main shipyards, NK Uljanik were founded in 1948, star player Aldo Drosina scoring their first goal at home, a spectacular volley. The opponents, of course, were from Rijeka. Drosina also played for the other local club, NK Pula, who were to merge with Uljanik in 1961 to become NK Istra.
Istra spent four seasons in the Yugoslav second flight before relegation in 1966.
‘Uljanik’, meanwhile, was revived when a similarly named new club was founded in 1964.
While Uljanik played in the lower divisions, it was NK Istra who represented Pula when the independent Croatian league was formed in 1992. Based at Pula’s main stadium, the former Campo, NK Istra stayed in the top flight until 1997.
NK Istra then sank down the divisions and currently play in the fifth flight. Having abandoned the main stadium for the modest Stadion ŠKC Veruda nearby, NK Istra returned to share the renamed Stadion Aldo Drosina after its renovation in 2011.
Their stablemates, having started out as Uljanik in 1964, later became Pula 1856, then Pula Stare Često, then NK Pula then, in 2007, today’s Istra 1961. As Uljanik Pula, the club made the Croatian Cup final in 2003 and, as 1856, the top flight a year later.
The paths of the two local clubs crossed for two seasons in the Second Division South from 2001 to 2003. During that time, the more established NK Istra played in front of an older clientele at the main stadium, Uljanik at the modest Veruda. But it was Uljanik, aka Istra 1961, who would go on to become Pula’s flagship club, move into the Aldo Drosina and hoover up the local fan base.
A foreign owner, Russian Mikhail Shcheglov, took over Istra 1961 in 2009, two years before the rebuilt Aldo Drosina reopened. Before 2015-16, Shcheglov sold his majority share to a US consortium under lawyer in Michael Glover – but results on the pitch have failed to improve.
While the Aldo Drosina staged a full international on its opening in 2011, it has never hosted any European club football – a sorry reflection on the game in Croatia’s sixth biggest city.
Pula airport, six kilometres (3.5 miles) north-east of the city centre, is poorly served by public transport. In winter, Pula receives regular domestic flights but Croatia Airlines provides no buses into town. In summer, a Fils bus leaves 30min after budget flights arrive and runs to the bus station in Pula city centre (30kn, 15min journey time), going on to the hotel hubs of Verudela (45kn, 25min) and Medulin (45kn, 50min).
Taxi Pula (+385 98 440 844) charges around 140kn from the airport into town.
Pula bus station is north-east of the amphitheatre at Trg I istarske brigade. There are services almost hourly from Zagreb, with average prices and journey times at around 120kn/4.5-5hrs. There are also regular services from Trieste, Ljubljana and Rijeka, but none direct from their respective airports.
Pula train station is north of the city centre on Kolodvorska, a ten-minute walk from the centre – but there is no direct service with Zagreb or Rijeka.
City bus firm Pulapromet runs services around town, tickets 11kn from the driver. Downtown is walkable but you’ll need a bus for tourist-friendly Verudela.
There are no hotels in the immediate vicinity of the stadium. The Galija is probably the nearest, a pleasant, family-run three-star with its own restaurant.
Close to the attraction it’s named after, the Hotel Amfiteatar is a notch-above three-star, with 18 stylish rooms and a destination restaurant in its own right. Just the other side of the amphitheatre, the Scaletta is another convivial hotel/restaurant combination, this with 12 rooms almost equidistant between Pula’s harbour, bus and train stations.
Also close, the Hotel Riviera Pula is a Habsburg-era classic in need of modernisation but it’s a handy base.
Close to a series of beaches, two football pitches and with its own sauna and outdoor pool, the year-round Hotel Pula provides an active getaway within reasonably easy reach of town – though imposes a three-night minimum stay, five in high season.
Pula’s many decent pubs and bars – serving Istrian beers such as the ubiquitous Favorit and sought-after San Servolo – are not all in prominent locations. In summer, terrace venues towards Verudela, where Budučinova and Tomasinijeva meet, have a nice buzz about them.
The Old City Bar is a good place to start, right in Pula’s historic centre, small, smoky and honest, with TV sports beamed by the bar counter and classic Croatian grilled dishes served.
Even more local in feel, and even smokier, the nearby Scandal Express is best frequented late at night.
On Vukovarska, the Mimoza bar and live music venue is also good for TV football. Further along the same street, the Old Friends Club is a favourite haunt, set in one of Croatia’s first theatres, founded in 1856. It also screens big games and major tournaments.
Just off Veruda ulica near a hub of terrace bars, Bass is another popular Pula spot, with live bands, DJs, a decent drinks selection and TV football on bigger nights. Further down towards Veruda ulica, the spacious Beer Club offers 130 varieties and communal football watching.