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Croatia’s age-old foes united by hatred

Zagreb (AFP) – A north-south antagonism, a duel between the prosperous capital and a poorer port city: as ever, Sunday’s Croatian derby between age-old rivals Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split promises high tension.

These giants of Croatian football, who have only once since independence in 1991 let another club win the national championship, are known by local media as the “eternal rivals”.

“Today only hatred is left,” said leading sports journalist Tomislav Zidak.

It was not always so acrimonious between the two clubs, who during the Yugoslav era were among the communist federation’s “Big Four” along with Belgrade’s Partizan and Red Star.

In the late 1980s, when Yugoslavia’s break up was looming, their contests were even friendly — fans cheered on the “two brotherly clubs”, which were both considered symbols of newly-resurgent Croatian national identity.

“When I used to play in 1990 they were cheering together,” recalled former Croatian international Slaven Bilic, a Hajduk Split ‘child’.

But in the mid-1990s “sporting rivalry started gradually changing into hatred,” Bilic said in 2009, when he was national coach.

After Croatia’s 1991-1995 independence war, growing antagonism between the two sides was accompanied by violence on an almost-regular basis.

Their matches became high-risk events with police arresting dozens of rampaging fans fighting on the streets or highways.

– ‘Symbol of irregularity’ –

Politics was largely to blame, with Croatia’s first president Franjo Tudjman attending nearly every match of Dinamo Zagreb.

The club enjoyed political patronage and the financial backing of authorities — Tudjman even briefly renamed Dinamo as “Croatia Zagreb”, wanting it to represent the young nation on the international stage. 

“Dinamo Zagreb were a big winner of the coupling of politics and football” in a country highly-oriented towards the capital, sociologist Drazen Lalic at Zagreb University told AFP.

Dinamo officials still have links to the conservative HDZ, the late Tudjman’s party, which has been in power for most of the period since independence.

Dinamo’s controversial former chief Zdravko Mamic, who admitted financing the campaign of President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, is considered the most powerful man in Croatian football but now faces multi-million-euro corruption charges.

Many Croatians believe he has abused the club for his own gains.

“We perceive Dinamo as a symbol of all irregularities and financial non-transparency” in football, said Damir Grujic, a spokesman for Hajduk’s “Torcida” fan group.

Dinamo officials have “subordinated all of Croatian football to their own and their club’s interests,” Grujic said.

Meanwhile Hajduk Split, like all other Croatian clubs, is struggling financially.

But it has maintained the image of a “people’s club”, enjoying the steadfast support of fans and remaining a dominant symbol of the whole Dalmatia region.

“Hajduk is a secular religion,” Lalic said. “The stadium is visited like a shrine.”

– ‘Dinamo no toy’ –

While profits and results dominate at Dinamo, which has won 11 national league titles in a row, the team has celebrated in an almost empty stadium.

Dinamo’s hardcore fans, known as “Bad Blue Boys”, have boycotted matches for six years over Mamic’s behaviour, returning to Zagreb’s Maksimir stadium only this week.

They have repeatedly warned that the club “should not be a toy in the hands of political elites”.

Hatred of Mamic has however united the two clubs’ supporters in one aspect: their hooliganism. 

Known for throwing flares and chanting pro-Nazi slogans, as they did at Euro 2016 in France, Croatian fans are considered to be among Europe’s most violent.

FIFA has ordered Croatia to play two World Cup qualifying matches behind closed doors for the repeated chanting of fascist slogans.

The trouble has increased in the past four years since former Croatian international Davor Suker took over at the national federation, with fans believing he is too closely linked to Mamic.

Both Dinamo and Hajduk fans have protested against the national squad in response, hoping to weaken the federation by forcing it to pay repeated fines to the UEFA.

“Now they have a joint enemy — Mamic and people who rule Croatian football,” Lalic said.

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