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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.