Brothers in armed conflict: Why Dinamo Zagreb vs Hajduk Split is more than a game

After the break-up of Yugoslavia, Croatia's big two quickly settled into mutual loathing... from the March 2007 issue of FourFourTwo

It’s like a scene on the French Riviera. Expensive yachts, drenched in sunshine, bobbing up and down in the bay in front of the palm tree-lined promenade, with its packed cafes and their overworked espresso machines. But this isn’t the Cote d’Azur, it’s the Riva in Split, Croatia, a cheaper, less pretentious version of France’s Mediterranean coast. 

Take a closer look at the people sipping cappuccino and sparkling water and you’ll notice that an inordinate number are wearing football shirts: Hajduk Split shirts to be precise. From pensioners walking their dogs to babies in prams, the crisp white jersey with the club’s distinctive red-and-white chequered crest is everywhere.

Not many of the people enjoying their Sunday afternoon on the Riva will be going to tonight’s match, however. Instead, they’ll be watching on the dozens of big screens that the cafes have had specially installed – it’s the safest place to be when Hajduk take on their bitter rivals Dinamo Zagreb.

Five hours before kick-off, 500-plus fans are already gathered, drinking beer, lighting flares and burning blue shirts

A five-minute walk in the direction of Hajduk’s Poljud Stadium shows why. The Stari Plac is the club’s old ground and today houses the headquarters of the Torcida, Hajduk’s hardcore supporters. The contrast with the atmosphere on the Riva couldn’t be starker. Five hours before kick-off, 500-plus fans are already gathered, drinking beer, lighting flares and burning blue shirts with the letter ‘D’ on them.

The singing is loud too, though there’s little variety, the words “f**k”, “Dinamo” and “Zagreb” appearing in virtually every chant. A donkey draped in Hajduk colours is paraded around the sweaty, beer-sodden street, as fans cheer and maul the poor animal like a stripper at a stag party, yet despite the raucousness, there are few police present – the majority are at the stadium, awaiting the arrival of 2,000 Dinamo Zagreb supporters. 

FourFourTwo asks one Hajduk fan if he’s expecting trouble. “Yes,” he says hopefully, “I think so”, and given the recent history of this fixture, his optimism is well founded. Few derbies in the Balkans, arguably anywhere Europe, are as explosive as Dinamo versus Hajduk, with violence marring every single match. But it wasn’t always so…

The Split

Slaven Bilic is in an awkward position. As head coach of Croatia, the former Everton and West Ham defender has to be diplomatic about the biggest match in the domestic calendar, but given that he joined Hajduk at the age of nine, it’s not easy.

Hajduk-Dinamo games were like a big celebration. It was the only chance Croats had to make an expression of our nationality. The fans sang the same songs, it was fantastic

- Slaven Bilic, former Hajduk player

That said, when Bilic played against Dinamo before the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, matches between Croatia’s two most successful clubs were one big, patriotic, love-in. “The games were like a big celebration,” explains Bilic, in his intriguing half-Scouse, half-Cockney English accent. “It was the only chance Croats had to make an expression of our nationality. The fans sang the same songs, it was fantastic.”

Back then the enemy was Serbia and anyone and anything that emanated from Belgrade, particularly Red Star and Partizan. Indeed fans of Hajduk and Dinamo, in an expression of allegiance with their Croatian ‘brothers’, would often attend each other’s matches if they were playing opponents from the Yugoslav capital.

Supporters from both clubs enlisted in the Croatian Army and police, and fought and died in Croatia’s War of Independence between 1991 and 1995, while both sets of fans claim to have acted as a catalyst in the move towards civil war. 

Croatia coach Slaven Bilic

Early in 1990, with nationalist fervour simmering, Hajduk were at home to Partizan Belgrade. With 10 minutes to go, the hosts went 2-0 down. “At that time,” explains Bilic, “the mood in the country was very difficult. Yugoslavia was on the verge of breaking up and tensions were very high.

"After we conceded the second goal, hundreds of our fans broke down the perimeter fences and ran onto the pitch. They chased the Partizan players, but they didn’t beat them like many people said.”

For Red Star’s visit to Dinamo, violence seemed inevitable. Much of it was pre-meditated: rocks had been stockpiled, fans used acid to burn away security fences

Far more violent, and significant, was the match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade on May 13 1990. For many, the events that day symbolised the start of the disintegration of the Yugoslav Federation. Two weeks earlier, Franjo Tudjman had been elected as President of Croatia on a fiercely nationalist ticket, vowing to lead the republic to independence. 

For Red Star’s visit to Dinamo’s Maksimir Stadium, violence seemed inevitable. In fact, much of what happened seems to have been pre-meditated: rocks had been stockpiled, while fans used acid to burn away security fences. It’s widely believed that Red Star fans actually started the trouble by ripping up seats and throwing them onto the pitch, but when the Serb-dominated police force failed to take action, Dinamo fans invaded the pitch and running battles with the law ensued. 

It was the best thing I’ve ever done. I had to defend our people and I wanted to fight the injustices that were being done that day. The frustrations that had built up for so many years just exploded

- Zvonimir Boban on attacking a policeman

As the police laid into the Dinamo supporters, the players were enraged, none more so than Zvonimir Boban. Amid the chaos, the Dinamo captain simultaneously jumped up, kicked and punched a policeman before being dragged away. Red Star players had to be rescued from the rioting by police helicopters, while a total of 138 police officers and fans were injured. 

Boban’s actions earned him legendary status in Croatia and a six-month ban from the Yugoslav national team, causing him to miss the 1990 World Cup, but he insists he has no regrets: “It was the best thing I’ve ever done. I had to defend our people and I wanted to fight the injustices that were being done that day. The frustrations that had built up for so many years just exploded.” 

The iconic image of Boban confronting the police

NEXT: From brothers in arms to bitter rivals