There are numerous teams that have been continuously participating on the international stage of UEFA’s club competitions, notably the Champions League, since its refurbishing back in 1992.
There are teams that seem to be ever-present, but somehow fail to belong. You know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about all those Red Bulls, Manchester City’s, Rubin’s, Ludogorets’s, and what-so-evers that are unrightfully occupying places in the competitions that had once been reserved for teams with a strong, thoroughly earned domestic and international pedigree. Don’t get me wrong, I had some sympathies for City before their casbah got rocked, back when Side-Wing Phillips and that guy that was so Irish that he put it on the back of his shirt jogged out at the good old Maine Road. But those days are long gone.
From the view of your average football fan in his 20s, it seems that football didn’t exist before 2012 and THAT Drogba header. More worryingly, they don’t seem to care. But we do. Wait, where was I .. Ah, yes. However, even though they keep coming back on the most prestigious European stage year after year, true romantics fail to identify those clubs as “proper teams”, as your local Johns would say.
They are, though, qualified, legitimate members of the elite, considering the last decade or two. But who gives a damn about those teams? We’re talking real football here.
The football that gave rise to outperforming the opponent rather than the score itself. The football that equaled chivalry. Unpredictable scores, ecstatic crowds and classy outfits, except Stoke City’s away one in 1996. We’re talking football that sent unexplainable shivers of excitement down your spine at the sole mention of some of the iconic clubs, grounds and players.
Tottenham, Leeds United, St. Etienne, PSV, Atlético Madrid, Arsenal, HSV, Bordeaux, Dundee United, Ajax. Lovely. They aren’t thrown here just because. They all have something in common. They all share a distant but strong, vivid memory of the white, mudded shirt that refuses to include the word “defeat” in their vocabulary.
The shirt that only the brave had the privilege to wear. The white, mudded jersey of an undisputed master of the seven seas: Hadjuk Split.
From Prague with love
The walls of Split have witnessed many stories since their erection, some 1700 years ago, but I’m going to tell you the most beautiful of them all. It’s the largest city in the Croatian part of the Adriatic sea, in the Dalmatia province. This particular story takes us to the year 1911. Austro-Hungarian monarchy was at its peak, at least expansion-wise. It consisted of (or parts of) modern day Austria, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia. Football was already becoming more and more popular on the continent, as many teams were formed throughout Europe.
The game had already outgrown its domestic soil, spreading across the world like the plague. It was in the very north of the then Austro-Hungarian monarchy, namely in Prague, the capital of modern Czech Republic where the group of students from southernmost Split, fell in love with the beautiful game. Hell, who could blame them?
After they witnessed the Prague derby between Slavia and Sparta, the boys headed to the famous Flek pub. There, they met with their friends and colleagues, Slavia’s fans, and talked football. Things got heated very soon, and the Croats said: “We’re gonna establish our own football club. In fact, next year, we’re gonna beat you at home!“
The Czechs laughed dismissively. Who could take these clowns seriously, they thought. But they should’ve. The next month, the boys returned to Split. The students stormed to their respected professor Barać’s office, with the idea of him helping them pick the adequate name for the club which, they believed, would reach the highest highs in the upcoming future and, more importantly, represent the people. The professor broke their disagreement with the now famous words:
“Since you stormed in my office like hajduks, take that name. It symbolises what is best in our people: bravery, humanity, friendship, love of freedom, defiance to powers and protection of the weak. Be worthy of that great name.”
Hajduks were bandits, outlaws that fought the Ottoman oppressors across the Balkans which, before the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, dealt their own vision of justice by the sword and sheer brutalism. They (hajduks) continued to do so even when the Monarchy and the Turks swapped places. Hajduks were the Balkan version of Robin Hoods, looting the army convoys and state merchants, often helping the poor, rather than living under the occupant’s eye and constant fear.
That philosophy was adopted and then passed on to become the core of the club, woven into the club’s logo. As such, it drew people in, not only the Croats, but all that didn’t particularly like the idea of unquestionable obedience. The Monarchy, however, didn’t disappoint with its discontent. They refused the team’s proposal at first, as it showed aspirations of independence through the club’s prefix “HNK” (Croatian football club) and the distinctive checkered board in the club’s logo.
The club was secretly against the Monarchy’s politics because the Monarchy refused to proceed with the unification of the Dalmatia region, of which Split was the capital, with other Croatian provinces, in order to become an equal state within the Empire itself. So, since its embryonic phase, Hajduk opposed. It is evident, just from this data itself, what this club means and stands for.
The club somehow convinced the authorities that the best way to train potential soldiers and keep them in shape would be through football. Location? The King’s field, or commonly Stari Plac, a famous green area in the heart of the city that served as an army polygon became Hajduk’s home, and on February 13th, HNK Hajduk Split was officially born. It wasn’t a problem to popularise football in a city like Split. It was love at first sight.
There were more than 40 players that wanted to play their part in the first ever team gathering. Fabjan Kaliterna, one of the founders, sent the first kits and footballs down to Split as a gift from their Prague friends. White shirts and blue shorts, that resembled white sails on the blue sea, were picked to be the club’s home kit, such a familiar sight for Split and the whole region. That combination of colours remained intact to the present day. Hajduk played their first match ever three months later, a friendly against the team of Italians that resided in Split, the Calcio Spalato, and they won 9:0.
The following year, the club played its first international match ever, and guess who? Hajduk finally hosted Slavia Prague, one of the best teams in Europe at the time, in a friendly match. The score was not so friendly, 1:13 for Slavia. Well, what can you do? Then, just as Hajduk began to take on the outlines of a football club: World War began.
“All the empires may dissolve, all the kings and tzars rot, but Hajduk shall remain!”
A few years after the WW1 ended, Europe saw a new kingdom forming in its yard.
A kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and the Slovenes (Kingdom of SCS), the predecessor of Yugoslavia. The game itself picked up where it had left off.. 1923 saw the first national league’s formation, and Hajduk joined in. It’s the only club from those areas to this day that had continuously competed in the top flight since it was born, no matter which country it was part of, and, mind you, there were certainly few.
The same year, the club went on the North African tour, which seems pretty outgoing for that early stage. 1924 brought another significant information that shows the speed in which this club had picked up the basics, and mastered them to near perfection.
10 out of 11 players in the national team fielded for the match against Czechoslovakia were Hajduk’s players. The only reason why the goalie wasn’t involved was because he was Italian.
Hajduk’s reputation was flourishing, in and out of the country. Proud and honest approach to the game and life itself amassed people from all walks of life, including the working class, intellectuals and artists.
The best example is when Ivo Tijardovic composed a play for Hajduk’s 15th birthday, thus making Hajduk the only football club in the world that has its own opera.
Hajduk clinched its first national title in 1927, adding a second one in 1929. They then played their first competitive international match right after their first title. They suffered a heavy defeat from Rapid Vienna, ending 9:1 in total for the Austrians.
The 1930s was a period of drought for Split’s Whites. Except for the few tours around the globe, nothing significant was achieved. It didn’t help much when King Alexander abolished the Kingdom of SCS and established a royal dictatorship, under his rule. The flag changed once again (I know, right? ), this time from the Kingdom of SCS to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
Hajduk was at the gunpoint again, as its name was considered separatist. The authorities intervened and forcibly changed it from “Croatian” to “Yugoslav”, to the dismay of the team. The Decade had swiftly passed, and a new war was on the horizon.
In 1939 the club’s officials went to Belgrade for the regular meeting. They tried to reorganise the football association, raising their hands for equal terms. They wanted the Croatian Football Federation (CFF) to have a more independent approach to Yugoslav football. This was strongly refused, and the founders of Hajduk were accused of treason, resulting in jail for some. The consequences of that were re-forming CFF in Zagreb in 1940, and it was recognized by FIFA in 1941.
Hajduk won that newly-formed league. The same year saw the Nazi virus infecting most of Europe and the formation of the notorious NDH (Independent State of Croatia). However, Split, alongside most parts of Dalmatia, fell under Italian dictatorship. In fact, Hajduk already had a reputation big enough to be officially invited to switch sides and compete in the newly formed Italian league, under the new name, “AC Spalato”, which they defiantly refused, of course. Mussolini himself then founded another club in Split and named it “SC Spalato”.
Hajduk ceased to exist, and a number of people affiliated with the club joined the resistance movement. Italy capitulated in 1943, but then came the Germans. They annexed Split to the NDH. Allied forces liberated the Mediterranean in 1944, and Hajduk was reinstated. A friendly match was then arranged against a team consisting of British troops in Bari, Italy, in front of 40.000 people. That match is the most visited sports event in the world during the whole war period. In that match, Partisan’s red star was adopted in the club’s logo, instead of its original distinctive red & white chess board, which will remain shadowed for the next 40 years. Next year, the ceasefire was announced.
In 1945, the political and military elite of reborn communist Yugoslavia saw Hajduk as an ideal representative of the values of the new republic, so they made an offer that you couldn’t refuse. The whole team would be transferred to Belgrade, the name changed to Partizan (in honour of combat units), a brand new stadium and infrastructure built, with flats for the players and the staff, jobs for their parents, and pensions etc.
They had everything on the table. People’s club, or club of the regime?
The communist party didn’t learn anything from Mussolini’s mistake a few years earlier. Hajduk’s legendary captain and coach, Frane Matošić (739 apps/729 goals) resolutely dismissed their offer on behalf of the club. The Communist Party was shocked, but surprisingly respected Hajduk’s decision (without consequences!).
The same year, one of their future fiercest rivals, Partizan Belgrade, was founded instead.
Hajduk’s contribution to the people’s hearts in those dreadful days was acknowledged worldwide: Charles De Gaulle, the French president awarded them the “Honorary team of Free France” award. In the following years club embarked on an international tour and became the first club from Yugoslavia that played on every continent. The same year, the magazine was established, “Hajduk’s Journal”.
The aforementioned ambition was followed by league trophies, which started to come in swiftly (‘45, ‘46, ‘50, ‘52, ‘54) with the middle title worth further mentioning.
1950 remains an iconic year for Hajduk and the city of Split. With the upcoming decisive match against Red Star Belgrade, Hajduk’s fans organised themselves from around the country, following the example of the crazy vocal and visual Brazilian support, that the Hadjuk players, representing Yugoslavia at the World Cup, had told them about. So, the oldest organised supporter group in Europe was born in Split.
During the first part of the championship, the grass was being replaced on the field, so Hajduk played the whole first part of the championship away. They finished the season as champions, clinching the title at home against Red Star Belgrade in a last minute thriller. The visitors could settle for a draw to become champions. When they took the lead in the 31st minute, it seemed impossible for them to blow it. Hajduk had nothing to lose and the siege was set on the Red Star goal. In the 74th minute, Vukas gave hope to 22,000 souls with an equaliser, but Red Star defended fiercely. Tackles flew, and even punches were thrown between the players. The siege continued. Red Star has to fall!
In the 87th minute the score was 1-1, with a mere 3 minutes separating the Belgrade team from becoming the champions of Yugoslavia. But a football match doesn’t end to until the final whistle is blown.
Then, a powerful shot fired from the right-back Broketa’s sank Red Star’s title dreams to the bottom of Adriatic sea and caused total mayhem on the streets of Split. Hajduk won its first championship of new Yugoslavia, with a significant record: 10 wins and 8 draws. This title without defeat remained unprecedented in this region for the next 65 years.
The match itself was continued by other means: Hajduk’s captain faced a violent behaviour trial, and numerous fans were jailed. Belgrade media sparked insults towards Hajduk (which would become a long-lasting animosity between cities), trying to undermine their triumph. But they couldn’t fool the people.
Hajduk’s fan base well exceeded Split and Croatia itself, as many recognised the authentic spirit and passion for the game, with a club that refuses to admit to anyone that they are better than them.
The reason why I wrote all of this is to ensure readers understand that HNK Hajduk Split was, and undoubtedly still is, much more than a football club. It’s gone beyond that. It is, certainly, a way of life. If you weren’t touched by the above-mentioned, you’re surely a Coldplay fan, and a rotten individual.
The great post-war generation’s glow was slowly fading. Captain Matošić retired, the league and country’s best goalkeeper Beara went to Red Star and was labelled a sell-out, and the greatest winger in Hajduk’s history, Bernard “Bajdo” Vukas was transferred to Bologna, thus becoming the first professional footballer in Yugoslavia.
Hajduk lost its momentum and dominance. The following years would be disastrous for Split’s Whites.