Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game
Could any stadium in Europe have a better setting? Backdropped by the clear blue of the Adriatic a stone’s throw away – you could see the stone drop through the water, in fact – the Poljud occupies a natural bowl in the area of the same name just north of the centre of this sport-mad city.
The de facto capital of Dalmatia, Split (and the Poljud) are home to one of the most passionate and colourful fan cultures in Europe. The recently sorry fortunes of local club Hajduk (pronounced ‘Hay-dook’) are followed across southern Croatia, islands included. Every other bar, boat and taxi driver’s window features the white, red and blue of the oldest club in former Yugoslavia.
A venue worthy of such a legacy was built under Tito for the Mediterranean Games of 1979. Eight months later, just before half-time of a clash between Hajduk and Red Star Belgrade, the news came over that Tito had died. Players, officials and crowd stopped as one, and many began to weep. The game was abandoned.
At the time, Hajduk were one quarter of the Yugoslav Big Four – Dinamo Zagreb being Croatia’s other representatives, plus Partizan and Red Star from Belgrade. Following the break-up of Yugoslavia, the fractured sporting scene was patched up for basketball – but not for football. A weak Croatian League, is now dominated by Dinamo – Hajduk last won the title in 2005.
In between then and now, Split’s other club, RNK, showed excellent form, drawing with Fulham and Torino in the Europa League in 2011 and 2014 respectively. Both games were played in Dugopolje outside Split – RNK’s regular Park Mladeži stadium lies close to the Poljud. Crveni, the Reds, are currently struggling to claim the only promotional place in the Southern Division of the third league, though causing occasionally surprises in the Croatian Cup.
Hajduk moved up to the Poljud from their home of 70 years, the nearby Stari Plac, where fans, the Torcida, still gather in the club house bar today. They brought with them a fan culture of almost equal longevity. Fiery celebrations – torch flames, banners and co-ordinated chants – had been copied from grainy cinema newsreel footage of the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. With Rio as their role model, the Torcida had been practising South American football customs on the terraces of Europe for three decades.
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. Match day at its best is a tribal gathering of Dalmatians. The city’s waterfront Riva reverberates all afternoon with fireworks and parades, another tradition. But the patriotic, populist Torcida, have had to suffer perennial mismanagement of their beloved club.
Just as Hajduk have declined, mired in financial gloom, so the Poljud is in urgent need of renovation. Plans for a revamped stadium were put on ice when Croatia failed to win the hosting rights for Euro 2012.
In the more recent past, Hajduk have picked up, winning the Croatian Cup final at the Poljud in May 2022. To mark the occasion, a fan zone was set up on the seafront Riva, with games for kids and a huge LED screen beaming the action to those who weren’t among the 30,000 crowd for the Adriatic derby with Rijeka.
A runners-up spot in the league was also a best performance for several seasons, followed by victory over Vitória Guimarães in the Conference League. While Villarreal proved a bar too far, Hajduk are at last back among the major European names, exactly where they belong.
Crowds for both home ties were in the 30,000 range, first-time Iberian visitors discovering a rich football culture by the shores of the Adriatic.
Arriving in town, local transport and timings
Split Airport is at Kaštela, 20km (14 miles) north-west of town, towards Trogir. Pleso Prijevoz buses run to Split bus station (45kn/€6, journey time 30mins). CroTAXI PANDA +385 95 535 8095 should charge around 300kn/€40 depending on destination. Many hotels arrange transfers.
Split bus and train stations adjoin each other between the main market and the harbour for boats to the islands. Walking is the only practical way to get around the town centre, centrepieced by a gutted Roman palace and fringed by the Adriatic waterfront. The stadium is a steepish climb from town but one that many fans are happy to do.
To reach the Poljud or more distant city beaches by city bus, pay 13kn/€1.75 on board at Zagrebačka by the market or the top of pedestrianised Marmontova near the National Theatre.
Where to Drink
The best pubs and bars for football fans
Split has two bar hubs: the Roman-era Diocletian’s Palace and the Bačvice leisure complex at the city beach, a short walk over the railway bridge.
In the palace, the arty Academia Ghetto Club (Dosud 10), close to the Hotel Slavija, has dedicated a whole wall to RNK Split. Turning left out of the hotel, then left again past the AGC, follow the yellow arrows marked ‘bar grill’ for the no-frills terrace bar with a sea view, the legendary Dioklecijan, known by all as ‘Tre Volte’.
Younger foreigners converge on Aussie-run Charlie’s, attached to the hostel of the same name on Petra Kružića, where big games are screened and celebrated. Sport is also shown at nearby Sanctuary, although the main focus is on serious drinking and top Mexican snacks. Just behind Narodni trg, Gaga brings groups of cocktail-drinking partyseekers together in a small square and shows European games.
At Bačvice, Bili AS is a football spot, decked out in Hajduk murals, now gone a little upscale and serving food, as well. Alongside, La Playa offers more of a clubby vibe while the Beach Bar History at the end of the row pleases the crowd with pizzas and cocktails.
On the city side of the beach, savvy Žbirac attracts an urban crowd. There’s TV football inside once the sun sinks over the horizon.
Further along from Bačvice, near the tennis courts of Firule where Goran Ivanišević started out, Egoist was a sport-centric lounge bar near a stretch of beaches now in the process of changing hands but unlikely to change focus.
Where to stay
The best hotels for the stadium and city centre
Convenient for the Poljud, the Hotel Globo is an eminently affordable four-star. Cheaper yet is the Split Guesthouse & Hostel, a friendly lodging with two-, four- and six-bed rooms on the corner of the main road leading up to the stadium. You’ll find it on most hostel booking sites.
At this end of town, the mid-range Bellevue has long been a fixture in an Italianate building dating back to the late 1800s, overlooking a pretty, prominent square.
The Dioklecijan (Obrov 10, +385 98 969 7129) is a superior example of a converted hostel, now a quality hotel with that rarity in these parts, a rooftop pool.
Over at Bačvice, the Hotel Park is perfectly situated for a weekend of beachside relaxation.