Croatia’s capital Zagreb has always been a football-centric metropolis, whether as home to flagship club Dinamo stage for international games or host to European Championship finals, either actual (1976) or proposed (2012).
It was 100 years ago, in 1912, that the city, then under Austro-Hungarian rule, was chosen as base of the football branch of the newly formed Croatian Athletics Federation. Nine years before, the first club, HASK, had been founded by students and academics. Other clubs soon followed as the Sokol movement blossomed. Linked to similar movements in Prague, Scout-like Sokol encouraged sporting activity and, though not openly, Slav nationalism.
Three main clubs HASK, Gradjanski and Concordia played each other in friendlies at Maksimir Park, the city’s main green space where the national stadium stands today.
When the South Slavs – Yugoslavs – broke from the Habsburgs after World War I, a league was set up, originally based in Zagreb. The three Zagreb clubs took eight of the 17 titles up to 1940, but already, ten years earlier, internal disputes had the league HQ moved to Belgrade.
As a Nazi state in World War II, Croatia had its own national team and league, again dominated by the big three.
Under Tito, in the post-war Republic of Yugoslavia, Gradjanski, HASK and Concordia were disbanded as one on June 9, 1945 – and Dinamo Zagreb founded in their place. The best players went to Dinamo, including Franjo Wölff, who would become top league scorer for two seasons running. Dinamo later took over the Maksimir ground from HASK, while Concordia ceded their ground to the club that would become NK Zagreb.
Gradjanski carried the nickname of ‘Purgeri’, one still granted to all citizens of Zagreb today. Dinamo also inherited their colours, fan base and, for the three years, their stadium, the Koturaska. Abandoned in 1948, it was later demolished.
Dinamo became one of the Yugoslav big four, Zagreb’s Maksimir a regular host of Yugoslav internationals.
After 1991, in the considerably weaker independent Croatian league, Dinamo dominated and even NK Zagreb, previously only occasional participants in the all-Yugoslav one, shone.
Meanwhile, top-flight Lokomotiva, a feeder club for Dinamo, have recently enjoyed a rare dip into Europe. As Viktoria, then Zeljeznicar, Lokomotiva were the city’s fourth club before World War II, surviving the post-Tito era in their current guise.
Of the Zagreb clubs currently in Croatia’s lower flight, NK Hrvatski Dragovoljac, the ‘Black Warriors’, were reformed and renamed in honour of those who volunteered to fight in the Croatian War of Independence. HASK still exist, though much more modestly than pre-1945. Lucko, from Novi Zagreb, briefly made the top flight in 2010.
The transport network comprises trams, night trams and buses for outlying areas. Tram Nos.2 and 6 run three stops from the bus station to the train station, the No.6 going on to the main square, Trg bana Josipa Jelacica. A ticket costs 12kn from a newsstand (stamp on board), 15kn from the driver. A day ticket is 40kn. One journey using new smart cards is 10kn.
Taxis are parked outside either station or call +385 7777.
The Zagreb Tourist Office on the main square has a directory of hotels.
Near the Maksimir, the best option is the three-star of the same name ten minutes’ walk from the stadium, tucked inside a courtyard off the main street two tram stops closer to town. Doubles are charged at an across-the-board 500kn, rooms for four 800kn. Walking up Bukovacka cesta alongside the Maksimir Park in the opposite direction to the stadium, there’s the Hotel Vila Tina and, on Kispaticeva, the Rebro, both more functional three-stars.
Close to the NK stadium, and within easy reach of the station and main square, the Laguna is a pleasant three-star with bar and restaurant.
In town, the recommended TABAN marries Japanese interior design with an urban youth hostel concept, at B&B prices – and right on the main bar drag of Tkalciceva. The nearby Fulir is a more conventional hostel, with one four-bedded room.
The most famous lodging in town is the Hotel Regent Esplanade, built by the station to serve the Orient Express, and host to royalty and film stars. Orson Welles was a famous regular here. Nearby are the functional Hotel Central and the arty, comfortable ARCOTEL Allegra.
On the main bar street of Tkalciceva, winding the other side of the market from the main square, you’ll find the Oliver Twist (No.60) and the Pivnica Mali Medo (No.36), with its in-house beer, alongside several spots with football on outdoor TV screens. The other side of the main square, Boban is an upstairs café with an affordable Italian restaurant below, set up by the Croatian football star of the same name.
East of the main square, at Vlaska 42, the Hole In One and, further east towards the stadium, at Maksimirska 75, the Dublin, are more pub-like. Near the station, in the same vein is the Old Pharmacy Pub (Hebrangova 11A).
For the right combination of pub and local bar, try the Pinta near the main square on Radiceva and/or, a couple of buildings up, the MK Bar, known as ‘Krolo’ after the writer Miroslav Krleza who lived here.
Near the Cathedral, Cro Sport vez at Vlaska 2 stocks all kinds of shirts and accessories in Croatia and Dinamo colours.