The pub is generally where all the best ideas come from. Of course, this statement is utter tripe, as most ideas people formed whilst on the sauce are utterly terrible. A friend and I once decided to take every phone-box phone in Liverpool off the hook, a decision that could only be made after enough beer had been drunk for madness and idiocy to prevail. University shenanigans aside, every now and then an idea is formed in the company of alcohol that stands the test of time. One such idea was born in the homely surroundings of Prague’s U Fleků bar in 1911 by a group of Croatian students, however much that sounds like the beginning of a truly abysmal joke.
The students hailed from the delightful Dalmatian town of Split, and their idea was to form a football club. The inspiration came from a match between Slavia and Sparta Prague, at a time when either the quality of Czech domestic football was a lot better or the alcohol tolerance of Croatian students was a lot lower. Either way, on that fateful night in 1911 a football club was born.
This football club needed a name, so the chaps asked a teacher by the name of Josip Barač for advice. Barač was quick to provide assistance, telling the boys to name their club ‘Hajduk’. Those ignorant to Balkan history may query why the boys were told to name their club after a greeting one may say to a quacking bird, but they would be foolish to do so. Hajduks were bandits, for want of a less criminal term, men who roamed the countryside stealing from the rich to give to the poor, in this case, themselves. They also did a whole lot of murdering, but it is best to ignore this. The word conjured up ideas of bravery, of freedom, of defiance and of protection of the weak, and was clearly perfect for a drunken football club. Hajduk Split was born.
When in the ‘Create A Club’ section of a football computer game, after choosing a name you would more than likely have to choose an emblem. This is the route the boys followed, and one Vjekoslav Ivanišević designed it. The emblem featured the famous Croatian checkerboard, and whilst this conjured up nationalist fervour in the Croats (not to mention a whole lot of murdering in World War Two) the Austrian monarchy figured it was a decent way to attract and train soldiers. The club was immensely pro-Croat (Proat?) anyway, so why not go the whole hog?
They had a name, they had an emblem, now they needed opponents. Up stepped the fearsome Calcio Spalato, Spalato being the Italian name for Split, and Hajduk had their first game. They annihilated the Italians, putting nine unanswered goals past their beleaguered opponents. Legend has it that the first goal was scored by Šime Raunig, or Šime Raunig’s knee to be exact. Two years later Hajduk played their inspiration, although they were less successful here. They scored a goal, sure, but Slavia Prague scored 13 in response. This blip didn’t stop Hajduk however, as they quickly established themselves in their region.
World War Two would eventually put a big ol’ spanner in everyone’s works, as Yugoslavia was split up and divided between the Axis powers. Split was given to fascist Italy, and Hajduk flat out refused to join the Italian league. Brief liberation came to the city in 1943, but this was swiftly replaced by further Nazi occupation, who quickly handed it over to the Croatian fascist Ustaša. They were the guys who also had the checkerboard as their emblem and did a whole lot of murdering. Hajduk’s players and followers lived up to their bandit name and joined Tito’s Partisans, becoming the official football team of the Yugoslav resistance in the process. They would go on to play the British Army in Bari during the war, in a match watched by some 40,000 spectators. It was the highest attendance of any sporting event in Europe during the war
The Partisans would win the three-way civil war that engulfed Yugoslavia in World War Two, and as a reward for their support, Tito offered the club a move to Belgrade to become the official team of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA). Hajduk refused the offer and stayed in pretty Split, leading to the formation of Partizan Belgrade in their stead. Tito was still a fan, and the club was affectionately known as ‘Tito’s Club’. The checkerboard was gone by this point, tainted by all that murdering in WW2, and replaced with a good old Commie red star. Hajduk’s reputation spread far and white, even Charles de Gaulle got in on the act by proclaiming them the honorary team of Free France.
Hajduk Split have some of the most passionate fans in all of the former Yugoslavia, a sentence that has most likely been written about every single club in the region. Still, Hajduk’s are among the most fanatical, and the can also lay claim to being the oldest organised supporters group in Europe. Formed in 1950 by a group of students (disappointingly not in a bar in Prague), they called themselves ‘Torcida’, inspired by the vociferous Brazilian support at that year’s World Cup. Success came to, as Hajduk became one of the ‘Big Four’ of Yugoslav football along with Partizan and Red Star of Belgrade and their Croatian counterparts Dinamo Zagreb. On seven occasions Hajduk won the title, the most of any club from outside the Serbian capital.
When Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, it was Hajduk who dominated the early years of the newly independent football league. They were its first champions in 1992, winning three of the first four championships and making it to the quarterfinals of the European Cup in the 1994/95 season. All of this hid a major problem however, that problem being that behind the scenes everything was going to shit. Hajduk’s finances were in ruins, and success soon left the club. Sure, they’ve won the odd title here and there, but needless to say their better days are behind them.
Hajduk Split is quite probably the most important club in Croatia. Now, before Dinamo Zagreb fans start sending me horrible emails, let me clarify. Throughout their history Hajduk have always led the defiance, the first line of defence against the powers that have tried to ruin Croatian football for their own good. This fight continues to this very day, albeit in less than glorious ways. In 2014 the club refused to play an away game against Dinamo Zagreb when some of the Torcida was refused entry to the stadium. This sort of loyalty doesn’t go unnoticed.
Croatian football is a mess, don’t begin to think differently. It often seems as though it is set up to serve one man (hi Zdravko Mamić!) and in turn one club (hey Dinamo Zagreb!). Fans are tired and angry, and after years of protest have led to nothing they have decided to actively sabotage Croatian football wherever possible. The most visible example of this came during Euro 2016 when Croatian fans began fighting with each other as their team was 2-1 up against Czech Republic. Most have given up on the national team, and the idea is that the only way for things to change is through complete and absolute shame. Not even a World Cup final can change that.
The Torcida is at the forefront of this, once again on the front lines of the battle between football and those trying to shaft it. Regrettably, the checkerboard is back, but their fight is undoubtedly the good fight. They’ve come a long way from early 20th century Czech beer, although not such a long way from slaughtering a cockerel in the centre of the pitch ahead of a 1984 UEFA Cup game against Tottenham Hotspur. Yeah, that happened.
Okay, fine, let’s talk about that. It was a misty (probably) April evening in Split, with Hajduk preparing to host Spurs in the first leg of the UEFA Cup semi-final. Stadion Poljud was packed to the rafters (meaning 35,000 fans crammed in). Now how could the Torcida make their presence felt? How could they attempt to intimidate the Spurs players from the get-go? Hmmmm, live sacrifice maybe? Yes, live sacrifice!
Tottenham’s badge, for those who are unaware, has a cockerel on it. Why? I’m not entirely sure, but it is something about fighting spurs on chickens, which is actually quite awful. Whilst making chickens fight is bad, bringing a live one out onto a football pitch and wringing its neck in front of 35,000 spectators is a little more brutal some would say, and this is exactly what one Torcida member did on that night. Yes, he killed a chicken before the game.
Hajduk won 2-1 but would lose 1-0 in the return and go out on away goals. Tottenham would go on to defeat Anderlecht in the final, and Hajduk has been cursed ever since.
An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery’ is available for purchase, for a mere £16.20 plus postage. You can get the magical tome over at our shop, linked here, and the digital version is there too. There are also books about Bosnia, Macedonia and Prague available, blimey.