It’s fair to say that Croatian football is in the midst of its most successful era. FIFA World Cup semi-finalists in 1998 the Croatian national team (Hrvatska nogometna reprezentacija) went one better in 2018 reaching the World Cup final in Moscow where they fell at the last hurdle against favourites France.
Almost half a million people welcomed the team home from Russia despite the failure. The nearby public Maksimir Park being a mass congregation point for the thousands of supporters who marched to the city centre of the capital towards welcoming the squad home.
Located in Zagreb’s Maksimir district the home of the Croatian national team could never be regarded as being amongst European football’s most glamorous stadia. Over the years it has hosted a 1976 European Championship semi-final between Czechoslovakia and Holland; a third place play off involving the host nation and in 1990 it was the venue for the infamous Dinamo Zagreb – Red Star Belgrade riot.
The stadium takes its name from the man after whom the nearby park is named – Bishop Maksimimilijan Vrhovac of Zagreb who died in 1827. Unlike the modern day enclosed stadia which we see across much of Europe, the current Maksimir is still much of a legacy of the Socialist Yugoslav era although football was first played on the site as far back as 1912.
It retains an open feel with upper tiers generally unroofed and stands that sit like leaning slabs of plain concrete decked these days in the blue colours of Dinamo. While new stands have been constructed since the 1990’s the southern curve remains often being the home for visiting supporters.
While numerous upgrades have occured over the years (major redevelopment work occured in 1997, 1998 and in 2011) a complete overhaul of the Maksimir is still to happen despite the consistent success of the Croatian national team and the popularity of the resident club side Dinamo.
Over the course of the last decade, multiple concepts were presented that aimed to further modernise the stadium, most notably by constructing a roof.
However complete reconstruction has been unforthcoming with the home club often mired in off the field financial contraversy and allegations of match fixing. Moroever, several attempts at qualification for the UEFA Champions League by Dinamo have resulted in failure with plans repeatedly being shelved.
Meanwhile getting the city of Zagreb, the HNS and Dinamo to work together successfully on a multi million project has never got off the ground successfully.
Then in late August 2019 Dinamo Zagreb defeated Rosenborg in the Champions League play off round bringing forth to Dinamo the riches of UEFA Champions League football. Qualification made Dinamo the only Croatian side to qualify for UEFA Group Stage football.
Almost immediately after this qualification was secured a new quest for the redevelopment of the Maksimir was muted.
Dinamo President Mirko Barišić in a club press release stated that the City of Zagreb and Dinamo Zagreb were embarking on a joint action to build a brand new stadium on the site of the current one. His words were then echoed by the Mayor of Zagreb who said that the ‘City of Zagreb will build the most beautiful stadium suitable for the 21st century at the existing stadium’s location‘.
This new renovation annoucement is set to end speculation that Dinamo may leave the stadium it has called home since 1949. Morover the HNS (Croatian Football Federation) are eager for a stadium that reflects the growing status of Croatia in world football given the runners up place at Russia 2018. It is hoped for a successful project to deliver to fruition that they too will be firmly behind the concept.
Where Dinamo will play its home games should demolition of the Maksimir occur is currently unknown as little is known of the design or timeline of the new concept. One option for Dinamo is the use of the Kranjčevićevoj Stadion home of NK Zagreb although whether the smaller capacity of 8,500 will be sufficient to meet the needs of the national team or Dinamo during construction is open to question.
The national team meanwhile might cope with any prolonged construction period by taking the national team matches around Croatia with qualifiers earmarked for new stadiums in Rijeka and Osijek.
With the new design concepts for the redeveloped Maksimir soon to be available online its still hard to see whether the new stadium can match the record of the current ground which has left the Maksimir as Croatia’s prime sporting venue. Until defeat by England in 2008 the Croatian national team had not lost a home qualification game in Zagreb for over 16 years.