Zagreb was always intended to be one of the highlights of my trip, the three matches that came before were merely matches at new grounds – in each case I had visited the country and even the city before. Zagreb was not just a new city, but also my first time in Croatia. From Salzburg, it is a relatively easy journey – if anything one that is not long enough, (seven hours on an overnight train, starting at 01.30). I had decided to book a sleeper for 30 Euro, and struck lucky in getting the three berth compartment to myself. Certainly better value for accommodation than the city itself, where a single room in the three star Central hotel was 527 HK per night – more than 70 Euro. And as I keep having to remind myself, in this day and age 70 Euro is a lot more than £60, not the £50 I had come to expect!
Zagreb does have one of the best outlooks when coming out of the station and looking towards the city centre. Two wide thorough fairs are separated by a swathe of greenery punctuated by statues, fountains, and a museum. To either side of this parkland, the buildings are of uniform height and style, the style being that which was popular in those parts where the Austro-Hungarian empire held sway for the second half of the 19th century. A town planner’s dream, the lower town is built to a plan – and the 20th century has not been allowed to turn it into a nightmare. The upper town, which starts a climb uphill is older, but most of the city is of pleasing 19th century design.
The same cannot be said of the city’s two football clubs and their stadiums. Taking the smaller one, NK Zagreb first. The initials NK tell us nothing except that this is a football club and are attached at the start of most club names in the country. NK play at the Stadion u Kranjcevicevoj -which may be a mouthful, but it also helpfully the street address. The floodlights could be seen close to the railway as my train arrived, and trams from the station would have provided an alternative to the 20 minutes walk. The first set of gates when you arrive tell you that it is the home of Zagreb Ragbi Klub. With a 3G artificial surface in place, I wonder if the Rugby players wear slightly more in protective clothing than for a muddy field at home? As well as Football and Rugby, the stadium is also used for cycling and a banked concrete track runs all around. There is terracing all along one side, curving towards the ends, but then ending suddenly. The piecemeal construction of the site is shown by the fact that the lowest steps of terracing are below the cycle track. A large seated stand takes up most of the length of the West side, and this is where the 12 HK (about £1.50) gave me access.
Having bought my ticket, the jobsworth on the nearest gate would not let me pass, but sent me back to another gate. At the other gate, there was no special check or security, and I was allowed to pass without problem. Both gates led to exactly the same area inside the ground. Within the ground were two (one at each end) restaurants/bars that appeared to be completely independent to the football club and stadium. While I took the opportunity to obtain a beer from the first of these, I was left to wonder whether I could have saved my money by saying I wanted to come in to the restaurant instead of the football. There was no further check on my ticket when accessing the stand. The official crowd for the match was 300, and the match played on a hot afternoon was not very good. Croatia Sesvete needed to win to stand a chance of avoiding a last place finish. The nearest they came was a foul about ten minutes from the end. The referee pointed to the spot, but his assistant remained unmoved – and the referee was persuaded to listen to the protests of the home players, but not to change his mind again when the visitors started protesting. The free kick was, of course, wasted and the final score was 0-0.
All is not lost for the visitors though – the Craotian league will expand next season from 12 teams (33 matches) to 16 teams (30 matches). The top four from the second division will all be promoted, taking much of the interest out of a very tight race – while Sesvete will play-off against the fifth placed team. The change in format does not meet with universal approval among fans of the league – the new teams are unlikely to bring much in the way of quality, crowds or stadia to the division, while they will further dilute to pool of talent in a country where the best have already left.
The four-thirty kick off time at NK Zagreb (and the rest of the division) does not make a great deal of sense in terms of kicking off during the heat of the afternoon. Even without floodlights, matches could easily kick off 90 or 120 minutes later. Where it does help though, is for groundhoppers trying to get to the televised game later in the evening. This kicked off at eight O’clock, and a direct tram allowed me to arrive around seven. First order was to confirm the result at Hujduk Split. Split were second in the league, and had won their game. This meant that Dinamo Zagreb also needed to win if they were to claim the title with this game, (there are still two more later games should they fail – while if Spilt had lost, then Dinamo could celebrate the title before even playing).
Dinamo play at the Stadion Maksimir, named after the large area of parkland that starts across the road. It has four large stands, but the only cover provided is by the overhand where upper tiers stand above the lower ones. The stadium once had an athletics track, but only a very careful athlete would try it now. The surface is torn where the “dug-outs” have been dragged across it too many times, the North stand has been built with an overhang over two lanes, and one of the floodlight pylons is on a concrete block that overlaps a lane. The north stand, as mentioned, is square to the pitch and must have been erected after the track fell into disuse, while at the southern end, the stands curve around. There are also two tier stands on both long sides – none of he sides join up.
The newspaper for the morning showed a vast mass of people around the ground the previous afternoon, collecting their tickets. I was worried this could mean a sell out, but I was assured that the main reason for the crowd was tickets were being given away free and that I need not worry about the possibility of a sell out. Indeed, when I arrived, I managed to obtain a ticket for the west side, marked 80 HK (about £10), but given away free. Even at this price, the stadium was a long way from being full – the official crowd was given as 27,000 while the stadium is listed as capable of holding 39.000. The game was as far as it could be, a predictable affair. Dinamo Zagreb started off at 100 km/hour – rather a pleasant change considering the low pace of most games on the tour – and practically demanded an early goal. They got it in unsurprising circumstances – a player who appeared offside to me, was fouled just inside the area and went to ground as if under the gravitation pull of Jupiter. The referee was not going to waste the chance to let the home side have their way and the penalty was given. I signalled incredulously to my neighbour that surely it was offside. Yes, of course, but that is the way. Although I never got to see a replay, so my opinion is unchanged, my neighbour soon got a text from someone watching on TV, saying it was actually on-side – and it was a clean tackle.
With the lead gained, the home side settled down somewhat, playing some good football at times, while Slaven Belupo created a few chances of their own. A second goal was added early in the second period, and Dinamo rode through to the end – not even unsettled when their goalkeeper came rushing out of the box in the 66th minute to chop down a Belupo attacker and pick up a red card. With a large crowd in evidence, we were treated to a good deal of chanting throughout the game. The north stand crowd are clearly the youngest and noisiest, although they managed to get responses from the other stands as well. Dinamo play in blue, so the banners styled these fans as “Bad Blue Boys”, or BBB for short. A favourite, if simple chant, is for the BBB to chant “Dinamo” and for the other stands to respond with “Zagreb”.
Talking to my neighbour in the stand, it appears that crowds of 5000 are more normal at the Maksimir, and it can only be filled for occasional big internationals (England played their) and European ties. Dinamo have dominated the league in recent years (fourth successive title, and 11th since independence from Yugoslavia in 1991), but they have not reached the Champions League group stages, since the year 2000 (getting draws against both Manchester United and Marseille). It is generally felt that the changes to the champions league qualifying structure should help teams like Dinamo Zagreb, who have tended to lose out to the non-Champion teams (Arsenal and Werder Bremen are recent teams that put them out). It seems there has already been some speculation over who might come up against Dinamo, knowing the seeding rules, with significant speculation as to whether they can end up playing Partizan Belgrade.
With the match one, the celebrations started. There was a brief flash of fireworks, and stadium was covered with smoke. I never saw the trophy actually presented, but I did see it during the lap of honour, as an open topped bus paraded around the ground, doing yet more damage to the running track. The bus was pained blue, but looked remarkably like a London Routemaster. The entrance platform was on the left – the wrong side for the local roads, so I assume it had come from Britain, it was only a ridge on the bonnet that looked different from the London bus, and it had the familiar triangle at the top of the grill, (I was too far away to see if the manufacturers initials, though).
Later, I walked away from the ground, as the road outside was closed and their were no trams for a while. There are many bars in this part of town, and many fans had parked themselves outside. I picked a likely looking bar and ordered a drink. I chose well, as some of the other drinkers spoke good English (my Croat being rather rusty). Again the possibility of a match against Partizan came up. So did the possibility of a few fights between the fans if this was the case. The fans I was talking to were clearly looking forward to this, (although in my experience, those that talk about the fight are rarely the fighters themselves). Legend now has it that the start point of the Serbia-Croatia war in 1991 was a football match between Dinamo and Red Star Belgrade – and it is still Red Star that is the most hated team in Dinamo’s books.
While I am sure the war would have happened with or without the football game, it is true that in a closed society, such as Tito’s Yugoslavia, football matches are one of the few places where the crowd can utter a cry, with at least some level of safety. Even in the new democratic Croatia (eager to join Europe) there was still whistling around the ground when the announcer informed the crowd that the mayor of Zagreb had been re-elected that day. I pointed out that many of the crowd must of voted for him, (the person sitting next to me at the game said he had), but booing politicians seems to be the done thing for football crowds. The fans at the pub also explained how the club is almost always at war with the authorities. They managed to keep a badge with the Croatian chequers pattern on it, even when the flag as such was banned in Yugoslavia, but then were told by the Croatian authorities to change their name as “Dinamo” was Yugoslavian, or worse still, Serb. After eight years as Croatia Zagreb, fans pressure forced the change back.
While the fans (who were barely old enough to have been there) harked back to the Yugoslav league and the rivalries with teams from Belgrade and Sarajevo, no one I spoke to wanted to return, even for football to the old days. The main rival for Dinamo these days is Hadjuk Split – their main rival for the title most of the time. Apparently they even have a soft spot for city rivals NK Zagreb, whose 2002 win was the only time the title has not been won by either Split or Dinamo, I assume NK were preferred by Dinamo fans to second placed Split.
The city’s third club, Lokomotiva who play in the second division have been used as a nursery club by Dinamo where they could farm out some younger players. This arrangement will have to stop, as Loko are one of the new members of the expanded top division next season.
The talking did not go on long into the night. The trouble with Sunday night football is that most people have to work the next day, and by midnight the bar was becoming deserted. A quick enquiry said that while the trams were not about to stop, I might struggle to get directly back to my hotel. Just after midnight, the last of my new friends spotted his tram home and made a run for the stop. Knowing that one was not going my way, I just waited for the next one in roughly the right direction and ended up walking for the last ten minutes back to my hotel.