Our vast European adventure of 2018 was still in it’s infancy. We had, however, made it into our third country, Croatia, with the classical music of Austria and the winding rivers and canals of Slovenia now well behind us. Two great nights in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, had allowed us to explore a part of the country which wasn’t swamped by tourists – in fact, we appeared to be the only ones – but we knew things were about to change as we headed down the Adriatic coast to the popular city of Split.
Split would the scene of memorable carnival atmospheres, idyllic scenery and passionate football fans. Every night, free music festivals took place on the promenade and in the cities parks, providing a great opportunity to drink in the streets. When we wanted to be a little classier, we spent hours just sitting in the sunshine at the promenades many bars, watching the world go by as the waves of the crystal blue sea lapped against the sea walls.
Saturday morning, as was the case with all of our itinerary, saw yet another ridiculously early start as we caught the coach from outside Zagreb train station. Rather strangely, it was both quicker and cheaper to travel between the two cities by coach than by train, with the journey taking around five hours in total. Joe and I were both tired, feeling the full effects of our late night at Dinamo Zagreb v Istra 1961 the previous evening.
Temperatures were approaching 40 degrees when we arrived in Split; a soft coastal breeze doing very little to cool us down. Our coach driver carefully weaved his way in and out of the hordes of passengers who were swarming back and forth to cruise ships and catamarans to transport them across to a vast number of nearby islands. He was an expert, knowing that if he were to ‘accidentally’ squash a tourist it would more than likely considered to be their fault and not his.
Logistically, if the city planners of Split had their time again they probably wouldn’t choose to place both the train and coach stations in the actual harbour. It resembled a scene from downtown Delhi with people, animals and vehicles all jostling for space in amongst the blistering cloud of heat which was being emitted from the collection of exhausts as coaches sat stationary awaiting their next trip. With no time to get your bearings, it was sink or swim in Split.
At the harbour, a Hajduk Split fan shop sat in amongst a range of food shops and pop-up bars. It was here that we had been advised to buy our match tickets but it wasn’t open on this occasion meaning we’d have to turn up at the game early and queue to get our hands on a pair. There was no absence of the football club in the area though, with every wall and lamppost plastered with stickers or graffiti from the loyal Torcida supporters group.
Remnants of a street market that had taken place that morning were scattered across the floor as we made our way up the hill towards our AirBnB apartment. Our chain-smoking host, Jure, met us outside where he was awaiting our arrival. He had a Hajduk sticker in the back of his car and seemed happy when we told him we would be off to the match.
Our plush apartment was found at the top of a three storey residential building, just a two minute walk from the famous Diocletian’s Palace. Split Cathedral’s tall tower could be seen from our living room, through the wooden slats which covered the windows, in keeping with UNESCO heritage rules for the neighbourhood.
Sunday arrived, which meant it was game day. The match didn’t start until 21:00 though, meaning we had a full day available to explore Split. Walking tours of the city proved to be popular, with many wanting to see where scenes in Game of Thrones were filmed. Having proudly never watched an episode of it in my life, I wasn’t bothered at all and we focused our energy on finding decent places to have a drink and some food.
The promenade offered an abundance of restaurants that welcomed you to come and sit for a drink – usually with bottles of Ožujsko. We found the bars on the eastern side of the Palace to be a little more enjoyable, as the further west we walked the pungent stench of the sulfur springs underneath the city became more prominent.
Tucked well inside the myriad of tight alleyways and streets of the Palace, we found a strange world that went by the name of Academia Club Ghetto. The only customers, we hid in a smoke-filled back room and after consulting it’s extensive drinks menu opted to have another bottle of beer each and headed onwards.
Further along the promenade, we perched on a table outside Basta cafe, admiring a selection of expensive yachts and private boats that docked in front of us. The distinctive blue and orange of the Marshall Islands flag fluttered from their hulls, suggesting that they had sailed to even more exotic places than this.
As we sat down for dinner, we assumed the roles of Bear Grylls and Ray Mears as we foraged through the menu and set about decapitating a plate full of fish that were placed on our table. Soft grilled peppers, aubergines and a form of mashed potato were a welcome addition to the dish, requiring no disemboweling or messing about. Conversation soon turned to what we could do the following day, with the two options being a boat trip over to the popular island of Hvar or an excursion to the Krka waterfalls.
Joe got his way – not that I was bothered – and we booked tickets for a waterfalls day trip, all we had to do was turn up at the restaurant in the morning with our trunks and our bossy travel guide would look after the rest. It proved to be a relaxing day, spent at one of Croatia’s eight national parks.
On the slow walk up to the match, we passed Hajduk’s old ground on the left hand-side. Stadion Stari plac stood quiet on this occasion, a shell of it’s former self. These days, it’s used by the cities Rugby Union club, Nada Split, but in it’s heyday football fans would squeeze into this compact venue to cheer on their beloved Hajduk. You wouldn’t have guessed it, but the place even once hosted an international fixture, with Yugoslavia beating the Netherlands 2-0 there in a UEFA Euro 1972 qualifier.
There was no need to consult a map to find our way to the Stadion Poljud, home to Hajduk since 1979. Supporters formed a helpful procession as we continued plodding up the hill, making our way further out of the city centre. The stadium’s iconic ‘sea-shell’ inspired design soon fell into view, with it’s two sweeping roofs appearing like a spaceship in the dry, dusty landscape which surrounded it.
Built to host the 1979 Mediterranean Games, the stadium showed signs of age but there was still something incredible about how ‘different’ it was to anything we’d ever seen. It’s grand roof was a thing of sheer beauty with metal work criss-crossing at small yet consistent intervals.
Supporters were all dressed in denim shorts and sporting small body bags. We dressed the same, not just to fit in but because it was more comfortable. All you needed was a phone, wallet and match ticket and they all sat comfortably in a small bag. If only we could embrace this fashion back at home. It was a far cry from scenes outside The Emirates and Stamford Bridge, where you’re judged on the cut of your jeans, the logo on your coat and the quality of silk used to craft your overpriced scarf.
A large queue for tickets snaked around the approach to the stadium, which was somewhat annoying. There were six ticket booths, each emblazoned with a letter which spelt out Hajduk if viewed from the correct angle. Only one booth was open though, meaning we had to wait well over half an hour to get hold of ours. Did they want people to watch the game or not?
Then again, as like the previous night at Dinamo Zagreb, the club weren’t expecting many fans to turn up due to an organised boycott. Hajduk’s Torcida supporters group, who claim to be the oldest supporters group in Europe having been founded in 1950, were protesting in solidarity with their bitter rivals from Zagreb, the Bad Blue Boys.
After a spate of arrests linked to violence at the 2018 World Cup, both sets of supporters were refusing to turn up to matches until fans were released from prison. During the match, a banner that read, ‘In spite of everything, we are with you until the end of the day,’ showed just how deep rooted the anger was. To be forced to join with those you hate the most, suggested that the Croatian authorities had overstepped the mark. Then again, in Croatia, it just seemed far more convenient and easier to boycott matches than to actually attend them.
So, despite the stadium holding 34,000 just 10,408 bothered to turn up for this Sunday night game against Lokomotiva Zagreb, a team who had suspiciously close links to their bigger neighbour, Dinamo.
Sweat was dripping from us after a hike up the brutalist concrete walkways. Squeezed to one side on the open concourse, were a selection of pop-up tables that were selling pints of Karlovačko. From the Western Stand, we had a great view of the match, choosing to watch the first half from on the halfway line before scaling the summit of the stand in the second half.
The match itself was quite poor, with only a couple of half chances coming and going before Hajduk opened the scoring a minute before the half-time whistle. The ball bounced around on the edge of the area before it fell to local lad Stanko Jurić who fired an effort into the left hand corner from 30 yards out, leaving Ivo Grbić with no chance.
The young Lokomotiva goalkeeper, who was cruelly subjected to abuse throughout the match, could do nothing about it. It was rather odd for a player to be singled out so much by the home fans but it transpired he had been a Hajduk player up until recently. Born in Split, he progressed through the junior teams from the age of nine and made a handful of first team appearances. He had moved on in the summer after rejecting a new contract in order to play regularly elsewhere. Who could blame him?
Ten minutes into the second half, Lokomotiva brought on all 6 foot 5 inches of 35 year old striker Ivan Krstanović. He was a like for like replacement for teenager Matko Babić. Within two minutes of being on the pitch, the striker got hold of the ball and hammered it past Marin Ljubić.
By this point, we had managed to trudge up to the very top of the stand. At the back, a pathway curved with the roof to the summit before sloping back down again; not a single step or flight of stairs in sight. Nobody up here had their shirts on, I assume because heat rises.
Hajduk piled pressure on the visitors in an attempt to claim all three points but Lokomotiva held firm, travelling back to the capital with a share of the spoils. The entirety of the crowd left the stadium and made their way back down the slope towards the coast, making their way into the bars along the way for one last pint before bedtime.
Monday morning arrived and it was time for our recently arranged excursion to Krka. Down at the promenade, as the sun rose above the Adriatic, a coffee and a cup of tea each arrived on our table complete with Hajduk branded packets of sugar. Anything that you could put a football crest on, Hajduk did it. They were masters at advertising, at times rather uncomfortably so.
Krka National Park is found closer to the city of Šibenik than it is to Split but it didn’t take too long to get there, along with all the other coaches of tourists who were vying to get into the park before visitor numbers peaked in the mid-afternoon. The gem of the visit and apparently one of Croatia’s most famous sights is the Skradinski Buk falls that are found quite a walk into the forest trail.
After a refreshing swim in the clear, blue waterfalls, it was time to get back on the coach to return to Split. It was our final evening in the city before pressing on to the former war-torn city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A stroll around to the other side of the harbour area led us to Plaza Bačvice which we conceded was as close as we were going to get to sand on our travels with Sarajevo, Belgrade and Budapest not really renowned for their beaches.
The sun set, as yet another street concert took place on the promenade. A blonde woman and a balding man bopped about on the stage in front of the Diocletian’s Palace. The latter looked as if he was more suited to being in a Right Said Fred tribute act, covering a range of well known hits in his booming Croatian accent. In the park by the apartment, another band proved less popular but far more enjoyable as they covered a range of Talking Heads tunes. ‘This Must Be The Place’ reverberated around the cities ancient walls, while a group of backpacking students danced by the colossal statue of Gregory of Nin in an attempt to raise enough money for their breakfast.
Split had been everything we had expected when we booked it. Architecturally beautiful, fantastic weather, full of places to drink and a fantastic matchday experience to go with it.
Even with the boycott, our match turned out to attract Hajduk’s fourth highest crowd of the season. Many of the matches after our visit were played behind closed doors due to retrospective action taken by the Croatian Football Federation after violence at a match against Dinamo Zagreb.
Hajduk Split finished the season in fourth place, claiming the final Europa League qualifying place. They finished 30 points behind their rivals Dinamo. Lokomotiva finished in sixth place.