Sunday, May 1, 2016

MC Sports Report - Football in Croatia

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The day after we arrived in Croatia, we were having ice cream cones in the Old Town of Split on a Sunday afternoon when I stuck-up a conversation with the owner about football in Croatia. Within a few minutes, I learned that Hajduk, the 1st Division team in Split, was playing their arch-rivals from Rijeka that afternoon which seemed to good to be true.

So far in 2016, I'd only been able to attend one football match and that was in Mexico City back in January when I sat in the sunshine to watch Pumas play at Estadio Universitario Olímpico. So I was excited about the possibility of seeing another match.

Now, with double-cones in hand, it was a time for a split-second decision because the match was going to start in half an hour. Debbie said she was happy to take a leisurely walk along the seafront to our Airbnb and encouraged me to go to the match. That was all I needed and after a good-bye kiss, off we went in opposite directions.

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Aerial view of Stadion Poljud in Split, Croatia
The ice-cream man wrote down the name of the stadium on a post-it note and pointed me in the direction of Stadion Poljud. A couple of blocks later, I showed the note to a stranger who was walking in the same direction. In very limited English he indicated I should follow him. Good News! He was also going to the match.When we got to the stadium a few minutes later, he pointed me to the ticket kiosk and off he went to meet-up with his buddies.

Never got his name, but he helped me find the stadium
The ticket kiosks looked more like concrete bunkers left-over from WW II with tiny windows laced with steel bars to protect the ticket seller inside. From whom? With help from another stranger in line, I bought the lowest price ticket for 40 kuna, about $6.50. The seller and the stranger wanted to help me pick which section to sit in and were totally confused when I said I was happy to sit anywhere, I just wanted to see the match!

Could they have made these ticket kiosks any more uninviting?

After a short conversation between the two of them decided I belonged in Section K right next to the "super fans" known in European football as "ultras." Moments later I was standing in line to get into Section K when I made friends with Lovre (that's a man's name) whose English was pretty good. He took me under his wing as we worked our way through the security pat-down and into the stadium.

Found Section K in the Curva. Informal security check and pat-down.
Although my ticket indicated I was to sit in Row 18, seat 16 absolutely no one was sitting down. Lovre indicated that we would all be standing on the plastic seats down near the pitch with his other friends for the entire match! Adjacent to our section the stands were jammed with the famed ultras who claim to be the oldest supporters group in Europe. As it turns out, they are loud, on their feet the whole time, singing, chanting and giving salutes that seemed somewhat reminiscent of darker times in Europe. I'd say the group numbered 3-4,000, of which 98% appeared to be young men and boys. The few "girlfriends" were hard to spot in the sea of matching red, white and blue hoodies. 

Lovre and his three Croatian buddies, all in their late 20's, live in the Netherlands and drove 17 hours non-stop the day before to see this "derby" match with Rijeka to determine the unofficial bragging rights to "Best team on the Dalmatian Coast". After the match, they would be driving right back to the Netherlands in time for work on Monday morning. I got the feeling that trips like this are just part of their commitment to the team and being super-fans is woven into the fabric of their self-image and life-styles.

It had rained the night before and the pitch was wet and slippery when the teams came onto the field at 3 pm. Rijeka was defending the goal right in front of us during the first half so we got to see Hajduk's offense up directly in front of us. In the 26th minute they scored and the home-town team went up 1-0. That's the way the first half-ended so the ultras relaxed during the break for, yet again, another cigarette. I never saw anyone selling food or beverages of anywhere.

Smoke break at half-time for Ultras. Only time they sat down the whole match.
In the second half, Hajduk's offensive efforts seemed miles away at the other end of the pitch since we were sitting in the lower seats and the pitch is surrounded by a running track...which is a atmosphere killer. But as things turned out, the second half belonged to Rijeka and we were able to see them score the equalizer in the 56th min and go ahead 2-1 in the 78th minute. And, that's how it ended.

Although the quality of the football was less than world-class, I really enjoyed getting out to see a match and in particular sitting so close to the ultras. Lovre answered all my questions about football in Croatia, his team, the hatred for Dinamo Zagreb, their version of the New York Yankees, My biggest take-away was wondering if the ultras really are there to support their team and enjoy watching talented athletes perform at their highest level or is football just an excuse to belong to a club of like-minded young men who are looking for meaning in life and a social identity.

The ultras lit flares which pumped them up, but also prevented them from seeing the action.
During the match, the chanting often times seemed out of sync with the flow of the match. The cheers more focused on taunting the visiting supporters, all 74 of them, huddled at the opposite end of the pitch behind  metal and Plexiglas barriers. Lighting flares in the stands and waving them around during the match might be pretty exciting but it sure makes it hard for them to see what's happening in the match. I learned from Lovre that most all the ultras wear the same jackets to the match so if/when league officials take photos looking up into the curva, it is impossible for them to pick-out individuals who are the ones lighting flares or violating any of the common-sense rules for attending sporting events.

After the match, I said good bye to my new friends and retraced my steps back to the Old Town and then along the sea-front promenade to our house where Debbie was waiting for another one of my "football debriefs". Glad I went and as always, the real learning(and adventures) happens while finding my way to and from the stadium, figuring out how to buy tickets, making new friends and learning about the culture of each country through sport.

As I write this, the 2016 Euro Cup in France is just a few weeks away. I am looking forward to the tournament and now pay closer attention to Croatia, who open against Turkey on June 12 in Paris.

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