LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Hajduk aim for 50+1 split

Croatia’s biggest fan base looks to steer the ship

Dalmatias flagship is coming out of the doldrums thanks to communal ownership

This week, Dinamo Zagreb and Rijeka contest the Croatian Cup final as the record champions from the capital run away with the league again. The last club to break Dinamo’s domination was, in fact, Rijeka, in 2017.

Before then, it was Hajduk Split, way back in 2005. This winter, this club of great European tradition seemed to be mounting a credible title challenge after decades in Dinamo’s wake.

Despite so much promise, bolstered by the arrival of World Cup hero, Split-born Ivan Perišić from Spurs, this season has delivered little. The Dalmatians now limp into Europe in third place and on Wednesday, relinquish the cup they so memorably won in 2022 and 2023.  

But Hajduk top one table, as they do every year: highest average attendance, three times more than Dinamo’s, in a city more than four times smaller by population.

Poljud/Peterjon Cresswell

This strength in depth, passionate fan base and progress towards being 50+1 supporter-owned could yet help Hajduk overcome all-powerful Dinamo.  

As lifelong Hajduk fan and sports journalist Juraj Vrdoljak explains: “This is a fanatical football city. I could compare the current situation to something between Napoli and Liverpool before they won their long-awaited titles. Napoli even more so. The vibe of the city is similar, everyone supports the one club, which is also big at a national level”.

“This club was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2012. Then the fans stepped in and basically saved it. And from that moment on, one of the biggest milestones for the fans has been to win the title again, which the Hajduk haven’t won since 2005. Another is for them to become owners of the club, similar to the 50+1 model in Germany.”

Vrdoljak, who writes on football culture for the excellent Croatian-language website Velike priče, points to a banner he recently saw at Hajduk’s fabled stadium, the Poljud. Created by the club’s equally legendary following, the Torcida, it read: “Rezultat je trend, ideal je vječan”. Results come and go but the ideal is eternal.

Moj Hajduk shop/Matt Walker

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes a shot from the other team goes in off the post, and you lose. It doesn’t mean that the whole idea should fall apart just because that one shot went in. In the wider scheme of things, a result is just a moment in time, compared to all the things that happened to the club in 2012.”

Sadly, though, there have been a few too many of those shots going in this year, a string of 1-0 defeats to Dinamo and Rijeka losing Hajduk the cup and any last hope of the title.

But Vrdoljak sees the bigger picture: “One of the things I’ve been most proud of, as someone from Split, is always, even in the darkest times, when the club was one city council meeting away from being disbanded, kids around town were still wearing Hajduk shirts. It wasn’t the big foreign clubs, Barcelona or Madrid. The future was bleak at the time, but even though a lot of people were very disappointed, our culture was active, and very present.”

“And that culture was what saved the reputation of the club. It’s something you cherish, something you can build on.”

Torcida bar/Peterjon Cresswell

And what a culture it is.  Fiery celebrations – torch flames, banners and co-ordinated chants – were originally copied from grainy newsreel footage of the 1950 World Cup in Brazil shown in local cinemas nearly 75 years ago. With Rio as their role model, the Torcida have been practising South American football customs on the terraces of Europe ever since.

Hajduk don’t only represent Dalmatia, the beach-lined, southern strip of Croatia as it tapers south to Montenegro, the bustling port of Split its capital. For major games, the Dalmatian diaspora following the Hajduk flag fly in from Australia, North America or whichever shore-leave port their ship happened to have docked at.

These tribal gatherings, first at Hajduk’s intimate old ground of Stari Plac, and then at the seaside, seashell-shaped retrodome called the Poljud, became less celebratory as Hajduk’s fortunes flagged.

Behind the scenes, despite the sale of top talent such as Darijo Srna to Donetsk, management was plunging the club into deeper and deeper debt. A fan-based initiative based on the German model, Naš (‘Our’) Hajduk, encouraged Split supporters to buy up shares in their club and have their say at board level

Hajduk mural/Matt Walker

But so deep was the financial hole that in 2012, these same fans were forced to queue outside Split City Hall and beg the council to sign a loan insurance to keep the club afloat.

“Hajduk emerged from financial difficulties in 2016, so that was the first time that the club could afford any really bigger signings, to invest in transfers. Before then, we could not afford to sign anyone, basically, just standard players who couldn’t compete at Dinamo’s level.”

“Then improvements started to happen around the club. That’s when the upward trajectory started, both in terms of infrastructure and in terms of the fan base.”

In 2016, as a sports club, Hajduk could count 43,000 members. By 2023, this figure had passed 100,000.

Bizarrely, this has created its own friction. “The club launched a marketing campaign, Prgava familija, targeting a new, younger fan base. Some of the older fans resented it, asking where these people were when the club was at rock bottom.”

Caffe-Bar Hajduk/Peterjon Cresswell

At 34, Vrdoljak cannot claim to be a young Hajduk follower any more – yet he has no problem with these arrivistes filling the Poljud: “They buy tickets, buy merchandise and add to the match-day revenue”.

The newly branded version of Hajduk reached its apex in the spring of 2022, when the cup final was held in Split. All day long, the waterfront Riva promenade hosted family-friendly events as a crowd of nearly 30,000 gathered at the Poljud to witness Hajduk lift their first trophy since 2013.

In a country as small as Croatia, a nation of four million people, with a top domestic league of ten clubs, half of them very modest indeed, that an institution as proud as Hajduk had to wait nearly a decade for any kind of silverware tells its own story.

After the Split side repeated the feat in 2023, they started the subsequent league campaign with a stoppage-time win at Dinamo, before beating the champions at home in October. With the title in sight, Hajduk went for broke during the winter break, bringing in Ivan Perišić from Spurs and Croatian international striker Josip Brekalo from Fiorentina. 

Poljud/Peterjon Cresswell

 It didn’t work, and next season will mark 20 years since Split last won the league crown: “This year has been a huge disappointment, because we brought in some really good names, seasoned players from the national team, but some things didn’t pan out quite well on the sports front, because the names themselves don’t guarantee you the top spot.”

Then there’s the Poljud itself. “As much as it was an architectural miracle in 1979, there has been no significant investment in the stadium since, apart from a few small-scale cosmetic ones in 2010 and 2015. There’s been a lot of talk about the future of the Poljud. I’ve been a Hajduk fan since I was born and the only ground I ever knew was the Poljud but personally speaking, I don’t think anyone is really that sentimental about the ground itself.”

“The most successful era was in the 1970s, when we were at the Stari Plac. The biggest issue is, in terms of football culture, the Poljud is not very practical. It’s an athletics stadium. People want to have a proper match-day experience. It’s just not sustainable in this way.”

Poljud/Peterjon Cresswell

“Moving to a new ground is really far off – Split is peculiar in terms of its geography, we don’t have a lot of free space, especially for a modern stadium, and we are looking at a stadium that has to hold at least 25,000-30,000 people. This season, we had to cap the season-ticket number at 20,000.”

“It’s a tricky situation. It’s just impossible to build a modern stadium for 30,000 in the wider city centre. You don’t want to replace one mess with another.”

But the fact that Hajduk need a 30,000-seater at all, in a league whose average gate hovers between 4,000 and 5,000, speaks volumes. And with a new board coming in, much is expected of 2024-25.

“The board has a four-year mandate – the failure of this season prompted their departure – but the biggest thing they brought in was the belief that the club could be sustainable. The club is open and transparent, its reports are available. It isn’t full of debt. We’ll soon be the only 50+1 club of this size in the Balkans. It just shows you can be sustainable and be fan-owned.”