Walk around Zagreb and you see signs of a smart modern city almost everywhere. Sure there are echos of the communist Yugoslav era and the traditions of its Habsburg Monarchy past are never that far away. The grand buildings and architectural styles of Zagreb are that of a modern capital; a business place and a hard working city far removed from the tourist feel of Split.

In Zagreb various monuments to the wars of the distant and not so distant past are easy to find. As recently as 1995 Croatia was a land at war with its near neighbours. Tensions that many feel started in the Maksimir Stadium spilled over into outright conflict with the Serb controlled Yugoslav government.

Independence was declared by Croatia in 1991.

War is long gone in the Balkans but recently many of the buildings in Zagreb have resembled bombsites. In 2020 the Croatian capital Zagreb awoke to scenes of chaos from a 5.5-magnitude earthquake, and reconstruction has been slow despite a post-earthquake reconstruction law that came into force.

Fast forward to 2021 and the night before this November derby another earthquake struck the city; in fact more than ten quakes have occured since April 2021. Most are not felt by the people but memories of the biggest quake in March 2020 still sit fresh in the mind.

The 2020 earthquake was followed by numerous aftershocks, the strongest of which with a magnitude of 5.0. It was the strongest earthquake in Zagreb since the 1880 earthquake and caused substantial damage in the historical city center leaving numerous buildings uninhabitable.

Maksimir Stadium

The magnitude of that previous 5.5 earthquake was not lost on Dinamo Zagreb. That earthquake, which happened on the morning of 22 March 2020, damaged the structural foundations of the Maksimir. Some felt the damage was a godsend for a stadium long overdue for demolition.

Several structural engineering investigations have resulted in parts of the Maksimir stadium being deemed “unusable” for fans. This has come as a huge blow both to Dinamo Zagreb but of more seismographal importance to the Croatian national team which once regarded the Maksimir as its home fortress.

The team with its star studded side are now forced to play some of its biggest fixtures in Split; a world away some feel from the true home of Croatian football in Zagreb. Even more eye opening is that other FIFA 2022 Croatian national team qualification games have been played in the rather more humble surrounds of Osijek and Rijeka both some distance from the capital.

A venue for the UEFA 1976 European Championships this is a stadium so out of touch with its world class national team that one does wonder when redevelopment will eventually occur. Whilst high tech modernity is the name of the game for most new stadia these days the Maksimir is cramped and in desperate need of (as a minimum) spucing up.

The City of Zagreb has announced an agreement has been reached with Croatian Prva HNL champion Dinamo Zagreb to build a new stadium on the site of the historic Stadion Maksimir.

The announcement follows much speculation over the past year over the development of a new stadium in the capital. Stadion Maksimir first opened in 1912 and has a current capacity of around 35,000. Along with Dinamo, it is the home of the Croatian national football team.

In a statement, the City said Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandić and his associates met yesterday (Thursday) with representatives of Dinamo, led by president Mirko Barišić and CEO Vlatka Peras, to discuss plans to build a new Maksimir.

The statement added: “It was agreed that Dinamo would make a final decision at its assembly with clear guidelines defined by FIFA and UEFA standards for the construction of a new stadium at the site of today.

“It was also defined that the project of the new stadium would be built in partnership between the City and GNK Dinamo.

The realisation of the redevelopment of such a historic building is extremely important for Dinamo – an icon of Zagreb sport – but also important for the city of Zagreb, its sports history, for all of Zagreb and sports fans.

Upon the completion of a new stadium the liklihood is that the stadium will serve as the home ground for both Dinamo Zagreb as well as fellow HNL1 side Lokomotiva Zagreb.

Entering the Maksimir stadium particularly the North Stand (home of the Blue Bad Boys) can be a dangerous experience. The areas around the stadium accesses are cramped and such is the lack of room and organisation both inside and outside crushes are common.

Inside the ground feels like a four sided lump of communist era concrete. The walkways are messy, litter strewn and graffiti ridden. Such is the mess it looks like no effort is ever made to tidy the Maksimir up.

However, money has been invested in a serious of training pitches and grassroots facilities across Croatia by the national Federation Hrvatski nogometni savez (NHS). Meanwhile, the immediate surrounds of the Maksimir has seen the area develop or at least start to develop into a sporting complex for sports people of the future.

While key discussions have taken place between the national federation, local municipal council and national Croatian government the tender process for the new Maksimir would still appear to be ongoing with no end in sight. Moreover the plans are almost certainly going to be hit by the pandemic and the prospect of further earthquakes.

The planned capacity of the city’s new football stadium, which will be home to Croatian Prva HNL champion Dinamo Zagreb and the national team, will allow it to meet UEFA category four standards – 30,000.

Runners up to France in 2018 and 3rd in France 1998 to say that the Maksimir has seen better days is a huge understatement. Worst of all the stadium is largely open to the elements and on a cold winter evening this makes the Maksimir even less appealing to watching supporters.

While the stadia has huge symbolic value to Croatia (it was here on May 13th 1990 that the road to Croatian Independence began) the immediate pressing problem sits with the open East Stand which is no more than an angled slab of thick concrete. It is currently closed to supporters with the West, North and South (curved scoreboard end) being the only areas accessible for supporters at prices that range between 70 HRK and 140 HRK.

Eternal Derby

With the all powerful Yugoslav First League a dim and distant memory of the past the Red Star Belgrade v Dinamo Zagreb grudge match no longer occurs.

Instead the big Balkan rivalry is reserved for the Dinamo v Hajduk fixture with the nearest ‘large’ or best supported club being NK Osijek – the former club of HNS President Davor Suker.

For Red Star’s visit to Dinamo’s Maksimir Stadium, violence was always inevitable and likewise when Partizan visited Split. Off the field violence was common but inside fixtures between Croats and Serbs were more often than not filled with smoke bombs and passionate support. 

That tradition has continued into the Croatian derby between Dinamo and Hajduk one of the Balkan’s best footballing events.

Dinamo and Hajduk account for the majority of Croatian championship wins bar a few periods of success for HNK Rijeka. With Belgrade now no longer the capital of ‘Yugoslavia’ the capital of Zagreb, at least to those from Split, has become the object of Hajduk hate and jelousy.

While Dinamo have thrived in UEFA competition whether in the Champions or UEFA Europa League the same cannot be said for Hajduk who seem to struggle almost every season in Europe. Despite one appearance in the Champions League groups and one appearance in the Europa League groups Hajduk have never kept pace with the success of Dinamo either domestically or in UEFA competition.

Split is a tourist haven with its roman ruins and location on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea. The city is spread over a central peninsula and its surroundings are a world away from the business like feel of Zagreb.

Socio economically the standard of living in Zagreb is far higher than it is in Split; there are more jobs in Zagreb, better Universities and the city itself is closer to numerous areas of central Europe – Slovenia, Italy and Austria being only three.

This regional difference is compounded by Split’s major industry of tourism being hit drastically by the Coronavirus pandemic and its politics; many policies of which have been decided upon by the Zagreb based Croatian government.

Unsurprisingly, the perception of centralist rule from Zagreb has also affected the politics of the rivalry between the two clubs. And, with Dinamo having not too successful a season, Hajduk see the current season as a chance to win the Championship for the first time since 2005.

In this part of Europe there are passionate fans at most of the big clubs from Sarajevo to Belgrade. With most star players leaving Croatia long before they reach a playing peaks matches are as much about the fan groups who follow the clubs (Torcida Split and the Bad Blue Boys) as the games are about the teams.

Both clubs are closely associated with their respective cities but few are as associated with a Croatian region than Hajduk Split. While ‘BBB’ and the symbolic ‘d’ can be seen around in Zagreb it’s impossible to walk through the streets of Split or drive around Dalmatia for more than a mile without coming across graffiti relating to the colours of the club or Torcida Split.

Match Day

Just about every famous player associated with the Croatian team has appeared for either Hajduk or Dinamo. The current Croatian captain Luka Modric left Dinamo in 2008 for Tottenham and is now one of the all time greats of Real Madrid and indeed world football in the modern era.

The problem for many fans and impressionable youngsters is that the top players tend not to last long in the HNL1 (top tier). Such is the depth of talent and technical ability of football players in Croatia many are snapped up by Europe’s top clubs for huge amounts of money; making the league unappealling to many fans.

Interest in domestic Croatia football this season is at an all time low with the average attendence being less than 300 across the 10 team league. After years of boycotting the home games of Dinamo Zagreb due to club ownership opposition the resident BBB are back at Dinamo Zagreb but stll crowds seldom crawl above 10,000.

The tendancy to ‘stay away’ is also compunded by the neglected somewhat downtrodden state of the Maksimir which is an unappealing place for many new or tempted fans.

While the Covid Pass rule has turned hundreds of fans away from football stadia Dinamo Zagreb also has one of its weakest sides for years. Wualification to the Champions League has evaded the Zagreb side twice in recent years.

Most recently the shock 0-3 loss to FC Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova in the UEFA Champions League came as a huge blow to a club desperate to recoup some of the losses it has encountered due to the economic ruptures of the pandemic.

The midweek 1-3 loss that Dinamo suffered to Rijeka was mirrored in the number of empty seats in the Dinamo area of the Maksimir ground; things are not going too well domestically despite good results in the Europa League.

Despite the presence of promising Croatian national team goalkeeper Domanik Livakovic in the Zagreb side, faith in the team is loosening and Dinamo currently sit in 4th place behind Hajduk and someway short of HNK Rijeka.

Around 2,000 Split supporters made the way to Zagreb and the scene they created was one of pure passion. A row of ten drummers banged non-stop for the whole 90 mins as lines of heavily-armed police watched on from behind them. The stadium at both the south (scoreboard) and north end was a sea of flags, smoke bombs, flares and banners and the noise was deafening; like something out of Argentina.

Style wise the football itself was slow and breaks in play (due to players going down injured) were plentiful. As half-time approached both sets of fans took it in turns to target insults at each other making up for the succession of missed chances on the field of play.

On 60 minutes the breakthrough came.

Dangerman and HNL top scorer Marko Livaja capitalised on a quick counter attack to put the visitors ahead sending the Hajduk fans into wild celebrations. On came the smoke bombs, and multiple firecrackers with the referee holding up the resumption of play until the smoke had cleared.

Dinamo tried in every possible way to get back into proceedings. But the numerous chances and wasted crosses were an indicator of a team lacking in self confidence and now drifting off the pace at the top of the table.

In injury time the Albanian Emir Sahiti took advantage of another breakaway to put Hajduk into a 2-0 lead. This time once the ball hit the back of the net on came the subs bench of Split as well as the coaching staff. Everyone ran behind the goal to celebrate with the visiting fans. Still the drums banged and the flags waved and when play did eventually restart a melee between the players kicked off only for the referee to call it a night.

The best team had won on the night and you can’t help but think that this might be Hajduk Split’s year.

Only the strength of Rijeka might stop the title from heading south to the southern Adriatic.

If Dinamo are to retain the title they won in April then a large scale improvement need to happen up front with Ivanusec improving on his woeful performance in this game. Work in the offensive part of the field has to improve as does the finishing which can only be described as poor in this game. In order to build upon the solid defensive offerings of Frenchman Kevin Theophile-Catherine who dominated this match with his power and tackling Zagreb need more than a rethink.

Instead they need to step up to the pace Rijeka are setting otherwise the Champions League will again evade them.

Final word to the Torcida Split who turned this derby into a spectacular event.

Not every seat in the Maksimir was filled and with one empty stand more or less condemned – and the other two stands being only half full – the 2,500 Hajduk fans still made this a match to remember.

Saturday 5th Dec 2021 5:30 KO, Zagreb – Maksimir

Referee: Zdenko Lovric, Croatia

0-2 (FT)

Photo set from Zagreb