Split, Croatia: The Secret Behind 2018 World Cup Runner Up Success

Split, Croatia: The Secret Behind 2018 World Cup Runner Up Success

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Croatia Shines in the World Cup

During the 2018 World Cup playoffs, when the world’s soccer fans heard France would be playing Croatia in the finals, most of us had difficulty finding Croatia on a map. But a few days later, during the final match, the heavily favored Les Bleus, France’s National Football Team – felt a chill of panic. This 27 year-old country’s team with the checkered  jerseys scored twice – more goals than any World Cup Runner-up had scored in a World Cup championship match since 1986. Earlier in the match, Croatia’s fans roared in anticipation when Split’s own Ivan Perišić scored Croatia’s first goal tying the score at 1-1.We had the fantastic joy of watching the 2018 World Cup Championship against Croatia with thousands of fans of Les Bleus on a giant screen on Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence.

Coded Graffiti?

Fast forward more than two years and we find ourselves waiting out the pandemic in the relatively safe ocean breezes of the Croatian seaside city of Split. Shortly after we arrived in Split, we began to notice graffiti and even some pretty serious street art referencing HAJDUK and TORCIDA and the numbers 70 and 1950. Other than that was the year Anne was born, we knew of nothing particularly globe shattering that happened that year.

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HAJDUK!! The graffiti covered walls like plaster, but what is it?

Torcida? What so significant could have happened in 1950?

1950: Split Out-Chanted in Brazil

Some artwork looks somewhat official, especially the 50 foot Hajduk Split logo on the side of an apartment

It didn’t take us long to figure out it was all about SOCCER!! And this city-wide unanimous adoration of Split’s team, HAJDUK (High-jook) exceeds even that of Barcelona in burning intensity. But why 1950?

Here’s what we could gather: As one of the 16 teams qualifying for the first World Cup held after the 1942 and 1948 World War II hiatus, the Yugoslavia Team and their fans sat out the championship match watching Uruguay defeat the host country Brazil 2-1. The Yugoslavian fans, many of whom had traveled from Split in what is now Croatia, were shown up badly by the more passionate, organized, vocal, and engaged Brazilian fans. The comparatively meek attempts made at cheering by all the other teams couldn’t compare with Brazil’s uniformly dressed, raucous, deafening – sometimes insulting, even threatening – chants and cheers. Arriving back home in Split, these fans determined they’d never be outdone in the stands again. They organized local fans of Split’s soccer team named Hajduk on October 28, 1950 into Europe’s most serious booster club and named it after Brazil’s club, Torcida.

These photos capture only a small fraction of the wall decorations. The sentiment on the lower right is. “We are the people of Split. We are Hajduk.”

Reveling in Raucous Rebellion

Over the years, the enthusiasm of Torcida for the “Croatian Football Club Hajduk Split” has not diminished. Throughout Croatia’s push for independence from Yugoslavia in the 1980s, Hajduk Split never submitted to the demand to replace the word “Croatian” in their official name with “Yugoslavian.” And Hajduk Split continued to refuse to do so while Yugoslavian bombs were dropping on their cities and persisted stubbornly resisting through 1991 before the independence of Croatia was internationally recognized in January of 1992.

In many ways, supporting Hajduk Split has become synonymous with a sort of underground, ornery, confederated rebellion against the establishment. And, sad to say, there have been times when Torcida and other “ultra” supporter groups have drawn fines from the national and international leagues for the use of flares, fighting, and hooliganism and have even suffered banishment from matches, forcing Hadjuk to play matches against rivals in empty stadiums.

An awning, a utility box, scrawled on an iron gate: no place is safe from a Torcida member armed with a can of spray paint.

All This to Celebrate the Birth of the Fan Club

So we were somewhat apprehensive to find out that we would be in Split on the 70th birthday of the founding of Torcida. It was exciting to see men on ladders stringing colored pennants across neighborhood streets. It looked like entire communities were working together to mark this anniversary with warm enthusiasm. Boris, our Airbnb superhost told us that On October 28, at 7:50 pm (that’s 19:50 in what we Americans call military time) a Torcida parade would start downtown. We saw large crowds of rowdy boys chanting while marching through Split’s streets waving Torchida flags and lit traffic flares, creating billowing clouds of smoke.

Boris also said we should set our clocks for midnight and look out the city-side windows to see the fireworks show of a lifetime. There were tons of rooftop and drone videos the next morning on YouTube and it actually looked like Split was burning but by the time we went out, everything seemed to be back to normal.

This conflagration doesn’t do justice to the intensity of devotion the Split soccer fans have for their Hajduk Split team

Though Torcida has not cooled its white hot passion for Hajduk, it has morphed into part of the development of the sport of soccer in Split. Just out our 8th floor balcony are the local Catholic church with its bell tower, a rather large elementary school. Between the two is a Torcida supported sports facility with three kid-sized astroturf soccer courts enclosed in netting. It’s easy to understand the three institutions working together to maintain harmonious and stable life in Split. Every weekday, kids stream from the school into the soccer courts, divide into teams and start displaying their skills at scoring on each other. This activity is part of the un-official source of talent for a very official Hajduk Youth League and very effective for further developing soccer skills.

Proof of the youth league’s effectiveness is that of the 26 players on the 2018 World Cup Runner-Up team, nine were either born in Split, or played their first serious matches on the Hajduk Youth League team.

This propaganda shows two diminutive soccer superstars looking up to Hajduk Split’s captain whose teams won 5 national championships in the 1970s. The lower mural honors a capitan who played 739 matches scoring 729 goals.

We’re not anywhere near cheering for Croatia if they make it to the World Cup final against France again in 2022, but knowing most of them are likely to be from Split, we will be following this obscure country’s national team with the checkered jerseys with considerably more interest. Maybe some day soon, one of those nine year olds below our balcony will score the tying goal in a World Cup Championship Match.

Legendary Southern Dalmatian Coast Wines

Legendary Southern Dalmatian Coast Wines

Day-One Red Wine Buying

It’s mid-afternoon on our first day in Croatia and we just checked in to our rental apartment in Split. Job one is to make plans for dinner: Anne will shop in the grocery store downstairs for basic supplies and something we can make for dinner. I’ll choose a couple bottles of red wine. I agreed to this plan knowing that I knew next to nothing about Croatian wines. What I did know was that I had some quick catch up homework to do.

Lessons Learned

I also quickly realized Croatia labels are not in English. When I see a bottle of Argentine wine labeled “Malbec,” I know what to expect. But what does a Croatian wine labelled “Bogdanuša” or “Grk” tell me about the likelihood of whether the wine inside the bottle will go well with dinner tonight? 
I would soon be staring at shelves of bottles whose labels were covered with mysterious foreign words. And I needed to come up with an intelligent red wine choice before dinner. So I grabbed our two Croatia guidebooks and found the pages about the wines of the nearby area.Rocky limestone mountains come right down to the sea, leaving little space for vineyards

Hooked on the Hyper Local

Grapes that were grown and made into wine very close to where we’re eating is the goal. We learned long ago that wherever we are, we eat better when we order local food specialties in restaurants or try our hand at local recipes in the kitchen. Waiters are happy to bring us a bottle of something very local that goes well with what we ordered. The locals have been producing both the food and the wine from the same soil for centuries . Of course they go deliciously together.

Learning to Speak Southern

So with google and the guidebooks, I focussed on the wines produced right here on the southern end of Croatia’s west coast and on those islands I could see from our eighth floor balcony.
It’s hard to grow grapes in Croatia. Land for expansive Bordeaux-like vineyards just doesn’t exist. The abundant mountains force winemakers to the scarce valleys or the narrow ribbon of limestone where the sea and the rocky mountains start. Winemakers who choose to farm near the shore have miles of shoreline to choose from. Croatia is the size of South Carolina, but including all the islands, has more shoreline than California.

The Southern Dalmatian Coast is great for sailing, but the landscape doesn’t make planting grapes easy.

Protecting the Regional Traditions

Next I learned that Croatia has their own wine naming protection system similar to France and Italy’s AOC and DOC with the acronyms ZOI or KZP, but this system does little more than divide the country into 12 wine-growing geographical areas. The ZOI, instead of being an indicator of a wine’s quality, points primarily to the area where the grapes originated. I did, however discover that for dinner tonight, I wanted a wine from the ZOI named, “Srednja I Južna Dalmacija” (Central and Southern Dalmatia) rather than from one of the other eleven. So I’ll look for that designation on the label next to the words “Zaštićena Oznaka Izvornosti” or “Kontrolirano Zemljopisno Podrijetlo

Making My First Purchase

Next, the dominant red wine grape grown in nearby vineyards and islands is Plavac Mali, a descendent of the indigenous zinfandel. While Anne was shopping for dinner, I scoured the unreadable names on wine labels for a wine made in the Central and Southern Dalmatia ZOI from this grape. I found a bottle that featured the word, “Plavac”. It was 37 Croatian Kuna or $5.77 and it met my two criteria, so we carried it home.

This label is in serious need of a decoder ring.

When Anne saw me make a face at the first taste, she lost hope that this would be the perfect complement to our first Croatian dinner. As much as I wanted to like it, the most picturesque description I could come up with for it was that something was missing. The color was weak, the hot alcohol hit was abrupt, and there was a sourness in the slight taste of red berries.

Going Back for More

It’s not the grape’s fault, I take some of the blame for going with the first bottle I saw with familiar words on it and I paid too little for it. So before tomorrow’s dinner, I determined to do a bit more research on Southern Dalmatian wines and loosen up the wallet a bit and see if I get a more agreeable taste.

Cliff’s Notes for Dalmatian Wine Buying Newbies

I armed myself with more research and written notes:

  1. If only the grape is highlighted on the label (such as Plavic Mali) that is an indication that the wine inside is not going to be as good as when a subregion within the ZOI is highlighted (if only I had learned that before my first trip down the wine aisle).
    This is because a consortium of winegrowers in a smaller subregion agree to winegrowing and vinification practices that are aligned with that area’s soil, climate, and grape varietal(s).
  2. Some, not all, wine labels highlight one of the three quality classifications, “STOLNO” for table wine, “KVALITETNO” for mid-level, and “VRHUNSKO” for top-level. The bottle I bought the first night for $5.77 was designated Kvalitetno. These designations are sometimes in the fine print on the back label and difficult to find. I think it would be wiser to move up from kvalitetno to vrhunsko wines for my next purchase.
  3. Within the Central and Southern Dalmatian ZOI, there are two tiny subregions producing red wines named Postup and Dingač. Both Postup and Dingač are on the south facing slope of the Pelješac penninsula and meet the high standards of the Vrhunsko or top-level classification. Each of these two subregions has around 15 winemakers working about 150 acres.
  4. Useful Croatian red wine label words
      •  suho – dry
      •  crno – black (meaning the wine is red)
      •  bijelo – white (meaning the wine is white)
      •  Hrvatske – Croatia
      •  vinogorje – vineyard
      •  Hvar, Brac, Korčula, Peljesac – three nearby islands and a peninsula

Some labels like this (empty) bottle of Plavac Mali have very helpful English translations.

Some Improvement on the Second Swing

So on the second trip to our grocery store’s wine section I selected a Postup and a Dingač both made from plavac mali grapes.

Each were about $15, classified with the Vrhunsko quality rating, and compared to what I’m accustomed to, I’d rate both of them at about a B-.

Both are bold reds; the Dingač seemed bitter and the Postup more chalky. I wouldn’t say either was pleasant. But with a steak or hearty winter stew, either would make a fine evening’s companion.



I Like a Little Story With My Wine

This winemaker, who is also a great spinner of wine stories, makes it easy to spend an afternoon tasting and buying in his cellar.

But there’s more to wine than the flavor. I like that after only about 20 years of a market economy, Croatia’s new generation of winemakers, though they are staying with the ancient indigenous grapes, are beginning to win international competitions, and the quality and finesse of their wines are getting better. And the fanciful stories I heard from some of the winemakers reflect the authenticity of the craft. I could sit and sip a wine all day as long as the winemaker is telling the ancestral legends that go along with it.This winemaker, who is also a great spinner of wine stories, makes it easy to spend an afternoon tasting and buying in his cellar.

Fairies Arrive Dancing During the Night 

One legend involves a tiny pond surrounded on all sides by hills just north of the village of Smokvica on the cigar shaped island of Korcula. Unlike the other ponds in the area, this one never dries out in the heat of the summer because of the dancing night fairies protecting the pond. According to the legend of the Vilin Dol (Valley of the Fairies) one morning, a villager named Jakov and his mule found a beautiful fairy who had fallen asleep after an exhausting night of dancing. Knowing that fairies cannot survive in sunlight, Jakov cut some branches and made a little shelter to shade her sensitive skin. To reward him for saving her, she gave him two bags of gold coins instructing him to open the bags only when he arrived back home in Smokvica.

On the way there, overcome with his desire to see the coins, he opened the bags and found only dried leaves. At home, when he related the story to his wife, she shook the now empty bags of leaves and a few gold coins fell out. She gave him a thorough tongue lashing for letting his curiosity get the best of him.

Cousins of our apartment host, Boris, grew the grapes and made this wine on the nearby island of Korčula.

A Passion for Passing on the Traditions

Stories like these repeated by winemakers and re-enacted by the real girls of Smokvica for centuries are part of a culture bent on refining the wine produced from the same varieties of grapes and soil and that their grandfathers worked. These coastal Croatian winemakers have no interest in reproducing what moderns have come to expect from Italian, French or New World wine. Their strong and enduring passion is to honor the ancestral traditions handed down to them by drawing all the best from the grapes that thrive on the scarce workable soil by the sea,.

Three kisses make great grapes

On these hillside terraces, villagers have been producing admirable wines for centuries.

Southern Dalmatian coast winemakers like to explain that their grapes get kissed three times by the sun – directly by the sunlight overhead, by the light bouncing off the near-white limestone vineyard floors, and by the sparkling diamond-like reflections from the adjacent Adriatic Sea. And I’m happy to continue enjoying the smells and tastes of this unique and ancient land, expanding my experience with the foods and wines and listening to more winemakers’ stories.