As fans shuffled out following a match between Sparta Prague and Slavia Prague, four young college students decided to grab a beer at the local pub, the U Fleku.
Bantering like fans of any club after a match, the four young men surely regaled over the day’s contest, spoke of their own exploits in football (and in life), and took part in the post game rituals all football fans are familiar with.
The conversation eventually turned to other topics, however, including starting up their own team.
The quartet of young men: Fabijan Kaliterna, Lucijan Stella, Ivan Šakic, and Vjekoslav Ivanišivic, decided that they were capable of creating a squad that could challenge the teams like the ones they had just all seen play that afternoon, and one that would represent the unique heritage of Split.
It was decided.
They were going to start their own team.
Unlike those of us who have agreed to lofty propositions while imbibing, however, this group of young men followed through.
Little did they know what the next century held for their newly-born club.
What’s in a name?
Once the team was formed, the first thing the young founders needed to do was give it a name.
Wanting to appropriately represent the area of Split, the college-going founders turned to their professor, Josip Baric, who immediately suggested the squad be named the Hajduks.
Derived from the Turkish word for bandits, the Hajduks were a legendary band of brigands that fought against the occupying Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century into the early 20th.
The group fought back against perceived (and actual) injustices done against the people of the Balkans, to include the Split region. The groups exploits earned it a place in Dalmatian folklore very similar to the that of Robin Hood.
According to their professor, the Hajduk name symbolized
“... that which is best in our people: bravery, humanity, friendship, love of freedom, defiance to powers, and protection of the weak.”
Once the name was chosen, the young men decided to inject the Hajduk spirit into their colors as well, choosing to include the Croatian checkerboard on their crest in direct defiance of the Austro-Hungarians and setting the club up for a role in international politics the four young men in the bar that day would have never forseen.
Pre-World War II
Hajduk Split found almost immediate success on the field, and after a few years of challenging for the Yugoslav championship, the squad truly burst onto the scene in the 20’s.
Winning their first international friendly against Marseilles, in a game played in North Africa, the club used the momentum from that match to claim their first two championships in 1927 and 1929.
The decade brought even more international respect to the club when a Yugoslavian international game against Czechoslovakia featured 10 field players from Hajduk Split.
The club had made its mark and established itself as a major player in both domestic and international competition, but perhaps like its founders intended, Hajduk was never far from the influence of politics.
Having closed out the decade with their second championship in three years, the club seemed destined for greatness, but were subject to forces far greater than can be defeated in 90 minutes.
The 30’s saw the club dip into dark period, as Hajduk found little success on the pitch while the rumblings of World War II grew louder. The club forged on, but with constant political battles distracting from and impeding on-field success Hajduk slipped into mediocrity.
Late in the decade, the club even suffered the humiliation of having the Croatian in “Croatian Football Club” stripped out and replaced with Yugoslav, as politics seeped further into sport.
As the noose of the Axis Powers closed in around them, however, the team would have the opportunity to rekindle the spirit of rebellion and independence that our four young founders had hoped to tap into when first naming it.
World War II
Located in modern day Croatia along the Adriatic Sea, Split was a territory coveted by Axis forces.
Rumors of an invasion had been circulating for weeks.
Then, on April 6th, 1941 it happened.
The Axis Powers launched an invasion and divided up Yugoslavia among themselves, with Italy gaining control over Split.
‘Control’, in this instance, is a tenuous description, as Split was one of the main areas of conflict for the the famed resistance fighter, and future Yugoslavian Prime Minister, Josip Boroz Tito.
Tito’s forces wreaked havoc upon the occupying forces.
Using guerrilla tactics, Tito inspired the people of Yugoslavia to keep fighting, against Germany and Italy, eventually forcing the Axis Powers to the negotiating table as they sought to mute his insurgence, and he desperately wanted to limit the continued destruction of his homeland.
While Tito waged actual war against Mussolini, Hajduk Split stood up to the fascist forces every which way they could.
Upon annexation of Split, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini offered Hajduk Split a spot in the Italian Serie A.
Upon joining the Italian top Division, the team would be renamed AC Spalato, (Italan for Split).
Hajduk Split’s answer for their new ‘ruler’?
A resounding NO.
Mussolini founded his own club in Split, Societa Calcio Spolata, who took up residence in Hajduk’s stadium, which the Italian dictator renamed after his sons, and Hajduk appeared finished.
From 1941-1944 the club existed only in spiritual sense, as players shuffled throughout the Split region and the Adriatic Islands attempting to avoid persecution by the Italians/Germans and giving their all for Tito’s armies.
The war had taken everything from the people of Split: their homeland, their fierce independence, and their football club.
But in 1944, Hajduk players would have the opportunity to prove that the club that had been founded on a spirit of independence and freedom for its people could live up their mascot and be to their people what the Hajduks were to them: a resistance force against evil.
Rebirth and the Resistance
Unable to come together on their homeland, the Hajduk players gathered in the Spring of 1944 on the island of Vis.
It was May 7th, the annual feast for Saint Dominus, the patron Saint of Split, and a large group had gathered on the island to pay their respects.
In addition to the Hajduk squad, the feast brought together some of the most recognizable and influential characters of World War II to including the aforementioned Josip Broz-Tito, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph.
It was on that fateful night it was announced that Hajduk Split would reform, and play as the official team of the Yugoslavian resistance.
Their first task?
Travel the world playing football as an official arm the resistance, using sport as a way to spread anti-fascism.
After being reformed on Vis, one of Hajduk’s first matches was one of its most famous, a friendly against the British Army (comprised of former England and Scottish internationals) in Bari. The match was not Champions League level, but 40,000 people watching a football match in the middle of the war gained TONS of recognition and respect for the club.
The match may not have reflected well on Hajduk’s on-field capabilities, (they were walloped by 5 goals) but it did catapult them to one of the most famous tours in football history.
Over the next 100 days, playing as Hajduk JA (JA=Yugoslavian Army), the team would take part in 90(!!!!!) friendlies!
Traveling tens of thousands of miles in just over three months, Hajduk’s journey’s did not go unrecognized.
As the team traveled to advocate for a free country and anti-fascism, the Allies dropped pamphlets all over Europe, using Hajduk as an example of how those not at war can still inspire people to do good.
They were hoping more teams would follow Hajduk’s example.
The Allies hoped that rekindling regional alliances through sport would help heal the war-inflicted wounds suffered across Europe.
By the time Hajduk JA had reached the end of their tour they were rock stars.
So valued was their impact, in fact, that in their last friendly match, Hajduk Split was recognized by none other than Charles De Gaulle as Honorary Team of Free France, a title their fans take pride in to this day.
The tour across the world would gain Hajduk new, impassioned fans, looking to support the famous fascist fighting club.
After World War II, Hajduk returned home to resume playing, and started to gather their momentum they had lost at the outbreak of pre-war tensions.
The club would start to regather some of its political identity, but needed someone to organize the club’s unwavering spirit.
Luckily for them, two Yugoslavian sailors would change the course of Hajduk Split, and European football forever.
July 16th, 1950 in Rio Di Janeiro, Brazil is a day that will live in football lore. It is on that day that Uruguay shocked the world by upsetting Brazil 2-1 in the World Cup final at the world-famous Maracaná stadium.
While that match certainly changed the history of football in its outcome, the inspiration it implanted in some of its attendees would come to shape football forever.
It just so happened that some of the Yugoslavian armed forces were in South America, and among the fans in the stadium for the final that day were two Hajduk fans serving their country.
Sitting in a stadium packed with hundreds of thousands of passionate fans, including the numerous supporter groups, or Torcidas, the sailors were blown away.
Awes by the coordination of the fans, and the impact it had on the match, these young men returned to Split later that year and immediately founded the first supporters group in the history of European football: The Torcida.
Over the course of the next 60+ years the Torcida would come to represent everything that is good, and BAD, about supporters groups.
Unbridled passion mixed with violent tendencies, the Torcida’s efforts have not gone unrecognized by the club and other supporters groups alike.
The fans, and the Torcida specifically, have been such an integral part of the clubs history, in fact, that the number 12 is retired as an homage to the crowd’s role as 12th man.
A passionate side, as you can guess from their early exploits, the Torcida have formed bonds with other supporters’ groups over time.
Following a show of solidarity for a free Croatia by Benfica’s No Name Boys, the Torcida returned the favor by honoring with flowers three NNB members who died just before a match-up between the teams in Split.
Unfortunately though, that is one of the few positive stories that have come to define the Torcida.
Since its inception, here is a SMALL SAMPLE of Hajduk’s Torcida-inspired disciplinary issues:
- 1961: Attack ref for disallowed goal
- 1974: Force Yugoslavian Army to retreat from stadium
- 1984: Team hit with three year international match ban for sacrificing a rooster in the middle of the pitch before a European Cup match against Tottenham Spurs.
- 1988: Earn Hajduk a three year ban from Europe for riots in Marseille.
- 1990: Torcida storms the field in an attempt to attack Partizan Belgrade players.
- 2000/2001: Cup final riots spill into streets of Split.
- 2016: Two-game stadium-ban for Croatian national team games after supporters throw flares.
- 2017: Forced to play match in empty stadium (appeal overturns decision)
- 2017: Attempt to invade pitch at Goodison Park
Needless to say, the Torcida have earned a reputation for being some of the most passionate (and unruly) fans in the world.
This type of behavior has unfortunately come to define Hajduk Split to a degree, as their fans have consistently been a source of headache, as well as support. As the team tries to get back to its glory days, the supporters continued clashes with authorities across the continent mars any progress they do seem to make.
The balance between passion and hooliganism is one English fans know all too well. It will be interesting to see if the Croatian league will change and enforce its rules to reign in the group.
Or can the group self-govern before they end up ultimately undermining the club they claim to love so passionately?
After capitalizing on their World War II popularity for decades, the club found itself in financial disarray and near bankruptcy in 2011 after years of financial wrongdoings by its leadership.
The Torcida has continued about its violent ways (as was seen at Goodison), but the other supporters group ‘Our Hajduk’ has made positive strides.
Royal Blue Mersey actually got in touch with a Hajduk supporter, who outlined how things have been going in the wake of the 2011 near-collapse:
Fans are involved in club’s operations, but that goes through fans NGO "Naš Hajduk" (Our Hajduk), which any fan can join.
Fans are not running the club, but since 2011 fans are electing members of the Supervisory Board. To be clear, not any random fan can be member of the Board, there are requirements - education level, years of experience at executive positions and whatsoever, like in any other company.
That fans-elected Supervisory Board appoints club's CEO, supervises club management, and all the most important managment's decisions require Board's approval. It's basically Bundesliga clubs model
So now it appears that the club has begun to strike a balance between keeping in touch with its fan base while still attempting to compete in a football world that has seen transfer budgets go through the roof.
Is it sustainable?
Well, first you need money, and according to our Hajduk Split supporter, in Croatia, you have to take what you can get when it comes to sponsorship and support.
Fans actually own 24.53% of the club shares since October last year. But it's pending paying remaining 17 installments (around 250K € each) over next 8 1/2 years to the company named Tommy. Tommy is a nickname of a local businessman, and he named his company after it. He's Hajduk fan and a rich guy whose company is the biggest Hajduk sponsor.
The biggest sponsor is a guy named Tommy who named his company after himself.
Don’t believe me? Look at their kits!
It appears, however, that Tommy has reached his financial limits and has been dissuaded by supporters groups in trying to gain a majority share.
He had accrued over 24% shares by buying it from small shareholders. Last year he has concluded it's better to support fans’ plan for overtaking majority of shares. As opposed to try and accrue 51% himself, which probably was his original plan - but no one is sure as he never publicly said it, and it doesn't matter now anyway.
So it sounds like the financial problems are being slowly sorted out, and while the on the field results have been mixed over the past decade, the team does find themselves facing a plausibly surmountable 2-goal deficit against a Premier League side still integrating an endless list of new additions.
Things aren’t perfect, but if the club can strike a balance between all interested parties they may stand a chance to reclaim their foothold in European football.
Can that start Thursday with a stunning come-from-behind win in the second leg against Everton?
I don’t know for sure, but I do know the Torcida will be ready to play their role as 12th man best they can.
Here’s to hoping for a safe and enjoyable experience for all in the Stadion Poljud.
(... and a Toffees win, of course!)
This brief history of Hajduk Split did not have enough words to pay proper respect to the larger-than-football accomplishments of the club, to further admonish some of the violent actions that have taken place over the tumultuous history of its trailblazing supporters group, or even tell but a fraction of the numerous stories left for those interested to explore.
What you can take from this history, however, is that when Everton step onto the pitch Thursday they will do so against a side, and a supporters group, with a history of valor and violence unlike any other club in the world.