It was my second visit to Split; the year before I had spent afternoons milling about the war-torn maze of Diocletian’s Palace, quietly sipping coffee at any of the sundry, waterfront-flanking cafés and – come evening time – getting unabashedly drunk on a flowing supply of rakia.
This time it was different. I had only returned because I wanted to go to Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, east of the border, and taking the bus from Split was my only option. Time was short, and the fact that I had had to come back to a sightseen city galled me. I would arrive late in the evening and leave early the next morning. Simple.
“No, no you mustn’t!” cried Ivan, Couch Surfing host of previous visit, upon my arrival and hearing my plans.
“Tomorrow night there is a match between Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb, here in the city. You must go!”
My instincts told me that this was a fantastic opportunity; what better way to mix with the locals than join them for a football match? And a football match played between the two best teams and fiercest rivals in the Croatian league at that.
“Wow! Well, yeah I suppose I should! Are you going?”
“Oh.” A pause.
“Hang on a minute” my tone leerier now, “’Isn’t it meant to be a bit dangerous?”
Ivan grinned. “No, don’t worry. Hardly anyone gets hurt these days”.
“Oh okay”, I smiled politely, “That’s all right then.”
I knew I would go – it would be criminal of me not to – but I also knew just how deep this rivalry ran, and vaguely of Hajduk Split’s notorious supporters group – the Torcida – after partially watching a documentary on football hooliganism some years before. It may or may not have been vastly blown out of proportion, but one member of the group interviewed on the programme actually admitted to raping a Zagreb fan, male, as his friends watched and laughed. Then they had beaten him senseless (Source: Danny Dyer’s Most Dangerous Gangs) (Like I said – may or may not have).
“You will be fine” Ivan reassured me, “You are English, so they don’t care about you.”
His reasoning left me feeling more confused than composed. Was this a good or bad thing? There was only one way to find out.
Next day, I was on my way to the Poljud Stadium, Hajduk’s home turf, surrounded by noisy fans – more of them sporting ‘Torcida’ branded clothes than actual replica shirts. I was beyond excited, especially so in light of the most recent developments: I had company. What hadn’t occurred to me the day before or earlier that morning when purchasing my ticket for a mere 150KN (€20) was that I actually already knew several members of the Torcida. I had met them in a small, tumbledown train station the year before in Knin – a dull town an hour or so south of Zadar – as I waited for my connection to Split (none of them rapist-looking, thankfully). Realising I was a lone traveller with whom English – broken as it was – could be spoken, I was coerced into drinking several plastic cups of vile wine and ultimately sharing my Facebook details with them. Despite the exhibition of shell suit tracksuits and shaved heads beneath Burberry hats, they were actually surprisingly easy to get along with, although naturally, I thought I would never see any of them again.
So when I enthusiastically announced via Facebook that I was soon to be watching my very first ‘Eternal Derby’, it caught me by surprise when Kety, one of said Torcida friends, indicated that he and his friends were going too. It was a huge bonus; now I would potentially get to cheer on Hajduk alongside actual members of the Torcida, without any other travellers in sight.
In fact, I was so fired up and eager to please my new friends that I went off in search of a Hajduk Split shirt on my way to the stadium, but, alas, I found none in my size. ‘Never mind’ I thought. ‘I’ll settle for the away shirt of Croatia’s national team, and this one’s got ‘Modrić’ on the back. He’s Croatia’s best player. Perfect!’
Ten minutes later I arrived at our meeting point proudly donning my new garb to looks of horror and disgust.
“You cannot wear this mate” said Kety, before I had even been introduced to the others. “You must change now.”
I chuckled, fairly certain that he was joking.
“Yeah sorry about that! There were no Hajduk shirts in my size. But look!” I said, pointing to my back. “Modrić! He’s a legend right!?”
Someone snorted. Someone else shrieked. But mostly, they all just booed. Kety leaned in closer.
“Modrić is ex-Zagreb player mate” he mumbled. “We do not like him here.”
Terrific. How had I not known that? And why hadn’t it even occurred to me that that may have been the case? ‘Idiot’ I repeated several times in my mind. ‘Utter idiot’. Kety turned around and said something in Croatian, of which I understood nothing except for one word: ‘Ingleski’. ‘English’. Suddenly, the booing turned into laughter. I needn’t have asked what was said; it was pretty clear and honestly didn’t matter. Massive. Fail.
With the Croatia shirt safely stowed away in my bag and a rather inappropriate, Primark dinosaur-patterned t-shirt in its place, we shoved our way through the mass of bodies to Kety’s car, parked nearby, for a couple of beers before heading in. Despite what had just occurred, the others were eager to impress me with tales of the Torcida and their evidently unswerving commitment to the club. One showed me a tattoo of the Torcida emblem on his back, another with the same on his chest. It turned into a competition. Two guys – apparently the best of friends – almost got into a fight over who had been going to games the longest.
I decided to change the subject.
“Which stand are you guys in? It says here that I’m in stand F.”
Another series of sniggers broke out. What now?
“We don’t have tickets.” Kety explained candidly.
“What? Well, how are you going to get in?”
“We never have tickets. It’s no problem, you come with us.”
“We go into the Torcida mate.”
In the actual Torcida bit? Where all the flares go off? Christ. Now I was in a quandary. Would I politely say no, go and watch the game by myself and not risk losing a limb or being thrown out for trying to jump the fence or whatever? Or throw caution to the wind and say yes, meaning that I might end up having a night I’d never forget? Before I could make up my mind, we were en route back to the stadium – the Torcida side of the stadium. ‘To hell with it’ I thought. ‘I’m going in’.
Soon, we had pushed our way through to the front of the hulking scrum, and Kety was next in line. I’d watched the security guard intently; he had asked for and thoroughly checked everybody’s tickets thus far. ‘There’s no way this is going to work’ I thought. Then, incredulity: Kety simply stepped through the gate, shrugged his shoulders at the guard and was let through. ‘What the hell was that!?’ I thought. Didn’t matter. There was no time for thoughts; it was me next, and suddenly I felt as though I had less chance of getting in with an actual ticket in my hand. The guard snatched it from my grasp.
“F” he grunted.
And just like that, I was let through too. Amazing. And now I was about to walk into the lion’s den: the heart of the Torcida supporter’s group – allegedly the world’s most intimidating – on the most important match day of the season.
Once we were through the bleachers, the others having also got through, it quickly became clear that our free admission hadn’t included seats. Oh well. Swings and roundabouts. Instead, we were gaoled to the gangway, from where I could see an explosion of camera flashes, aimed in our direction. I looked around and noticed what was happening: anyone that had a seat had been tasked with holding up a piece of large card, either blue, white or red, which, presumably, was creating something quite spectacular for all those watching from the other stands. It was at that moment I realised that I was part of something incredibly special. Gone were the thoughts of being mugged, permanently scarred for life by a firework or *gulps* raped.
The match kicked off to roars of encouragement. Over the other side of the ground a mob of Zagreb fans did their most to make some noise, but to us they were nothing but a cluster of insignificant dots. The atmosphere was electrifying– pure and simple. Chants rang out all around me, none of which I could even remotely understand, but I tried my best to join in anyhow.
“What does that one mean then?” I shouted into Kety’s ear.
He paused momentarily, presumably to translate the words in his head first, so as not to get it wrong.
“We hate you Zagreb. Fuck your mother.”
“Oh. Right then.”
And on we chanted.
It carried on like that for quite some time; the actual football was secondary to keeping the chants going. But then, the best thing that could have possibly happened happened: Split scored. Within seconds, deafening bangs, orange gas and bright red flares filled the air. ‘How on earth do they get all this stuff in?’ I was wondering. Maybe the same security guard who let us in had something to do with it.
Firemen scampered behind the goal to retrieve the exploded gas canisters, and somewhere through the mist I could make out the pitch – the match had already resumed and by the looks of things we wouldn’t be seeing much of it for a while.
Eventually, the dust settled and the volume returned to normal, until Split scored their second, which reignited the fiery ambience. By the end of the game, which (thank God) finished 2-0, I calculated that I must have only fully seen about an hour of it; the rest of the time I had either been squinting or completely blinded.
We withdrew from the stadium amid a buoyant and bustling crowd, still singing at the top of their lungs. It was back into town where we would celebrate with other friends of Kety’s along a lively pier facing the glowing promenade, and I would reflect on a frankly mind-blowing experience. Sooner or later though, I had to be meeting Ivan, so I thanked Kety and his friends profusely and vowed to return for another night of Torcida madness.
“Well?” Ivan grinned as he saw me approach.
“Well, I think that was one of the best things I’ve ever done” I started. “And that Modrić is a right prat isn’t he?”
Hajduk Split Facts
- The club was founded in 1911.
- They have won nine Yugoslav and six Croatian league championships, in addition to nine Yugoslav and five Croatian cup titles.
- They are the only club in Yugoslav football history to have won five consecutive Yugoslavian cups between the years 1972 and 1977, and is also the only Yugoslav club ever to have won the league title without losing a single game (1950).
- They are currently ranked 150th in the UEFA Club Coefficient Rankings.
- A ticket to a game costs between 80KN (€10.50) and 200KN (€27).
- The Torcida was founded on 28 October, 1950, making it the oldest supporter’s group in Europe.
- The name ‘Torcida’ is the Brazilian Portuguese word for ‘supporters’ – the fans who founded the firm had wanted to create an unprecedented spectacle in European football following the example set by Brazilian fans in the Brazil 1950 World Cup.
- Until the 1980s, the Torcida was an underground firm whose activities were strictly forbidden under Tito’s regime. Now it is a fully authorised club with an Assembly, Presidency, Supervisory Board and a Disciplinary Commission.
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