Croatia

Capital: Zagreb
Population: 4.5 million
Currency: Kuna
Official Language: Croatian
Borders: Slovenia (North), Hungary (North/East), Serbia (East/South)
GNP per Capita: $4,060 (59th in world)
Main Airport: Pleso International – Zagreb

Located to the south of Slovenia and to the west of Dalmatia, Croatia is the jewel of the Adriatic Sea.  The coast is a source of the main income for the country, tourism.  Croatia suffered heavy damage in the Balkans war as they defended their country from the Serbian armies.

The Croatian First Football League (Croatian: Prva hrvatska nogometna liga or commonly Prva HNL or 1.HNL) is the top football league in Croatia.  For an up to date list of fixtures, click here.

For a more detailed view on where these clubs play in Croatia, go to Footiemap.com to see their comprehensive map of the country.

The Prva HNL was formed in 1991, following the dissolution of the Yugoslav First League, and is operated by the Croatian Football Federation. The first season started in February 1992. Since its formation, the league went through many changes in its system and number of participating clubs. Currently, there are 12 teams participating in the league.
Left- The amazing Kantrida stadion – Home of Rejika on the Adriatic Sea Cliffs

Each season of the Prva HNL starts in late July or early August and ends in May, with a two-month hiatus between December and February. Historically, the teams were split into two groups of six which continued to play separately starting in March. These two groups were known as the Championship League and the Relegation League. 

However, the 2006-07 season introduced a new system in which everybody plays everybody three times in the season. Upon the end of the first part of the season, consisting of 22 matchdays, a draw is held to pair the teams and decide host teams for the last 11 matchdays of the season. This system brought one additional matchday in comparison to the preceding seasons.

Right: NK Varteks Varteksa stadium

At the end of each season, the last team is directly relegated to the Druga HNL and the second-last team goes in the relegation play-off, a two-legged tie against the second-placed team from the Druga HNL.

The champions qualify for the first qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League, the runners-up for the Europa League qualifying, as well as the winners of the Croatian Cup, with the third-placed team winning a spot in the UEFA Intertoto Cup. The average attendance for the 08-09 season was about 3,150 per game. Altogether the attendance was 622,900. UEFA currently ranks the league 26th in Europe. Last season the championship was won for the fourth consectutive season by Dinamo Zagreb.  Hadjuk Split disappointed by finishing in second place and they will be in the Europa League next season.

The teams playing in the Prva HNL in the 2009-2010 season are:-

HNK Cibalia – Vinkovci – Gradski vrt – 19,500 Capacity
NK Dinamo Zagreb – Zagreb (See below for section on Zagreb) – Maksimir – 43,500capacity
HNK Hajduk Split – Split (See below for section on Split) – Poljud – 35,000 capacity
NK Inter Zaprešić – Zaprešić – Stadion Intera – 10,000 capacity
Croatia Sesvete – Zagreb – Kamen Ingrad Stadium – 10,000 capacity
Istra 1961 – Pula – Stadion Veruda – 3,000 capacity
Karlovac – Karlovac – Stadion Branko Čavlović-Čavlek – 12,000 capacity
Lokomotiva Zagreb – Zagreb – Igralište na Kajzerici – 5,000 capacity
Medimurje – Cakovec – Stadion RSC Mladost – 8,000 capacity
NK Osijek – Osijek – Gradski vrt – 19,500 Capacity (groundshare with Cibalia)
HNK Rijeka – Rijeka – Kantrida – 12,000 capacity (see below)
NK Slaven Belupo – Koprivnica – Gradski stadium – 5,000 capacity
HNK Šibenik – Šibenik – Subicevac – 8,000 capacity
NK Varteks – Varazdin – Stadio Varteksa – 10,000 capacity
NK Zadar – Zadar – Subicevac Stadion – 8,000 capacity
NK Zagreb – Zagreb (See below for section on Zagreb) – Maksimir – 43,500 capacity

After the tragic death of a playerduring a game at the Zardar stadium in March 2008, it was decided that the stadiums for the 2008-09 season would have to pass a closer inspection to be deemed fit for first-league football. Since only 9 stadiums managed to meet the requirements and obtain first-league license from the Croatian FA. it was announced in May 2008 that some of the teams would have to share stadiums in order to play their Prva HNLgames. These include NK Zagreb, HNK Cibalia and NK Zadar.

FOOTBALL IN REIJKA

RIJEKA – KANTRIDA STADION – 12,550 CAPACITY ALL SEATER

About Kantrida Stadion
Rated as many as one of the most picturesque stadiums in Europe, the Kantrida sits proudly on the cliffs overlooking Adriatic Sea.  It is a basic stadium, with one small covered stand offering some protection from the oft wind and rain, and small stands curving around the rest of the pitch.  An athletics track runs around the pitch, although it is tight to the stands and does not cause an issue for spectators.  The stadium was originally opened in 1958, and whilst plans have been set out for many years to modernise the stadium, it is still as basic today as it was in 1958.

Who plays there?
The stadium is home to HNK Rijeka, who are currently enjoying an extended stay in the Croatian top league.  The club were formed originally in 1925 as Unione Sportiva Fiumana in the Italian leagues – and even played in Serie B as recently as 1942.  In 1946 when the city was passed from Italian to Yugoslavian control, the club were renamed as Kvarner.

In 1958 the club were renamed Rijeka and were promoted to the Yugoslavian top division where they stayed for over 10 years.  They stayed in the top division for nearly twenty years in total, winning the Yugoslavian cup in 1978 and 1979.  Since the creation of the Croatian League in 1991, the club’s only honour has been the Croatian Cup in 2005, although they did record second place finishes as recently as 2006.  The best result in their history was in the 1984/85 UEFA Cup when they beat Real Madrid 3-1 at the Kantrida before losing 3-0 in the second leg in Madrid.

How to get there
The stadium is located in the north west of the city, along the coast towards the island of Krk and Italy.  On a match day you can catch one of the regular number 1 buses that run up the coast.

For a more detailed view of how to get to the stadium, go to Footiemap.com to see their  map of Reijeka.

Getting a ticket
It has been a number of years since the stadium has been full – in fact going back to those magical UEFA Cup nights.  Even in 2006 when the team briefly challenged the domestic dominance of Dinamo Zagreb, you could still turn up on the day of the game to get a seat in the stadium.  The club does not offer an online booking facility, and so simply turn up at the stadium to gain entry.  A ticket for the covered main stand costs €20, and a uncovered seat on the water-facing side is just €15 – a bargain on a nice sunny late spring day.

Getting around
Most of Rijeka is accessible on foot, and traffic is actually banned on Korzo in the heart of the city. For those a little away from the city or tired, an efficient local bus network operates operating in a single-direction, circular movement around the central city area, and fanning out in all directions. The bus to Trsat (#1) is probably the most useful for tourists, and a good alternative to the 538 stair climb to the top of the mountain. Rijeka also has cheap and well organized Taxi service, they will get you anywhere in the city for approx. 10 Euro or less.

Nearest Airport – Zracna Luka Airport (RJK)
Telephone:              +385 51 842 040
Website:                  http://www.rijeka-airport.hr

Rijeka’s airport is not actually located in the city itself, but on the nearby island of Krk which is 17km from the centre.  The airport is slowly growing in passenger numbers, with just over 200,000 being handled in 2006.  The airport is served by Easyjet from London Luton and Bristol and Croatia Airlines from London Heathrow.  There are no public transport options to or from the city centre, so you will have to rely on taxis.  Agree the fare before you travel – it should not cost more than €20.

FOOTBALL IN SPLIT

Hajduk Split – Stadion Poljud – 34,448 All Seater

About the Stadion Poljud
The Poljud Stadion is the second biggest in Croatia, behind Dinamo Zagreb’s Maksimir Stadium.  It was originally opened to host the 1979 Mediterranean Games by the Yugoslavian President Tito.  The original capacity was 55,000, and was seen as a perfect venue for local side Hajduk Split to build on their championship success of the same year.  In the next few years the capacity was increased to 62,000 during the 1980’s.

The stadium is located just north of the old town close to the port area and is one of the most impressive buildings in the city.  It is a huge bowl structure, with two elliptical roofs that cover the main stands, leaving the end stands open.  Views are good from the main stands, whilst from behind the goals they are quite distant.

In 1980 during a game between Hajduk and Red Star Belgrade in front of a sell out 50,000 crowd, an announcement was made that Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslavian President had died.  In a very moving moment the game was abandoned as the players and crowd alike were overcome with grief.  The stadium was also one of the venues pencilled in for the joint Croatia/Hungary bid to host Euro 2012 championships that was awarded to Poland and Ukraine in April 2007.

The area around the stadium is full of supporters’ bars and restaurants, and visitors get a real feeling of the history of both the city and the football club from the walk from the city centre.

Who plays there?
The Poljud is home to Hajduk Split, one of the most famous clubs to have come out of the Balkans as well as one of the oldest having been originally formed in February 1911.  The club was actually founded in a pub in Prague by a group of Croatian students who had been to see the Prague derby between Sparta and Slavia.  The name they chose reflects the local name for the bandits who fought the Ottoman Turks.

The team were one of the founder members of the Yugoslav league in 1923, and swiftly became one of the most successful by capturing the Championship in 1927 and 1929.  However, during the war years, the city fell into the hands of the Italians and was forced to withdraw from the Yugoslav league, although the club did reject the proposition of joining Serie A.  After the war the club won the Yugoslav Championship again in 1950, 1952 and 1955.  President Tito was so impressed with the resistance of the club during the war, and how it bounced back that he invited the club to move to Belgrade and become the official army team.

In the 1970’s the club became the top team in Yugoslavia as they won four Championships and four Yugoslavian Cup Final victories.  During this period they also reached the Cup Winners Cup Semi-Final, only to lose to Leeds United.  However, the more success the club enjoyed on a domestic level, the more foreign teams came a-calling with their cheque books.  Apart from three more Yugoslavian Cup victories in the mid-1980’s, and another Semi-Final defeat in Europe to Spurs in the 1984 UEFA Cup final, the trophy cabinet stayed locked until independence was taken in 1991.

The team were the fist winners of the Croatian championship in 1992, and followed this up in 1994 and the domestic double in 1995.  The team at the time included such worldwide stars as Alen Bokšic, Slaven Bilić, Igor Štimac and Robert Jarni.  Some of these stars did get the opportunity to play on the biggest European club stage as the team qualified for the 1994/95 Champions League.  The club nervously made it through a group with Steaua Bucherest, Benfica and Anderlecht before losing 3-0 to Ajax in the Quarter-Final.  The following season they lost on away goals to Panathinaikos in the qualifying round.

Since the turn of the century the club have won the Championship on three occasions, the last being in 2005.  However, their last two Champions League campaigns have been nothing more than an embarrassment for the team.  In 2004 they lost to Irish part-timers Shelbourne, and the following season they were thrashed at the same stage by Debrecen.

In 2007/08 the club performed miserably and it was only through the fact that Dinamo had already sewn up the league that Split were able to qualify for the UEFA Cup, after losing 3-0 on aggregate to their rivals in the Croatin cup final.  A fifth place finish in the league, was as embarrassing as it sounds.

How to get there
The easiest way to reach the stadium is actually by foot.  Simply follow the crowds along Zrinjsko-Frankopanska.  Journey time on foot should be no more than 15 minutes from the train station.  If it is raining then you can catch bus 3 or 17 from the station.  A single ticket for any bus trip in the city centre is HRK10.

For a more detailed view on football in Split and where to find the stadiums, go to Footiemap.com to see their Football map on the Split page.

Getting a ticket
Despite the passion of the Torcida – the loyal hardcore Hajduk fans who sit behind the goal, attendances at the Poljud reflect the current situation in Croatian football – disappointing.  Hajduk’s average attendance over the past few seasons has just been above 5,000.  With the biggest game of the season versus Dinamo Zagreb only attracting 20,000 at a push, getting a ticket on the day of any match is not a problem.

Occasionally the team have progressed in European competition and at that point it may be worth purchasing a ticket in advance from http://www.hnkhajduk.hr.  Tickets for normal league matches cost HRK70 for a place behind the goal, rising to HRK150 for one of the best seats in the house in the main stand.  On the odd occasion that the national team play games here then tickets can be purchased via the http://www.hns-cff.hr

Getting around
The city centre is very compact, jutting out into the Adriatic Sea.  This means that the centre is easily transversed on foot, although if you need to go further a field local buses run from the central rail station.

Nearest Airport – Split Kaštela Airport (SPU)
Telephone:              +385 21 203 555
Website:                  http://www.split-airport.hr

The airport is located around 25 kilometres from Split city centre and handles around 1million passengers a year, making it Croatia’s third largest. The best way to reach the city centre from the airport is to catch Bus 37 which leaves from just outside the airport arrivals hall and runs to Split’s main bus station every 20 minutes.  The fare is HRK22 each way.  A taxi should cost no more than HRK140.

Easyjet currently fly here daily from London Gatwick, as do Croatian Airlines who also fly from London Heathrow.  British Airways fly up to three times a day from London Gatwick.  Finally, Wizzair fly here from London Luton.

FOOTBALL IN ZAGREB

Zagreb – Dinamo Zagreb – The Maksimir – Capacity:        38,923 All seater

The Stadium – The Maksimir
Maksimiska 128, Zagreb
The Maksimir is classed as the national stadium despite not being the biggest stadium in the country.  That honour sits with Hadjuk Split, and their redeveloped Poljud stadium.  However, the Maksimir is one of the most atmospheric.  The club have played at the stadium since their inception in 1945.  The first real redevelopment didn’t take place until the mid 1980’s when the stadium was chosen to host the World Student Games of 1987.

The stadium today is an odd affair.  All four stands are uncovered, with two large two-tier stands, one smaller single tier stand and finally the original curved bank behind the goal.  The stadium suffers by having a running track, meaning that some fans behind the goal are quite a way from the action.  The home fans – the Blue Boys are located in the north stand.  There are plans to completely redevelop the stadium, with the inclusion of a new south stand, corner in-filling as well as one of the largest retractable roofs ever installed in the world.  There are no definite timescales for this work, and it is expected that Dinamo will continue to play at the Maksimir whilst the work is carried out.

Who Plays There?
Zagreb was one of the hotbeds of football in the former states of Yugoslavia, and whilst it hasn’t continued to make an impact on the European stage since gaining independence in 1991, Croatia’s capital city is still a true football hotbed in the Balkans.  The number one team in the Croatian capital continues to be Dinamo.  Formerly known as Croatia Zagreb after independence in 1991, the fans petitioned and protested until 2000 when they were renamed back to Dinamo and pride was once again restored.  The club were formed in 1945 after the merger of a number of teams in Zagreb.  They won their first Yugoslavian championship in 1948 and went on to win two further championships in the next ten years as well as the Yugoslavian cup in 1951.  All of this was quite remarkable considering that they were competing against Partizan Belgrade, the Yugoslav army team, who could buy and sell the country’s best players at will.

The club added Yugoslavian cups on a regular basis in the 1960’s, and thus qualifying for the European Cup Winners Cup from inception.  In that first tournament in 1960/61 they reached the Semi-Final’s before losing 4-2 to Fiorentina.  In 1963/64 they fell at the first hurdle to Celtic, and a year later they went out to Torino in the quarter finals.  Their greatest European moment though came in 1967 when they won the Fairs Cup, beating Leeds United in the final.

The team went through a barren run in the 1970’s, apart from a couple of UEFA Cup campaigns of insignificance.  However, they bounced back in the 1980’s with two Yugoslavian Cup wins in 1980 and 1983, sandwiching their fourth league title in 1982.  Their poor run, though, continued in the European Cup when they exited in the first round, beaten convincingly by Sporting Lisbon.

After Croatia gained its independence from Yugoslavia, Dinamo went head to head with Hadjuk Split for the title of best team in Croatia.  Dinamo’s first title came in 1993 with former Osijek goalscorer Goran Vlaovic ending the campaign as top scorer in the whole of Croatia.  The luck didn’t follow on a European stage though as the team crashed out of the Champions League to Steaua Bucharest in the first round on away goals.

Hadjuk took the title in 1994 and 1995 before Otto Baric took over the reigns.  With the inspirational coach in charge, Croatia Zagreb won the double in 1996 and 1997.  In 1998 Zlatko Kranjcar, the current national team coach, took over the team and repeated the feat, capturing the double in 1998.  The following season the club at last made an impact in the Champions League.  After beating Celtic in the qualifying rounds, the team finished second in their group, but did not get one of the two best runners’ up spots that would have taken them into the semi-finals.

The following season with Zajec taking over from Kranjcar and the team containing wan away players such as Mark Viduka, Dario Simic and Maric they took the title again.  Zajec reign lasted but a few months and he was replaced by Ossi Ardiles in a hope to bring some glory in Europe.  In his first campaign in 1999, the team made the group stages again but finished the winnable group featuring Man Utd, Marseille and Sturm Graz in bottom place, despite starting the campaign with a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford.

The disappointing campaign signalled the end of Ardiles’s reign and despite the team retaining its title in 2000, its first back under the Dinamo name. Two further Croatian cups were won in 2001 and 2002 but this is where the titles ended.  Aborted campaigns have followed in the UEFA Cup each year including an embarrassing 5-1 exit to Fulham in 2003.
The club completed a third consecutive title in 2008, and followed it up with a 3-0 aggregate victory over rivals Hadjuk to demonstrate thier dominance on the domestic game in Croatia.  They must hope though that they actually make the Group Stages of the Champions League now that Michel Platini has made qualifying for the lower ranked nations easier in the competition.

How to get to the Maksimir Stadion
The easiest way to reach the ground is to jump on tramline 4 from the central station, alighting at Bukovacka, which is 7 stops and 15 minutes away.  If you coming from the bus station then catch tram line 7 which is ten minutes away.  The stadium’s main (west) stand is just beside the tram stop.

If you need to get a better view on where the stadiums in Zagreb are then go to Footiemap.com to access their excellent Zagreb map page.

How to get a ticket for the Maksimir Stadion
With the ground 3/4th of the way to full redevelopment, the stadium is rarely full.  Only the big European matches and the Croatian derby between Dinamo and Hadjuk raise the average attendance above the 10,000 mark.  Tickets can therefore be purchased on the day of the game from the booths to the right of the stadium as you approach it from the tram stop.  Traditionally, the hardcore Bad Blue Boys take up residence in the north stand, so it may be worth avoiding this stand if you want to watch the football, and not your back.

Around the Maksimir Stadion

The stadium is situated to the east of the city centre in the recreation area of the Maksimir Park.  To the south of the stadium are a few bars and cafes that are definitely home only.  To the north of the stadium is the park area.  If you walk 5 mins through this park you will come to the training grounds of Dinamo, which has a nice clubhouse and on matchdays have an outside BBQ and bar.

NK Zagreb – Stadion Kranjceviceva – Capacity: 12,000 All Seater


The Stadium – Stadion Kranjceviceva

Kranjceviceva 4, Zagreb
The small and compact Kranjceviceva has been home to NK for over 50 years.  It is a simple affair, with two long side stands – the main one of which is covered, and two curved banks behind the goals.  The ground has a banked track around the pitch, which has been used in the past for athletics and cycling competitions.

NK only average 1,500 and so the atmosphere at the stadium can be slightly subdued, especially for those used to the noise created by the Blue Boys across the city at the Maksimir.  Due to new licencing laws in place after the death of a NK Zadar player in March 2008 the Kranjceviceva has not been granted a licence in 2008/09 and so Inter will play across town at the Maksimir.

Who Plays There?
Whilst NK are light years away from the operations run by Hadjuk and Dinamo, they are currently winning the battle to be considered the best of the rest in Croatian football.  A third place finish last season coupled with some solid performances this season, and the appointment of legendary 71-year old coach Miroslav Blazevic has given the club some hope that they can start to build a story to break the monopoly.  The club were formed in 1903 and have had a quiet history in the Yugoslavian leagues.  In 1992, the club proudly took its place in the first ever Croatian league and won its one and only championship in 2002.  Their most famous player is Ivica Olić who was the leading scorer in Croatia during their march to the championship and went on to be capped 41 times by the national team.

How to get to the Stadion Kranjceviceva
The stadium is located in the south west of the city, just outside the main ring road.  The simplest way to reach the stadium from the old town square of Trg Bana Jelacica is to head south down one of the pedestrian streets then turning right onto Masarykova.  Follow this until you reach the square Marsala Tita where you should turn left and follow the wide avenue of Frankopanska.  At the second major junction, head right into Krsnjavoga.  This road then runs under the railway line, and the stadium will be on your left.  Tram numbers 2, 12, 14 and 16 pass close to the stadium, the former running from the main railway station.

If you need to get a better view on where the stadiums in Zagreb are then click here to access Footiemap.com’s Zagreb map page.

How to get a ticket for the Stadion Kranjceviceva
With a capacity of 12,000 and average crowds of 1,500 you will not have a problem buying a ticket on the gate for any game – even the derby versus Dinamo.  Tickets start from just €4 for a place behind the goal.

Around the Stadion Kranjceviceva
The stadium is hemmed in on two sided by roads, and is almost cut off from the city by the train line and so suffers a bit from isolation.  However, it does have a couple of bars close by and the huge Hotel Westin is a five minute walk away and that has a couple of bars and restaurants.

Getting around
The city is really split into two parts – The upper town (the Gradec) is where the majority of the culture is and that is full of narrow streets which are very walkable.  Trams link the Gradec with the lower town where the main station is.  Unless you plan to do a lot of exploring in, walking is your best option.

Nearest Airport – Zagreb Plaso Airport (ZAG)
Website:                  http://www.zagreb-airport.hr
Telephone:              +385 456 22 22

Zagreb Pleso airport is located around 17km south from the city centre.  Shuttle buses run to the city centre every 30 minutes, starting from 7am, and finishing around 8pm.  The journey takes less than 30 minutes and costs 25HRK one way.

The shuttle bus drops you outside the main station. A taxi from the airport should cost less than 150HRK – make sure you negotiate the rate before you start the journey.  Currently the only direct flights are offered by Wizzair from London Luton, although Zagreb is only an hour or so away from Llubljana in Slovenia which is served by the Easyjet on a daily basis.

Our last visit – May 2012
It’s 1am and the train’s grinding on the rough rails is keeping me awake. We are chugging somewhere between between Zagreb and Belgrade. We could be in Croatia, we could we be in Serbia. But we actually have no idea at all where we are. Conversations have moved on from about how this train is like the one on “Hostel” to “what happened if they had a Saw-esque sadist on this train”..all the kind of conversations you want to have when you are in one of the remotest places in Europe with no mobile phone signal. The single 5 watt bulb is too dim for me to read my latest inductee into my sportbook review section, an excellent book called Danger, Kids! by Alan Moore which tells the story of an ambitious plan to re-unite Europe through football, a mission the carriage carries as its mantra for the weekend.

Quite how and why we ended up on a train that would have put a British Rail football special after West Ham, Millwall and Chelsea had traveled on it in the luxury category is still unclear. As usual I blame Danny Last. He saw a Youtube video, and that is always how these things start.

“Stu – look at this video. It is the maddest local derby of all time. We HAVE to be at this one next season.” That is always how it starts. And then there are the emails with links to flight times, hotels that are “just perfect” and before I know we are at Gatwick airport at 4am with a pint of Guinness for breakfast waiting for a 6am flight to a place where most rational people had never heard of, let alone visited. Spakenburg, Lodz, Trnava, Coxyde, Amiens, Rome. You name the place and it is more than likely that we have turned up there at some point.

But this trip was different. Not one crazy derby but two. Two days. Two countries and four sets of fanatical fans  “in theory”. And to make it even more “interesting”, we were entering a land that had been torn apart by Europe’s biggest civil war, acting as the 21st century Peacekeepers. As if football ever really healed any rifts like this.

Earlier in the season the seeds had been sown by Andy Hudson who had blagged his way into the Belgrade derby at the Red Star stadium. He enthused about the atmosphere, the fireworks and flares, the songs, the chanting oh and the football wasn’t bad either. This man knows his football and after he said we HAD to be at the return game, we begrudgingly agreed. After all, you do not mess with a man who is Hebburn Town’s biggest fan. Begrudging in Danny and my volcabulary actually means we ask our respective wives before we book any travel.

So after making another withdrawal from the PSF fund (Petrol Station Flowers), I had my CMF visa approved. She was a bit worried though. She too had seen Hostel and seen how easily led the three chaps were by scantily clad women. But I was able to reassure her about safety in numbers as well as learning the Serbian word for stranger (“странац”) that I would shout loudly and point if anyone like Ana Ivanovic started getting their kit off on the train.

As a further safety measure we recruited a fourth pair of hands. You have to do these trips in pairs you see. When you walk down the mean streets of Spakenburg you need the reassurance of a hand of a friend. So what if people think you are a couple. You know you aren’t – you just are a little bit scared of that big mob of Dresden fans with sticks marching towards you. So along with Danny and Andy, Kenny Legg had completed our foursome. Kenny Legg. A man who literally carries the hopes of tinpot adventures in Non League on his shoulders. Belgrade’s gain would be Weymouth’s loss for a weekend.

The plan for these trips always takes the same format. Let’s go to game X…oh hang on, if we go a day earlier we can get to game Y…woah, hold on. Just 100 miles away the following day is game Z. So our initial plan for a weekend of football in Belgrade took a turn for the better when it was discovered that “just” over the border was another local derby. Zagreb. Capital of Croatia. Home of the famous “Blue Boys” of Dinamo Zagreb. Sounds perfect you may say. Indeed but the “main” Zagreb derby was moved from Friday to Saturday, leaving us with the “other” derby – Lokomotiv v Lucko. Granted it was in the Maksimir, the national stadium, but even still, an average attendance of 259 means there would be more fans at Harrogate Railway Athletic v Wakefield than this derby. In fact, with the average attendance in the Prva HNL is currently less than 2,000 it is more like Blue Square Bet South than Premier League.

This was not my first visit to the capital of Croatia. Oh no. If you believe the stories of the Current Mrs Fuller you would have her believe that I nearly died the last time I was there. It was never an issue. I mean walking along the road, wearing full England kit (it is a long story) towards a few hundred strong group of the most fanatic Croatian fans whilst saying things down the end of a phone like “Oh shit, we are going to die” and “The will is in the box under the bed”. I mean who would really take that seriously? Granted, when I didn’t answer the phone for the next three hours or the TV pictures of the crowd trouble prior to the game it may have been a bit worrying but surely an over reaction?

Game 1 – HD Zagreb 1 NK Radnik 1 – Friday 4th May 2012 – Stadion NSC Stjepan Spajic

So, I had pitched up in Zagreb on Friday afternoon, starry-eyed and looking for adventures. And beer. You have to remember that the only thing more important than the football on these trips is a beer. And of course the Croatian Dinar meant we were almost beer millionaires.  Danny, Kenny and Andy were in position already at our first football game of the weekend – a cheeky little encounter on the way in from the airport between NK Hrvartski Dragovoljac and NK Radnik at the Stadion NŠC Stjepan Spajic. With the sun shining, we raised a glass to our colleagues back in England, still working, still getting wet.

It seemed the fashion in these parts was for bum bags.  All the trendy youngsters had them, whilst the older generation went for the washbag style of accessory, once made trendy by Fraser Digby.  There were a fair selection of Croatian WAGS in attendance, obviously lured to the game by the huge floodlights, club branded popcorn and Andy Hudson.  It is always about Andy Hudson.

Our first game of the Slavic extravaganza ended 1-1.  We lasted until half time before the lure of a beer in the sunshine came calling.  Oh how we laughed at the plight of the sodden  people back home.   One taxi later and we were at the Maksimir, the national stadium and for tonight, hosting THE biggest game in Croatia.

So what can I tell you about the current state of football in these parts before I lose you in boredom. If you thought that Scottish or Portuguese football was dominated by just two or three teams, then welcome to Croatia and Serbia. Their leagues have been completely dominated by just two teams since the break up of the Yugoslavian state in 1991. Hadjuk Split and Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia, Partizan and Red Star in Serbia. Those four have won every title bar two in the last twenty years. And guess what? This season the title has already gone to Dinamo and Partizan with rounds still left to play.

Game 2 – Lokomotiv Zagreb 2 Lucko 2 – Friday 4th May 2012 – The Maksimir, Zagreb

So surely there was still some interest in the other games being played?  Obviously not as we grabbed our beers and headed into the main stand in the Maksimir.  Everything was very blue – we could tell that as only around 100 of the 38,000 seats in the stadium were being used.  Coming into the game, Lucko were the form team yet Danny managed to gets odds of 6/1 on an away victory.  What could go wrong?

What indeed.  Despite an early trade of goals by M Pejic (surely not Mike Pejic, the Everton , Stoke and Villa full back) for Lucko and then Brozovic for Lokomotiv is wasn’t the best of games.  Stoke v Wolves comes to mind.  As the half progressed then the darkest cloud in the world slowly drifted over the completely open air stadium.  Threatening?  Nah.  It would blow over.

Fifteen minutes into the second half Lucko took the lead again.  Rak turned the ball in and Danny was sitting on a pot of cash.  In fact he could literally claim to be a Serbian Millionaire.  But once again Lokomotiv came back at them and ten minutes later Škvorc equalised.  It was now anyones game.  But then Mother Nature got involved. Just as Kenny and Andy had been dispatched on beer duty the rain started to fall.  In fact it was as if someone upstairs had found all of that missing water from our reservoirs and dumped it on the Maksimir.

We had no option but to seek refuse in the Executive Boxes.  In fact within seconds every member of the crowd had jumped into the VIP area.  That was all except Kenny and Andy who came back into the stand and were greeted with thousands of rows of empty seats, like a scene from a Stephen King film.  Oh how we all laughed until we realised that it was our pints that were become more watered down than a Fosters at the Oval.

With the rain turning the pitch into a boating lake neither team could actually do anymore that hoof the ball up front.  Danny thought he had sewn up his winnings when Lucko broke 3 v 1 and with the goal gaping in front of Rak but the ball across the box never reached him, sitting instead in a puddle on the penalty spot.  Full time meant honours even but not for us band of explorers.  We went down to the concourse and tried to find the “Magic Door”.  We didn’t have to look hard and just a few minutes after the game ended there we were cavorting around the Ricardo seats.

So after a few nightcaps near the stadium it was time to head onto our train and into the wilds of Serbia.  Or was it Bosnia?  Who knows, who cares.



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