Eternal Derby: Croatia's Other Face

Photos by Ryu Voelkel, Words by Ryu Voelkel and Zack Goldman

Editor's Note: The Eternal Derby, waged between Croatian rivals Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split, can be traced back almost a century, but the rivalry is as heated and passionate nowadays as it has ever been.

That, however, may not be apparent to those who have only just tuned in, as a series of bans and protests have kept both sets of fans away from the match they prize highest.

Last month, a boycott from the two sets of supporters left Zagreb's Stadion Maksimir nearly empty. The small group who did attend wasn't composed of ultras, but rather parents and children. On a day like this, a very different face of Croatian football fandom emerges—not the usual one dominated by images of flare-wielding young men, shirtless and packed together, but fathers with their sons, watching calmly among gargantuan pools of empty seats.

This spectatorial makeover is significant in more ways than one, and it comes at a time when racism and crowd violence are still plenty commonplace in Croatia. While it may not be the atmosphere we've come to expect from the Eternal Derby, perhaps days like these are as necessary as they are bizarre. The meditative hush of the stadium, the general geniality on the terraces, and the dampening of passions surrounding the occasion might just be exactly what Croatian football needs to experience in order to ensure the domestic game is safe and open for all to enjoy in the future.

Where Is Football contributor Ryu Voelkel traveled to get a first-hand look at this unique football spectacle and to share the history of how it came to be—a story that begins and ends with the name “Mamic”.

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Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split fans hate each other. There is, however, a common figure who draws common ire from both camps.

This is Dinamo Zagreb executive director Zdravko Mamic. Loathed by fans, but loved by the media, Mamic is once again at the centre of controversy—an extremely unsurprising fact if you're aware of his story.

On November 22nd, 2014, under the alleged advice of Mamic, Dinamo unceremoniously blacklisted most of the Torcida—the hardcore faction of Hajduk Split supporters—from Zagreb's Stadion Maksimir for the first derby of the season.

In protest, Hajduk supporters, including the Torcida, boycotted the match, and the team followed suit, deciding to forfeit the game.

Six months later, ahead of their final meeting of the season, Hajduk supporters issued a statement declaring that they would again boycott their upcoming match at Zagreb—and the Bad Blue Boys, the ardent supporters of Dinamo, did the same. It was a union between supporters, across battle lines, against Mamic, who is seen as an enemy of all fans as much of a champion of his own club.

The teams, however, dutifully played on.

Their match was contested in an almost empty stadium. The atmosphere was not filled with flares and tifo, but rather the innocuous-sounding chants from Dinamo fans who turned up with their children. A few Hajduk supporters also crossed through the turnstiles to make an appearance, but it wasn't enough to console their heroes after a 4-0 thrashing.

The eerily subdued atmosphere for a derby was strange, but it’s not the first time Dinamo’s fans have boycotted their own team’s fixtures, having done so since 2010. While they are a very successful club, with ten straight league titles on the bounce, Dinamo is still deeply divided between the terraces and the boardroom—and those who hate Mamic hate him with good reason.

This is what Mamic has come to be: An unnecessary evil. He who everyone loves to hate. The white-collar administrator of a football club, deeply disconnected with his fans, but one who still rips off his shirt at a match like he is one.

This is Mamic, the soul of Croatian football, who divides opinion and empties the stadium on the day of the nation's biggest rivalry.

These photos and words are courtesy of Where Is Football contributor Ryu Voelkel. They are the first installment in his "Eternal Derby" series, which is devoted to capturing some of the world's most intense football rivalries.