Tom Wood - It is August 1946, and Partizan Belgrade are playing their first ever game, against Pobeda Skoplje from Macedonia (now known as FK Vardar)
Tom Wood –
It is August 1946, and Partizan Belgrade are playing their first ever game, against Pobeda Skoplje from Macedonia (now known as FK Vardar). Watching with eager anticipation is a group of high ranking Yugoslav People’s Army officers, amongst them some veterans of conflict: Ratko Vujović, a Montenegrin veteran of the Spanish Civil War and World War Two; Koča Popović, an ethnically Aramean Serb who was widely recognized for saving the Yugoslav Partisans through his actions in South-East Bosnia during the Battle of the Sutjeska; and, most notably, Svetozar Vukmanović, or “Tempo” as his admirers called him, were all present. Vukmanović, a hardened Montenegrin communist served on Marshall Tito’s Supreme Staff—as his direct representative in Macedonia.
The three had played a key role in Partizan’s formation only 10 months earlier. Partizan was officially the Yugoslav army’s club.
Whilst many Army veterans, Serbian Army Veterans in particular, rejoiced at the establishment of Partizan, for many in the YPA, the club’s formation was tainted by a somewhat lingering aura of disappointment. Why was this you may ask? The answer is simple. Partizan wasn’t the army’s first choice in their search for a football club— Partizan’s creation and status was largely the result of the rejection of Tito by another club.
Marshall Tito’s preferred choice was not located in the suburbs of Belgrade, but approximately 500 miles away in the Dalmatian city of Split. Perched on the Adriatic Sea were HNK Hajduk Split, a club whose identity off the field was almost as important as their achievements on the field.
Hajduk Split was Founded 35 Years Before Partizan Belgrade
Hajduk Split was formed 35 years before Partizan Belgrade and, unlike Partizan’s regimental origin, Hajduk’s establishment occurred in U Fleků, a famous pub in Prague, after a group of Croatian students attended a match between two of Prague’s top sides, Sparta Prague and Slavia Prague. The setting, in which the group of students first formed Hajduk inspired the name chosen for the club.
For centuries, the Ottoman Empire had occupied the Balkans and, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, various nationalist movements grew out of the area’s cultural opposition to the Ottomans. Hajduk Split is such an example. Derrived from the Turkish word for bandit, the term Hajduk collectively described the scores of nationalistic ragtag brigades that attempted to strike back against the heavy taxation, killings and various perceived injustices committed in the region. The Hajduks became part of Croatian folklore, similar to the English stories of Robin Hood.
It was Josip Barač, one of the students’ professors who first put forward the idea of naming the club Hajduk Split. Barač explained that the name Hajduk symbolised “that which is best in our people: bravery, humanity, friendship, love of freedom, defiance to powers, and protection of the weak.”
The Hajduks Were the Robin Hoods of the Balkans
Barač and others had been inspired by the behaviour of the bandits. Only nine years before the club’s formation, arguably the most famous Hajduk of his generation, Andrija Šimić, had returned to Split to a hero’s welcome, after having spent over 30 years in a Slovenian prison for his crimes against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The professor instructed his students to “be worthy of that great name” and, with the formation of the football club, Hajduk Split became, for the Dalmatian people, a bastion to rally behind, just as the brigands had been in Croat folklore.
Living up to its namesake, the club was in conflict with authorities from its very inception. Before Yugoslavia’s formation, Hajduk’s use of the Croatian checkerboard on their badge symbolised, not only their devotion to the cause of Croat nationalism, but also their clear opposition to way Dalmatia was being exiled from Croatia by the imperialist Austro-Hungarian empire.
So provocative was the club’s image and message, that the monarchy considered disbanding Hajduk, only to be stopped by the argument that football was helpful in training soldiers. A strong army was particularly important for the now fading empire; upholding levels of dominance over their various domains gave the Austro-Hungarian rulers a false sense of the assurance that they desperately wanted, to counter the harsh reality that there was beginning to be a shift in European Imperialism.
Hajduk Split – A Symbol of Opposition
An officer named Josep Broz, more commonly known as Marshall Tito, served within the army’s ranks. His resilience, and that of the partisans in his native Croatia and consequently Hajduk Split, would be truly felt during the Nazi occupation.
While Tito’s Partisans led the resistance on the battlefield, Hajduk Split became a means of expression for the oppressed through sport. At the start of World War II Yugoslavia had been carved and taken over by Italy and Germany—Split had been given to Italy.
Openly against the assimilation of their town, players, supporters and board members wound the club down during the period. Defiantly, the Dalmatians turned down an offer from the Italian Fascists to play in the Italian First Division, in which they would play not under the name “Hajduk Split” but under the Italian name AC Spalato. While the offers to play abroad continued, the very students who had once focused on sport and competition were now taking up arms and creating havoc within the town; Hajduk Split’s squad also were actively involved in the struggle against fascism. Split finally fell in 1943, the respite was only brief, however, and German forces soon reoccupied the town.
Again, Hajduk were issued a familiar ultimatum. They were either to join a league established by the fascist puppet state, or to stop participating in the game they loved. Again, Hajduk Split picked the latter option. This time around, however, Allied forces were present to support them.
It was a collection of British officers, alongside Tito’s partisans who welcomed the football club to the Adriatic Island of Vis, an Allied stronghold during the occupation of Yugoslavia. During their time in Vis, the Dalmatians regained their active footballing status. Many Allied Service teams tested themselves against the Croatians, while a worldwide tour that saw Hajduk play over 150 games of football in a number of countries was conducted, inspiring many other European clubs to follow suit and tour the world.
The Yugoslavian Army Needed Their Own Team
What became increasingly apparent was the fact that, as Marshall Tito’s grip over Yugoslavia grew, so did his influence on Yugoslavian sport. After the war, Tito and many others felt that the Yugoslavian Army needed a team to call their own. The practice had existed in Russia with CSKA Moscow for over 25 years, and many socialist countries followed suit after the war alongside the consolidation of communism in Eastern Europe. Following the Soviet model, Partizani Tirana of Albania, Dukla Prague of Czechoslovakia, and former European Champions Steaua Bucharest of Romania were all formed out of the communist drive across the Eastern Bloc in the aftermath of World War II.
Yugoslavia, as one of the largest and most prosperous communist nations, and one of the few that remained independent from Soviet control during the period, were an extremely significant player in world politics. To match their global reputation, Tito felt he needed not only an excellent football team, but also a club built around correct morals and a proper code of socialist dogma. Hajduk Split was already on Tito’s radar. The club’s fight against fascism and their uplifting effect on the Dalmatian and Croatian people were, as a Croat, familiar to him. And so the people of Split were now thrust into the spotlight.
Problems, however, existed. Whilst Hajduk had adopted the Red Star of Communism in 1944, the image of the club with a Croatian coat of arms was still freshly etched in the minds of the club’s supporters and the residents of Dalmatia. The chequered symbol was attributed to the medieval Trpimirović Dynasty that had ruled Croatia in the 9th century. Like the Hajduks of the past, it represented opposition to oppression and imperialism and, most importantly, the coat of arms called for the embrace of Croat nationalism.
The symbol’s effect on its people provides an insight into the Dalmatian political train of thought, and perhaps suggests why Hajduk refused Tito’s offers. One need only look at the record of political and ideological suppression in Croatia during Tito’s reign to understand the reaction. In 1950, a group of Croatian farmers took part in the only peasant rebellion in Cold War history and, as a result, 100 farmers were killed. During the “Croatian Spring” of 1971, thousands were imprisoned, including future Croatian president, Franjo Tuđman, and prominent anti-Yugoslav journalist, Bruno Bušić, who was later assassinated in Paris by the UDBA, the secret police of Yugoslavia.
Hajduk Split Became a Symbol of Opposition to Tito’s Regime
This blossoming nationalistic sentiment in Croatia was accompanied by a widespread distain for Tito’s rule. Despite the fact that he was a Croatian by birth, Tito was incredibly unpopular in the country. After the decisive defeat of Ustaše forces in Croatia, a vast number of executions took place. Many Croatians associated themselves with right wing politics and, while a vast majority weren’t necessarily fascists or outright supporters of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, a large proportion of the population were dismayed by the killings.
Many felt that Tito’s policies, which seemed to target Croatia’s economic, social and political potential, specifically targeted their people, and were a direct result of the high level of support that emerged in favour of the NDH (the Independent State of Croatia) in the country prior to the Partisan victory. For Hajduk Split, a club whose own team openly contributed to the fight against fascism, their disappointment over the mistreatment of Croatians is understandable.
The suppression of Catholicism, and the state imprisonment and house arrest of the spiritual leader of Croatian Catholicism, Alojzije Stepinac, in particular, helped to further alienate Croatians against Tito and the Yugoslavian vision. Yes, both Tito and the people of Split were Croatians, but, unlike Tito, not all Dalmatians were Yugoslavians.
Nationalism and disdain aside, many Dalmatians were reluctant to part with their football club for a more simple and straightforward reason. During World War II, the city had been occuppied on two separate occasions. Like the footballers for Hajduk Split (and RNK Split), people gave up their livelihoods and ambitions, to pick up weapons and fight fascism.
Thousands were killed. Thousands more were wounded. But when the dust settled at the end of the conflict, both the Italian and German occupants had been defeated, and Split was Croatian once again. Like the ports, cathedrals and houses they fought to defend, their football club was not to be stolen from them. Hajduk was now, more than ever, a football club that truly belonged to the city, and no way were the people going to give away a part of themselves to a largely unloved, authoritarian dictator.
Hajduk Split Remains a Democratic Club
To this day, Hajduk Split is run ultra-democratically. In 2012, when faced with over 100 million Kunas worth of debt, it was the supporters of Hajduk Split that saved the club’s future by convincing the town leaders to loan over €4 million to the newly elected chairman Marin Brbić which, who was able to clear much of the clubs debt—but who was surprisingly voted out of office back in April, which has caused a minor crisis at the club. A group of board members, fans and city officials now have an equal say in the running of the club, and much of the responsibility is shared. Hence, Tito didn’t get “his club” and Partizan Belgrade was subsequently founded—the ripple of defiance from the people of Split seismically shaped Yugoslavian football.
Without the attraction that Partizan possessed as an army club, with their ability to make many exempt from draft requirements and to hand out other bonuses to players, their stature and significance as a club might have been damaged. The players that made up the tremendously successful “Partizan Babies” side of the 1960’s, who reached a European Cup Final, might have simply joined more prosperous sides in Yugoslavia.
Teams such as Red Star Belgrade, Dinamo Zagreb or Hajduk Split, would have reaped the benefits of Partizan’s lesser footballing stature. Croatian football as a whole might have been damaged by the depletion of one of their best sides. Renowned for their passion, the immensely political rhetoric, sentiment and ideology of the clubs showcased in the derbies certainly would have differed.
So, while it’s definitely apparent that the people of Split were victorious in keeping their football club in Dalmatian hands, what remains clear, over 70 years later, is that their victory didn’t just help to sustain their own club, until the very end at the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Hajduk’s stand helped to build and mould the foundations of even some of their arch-rivals.
Tom Wood is from South Benfleet Essex, and is currently an A Level Student at Southend High School For Boys, hoping to study History and Eastern European Studies at degree level.Tom is a long suffering but devoted Tottenham Hotspur fan,who is also passionately interested by the culture and politics of European and Eastern European football.Tom is particularly interested in football played in the Balkans, and is fascinated by the immense role that football supporters played in contributing to Yugoslavia’s breakup and the subsequent wars that followed. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomwoodEF