For once, this wasn’t a football trip. But it is hard to avoid the influence of Hajduk when visiting Split. Hajduk graffiti is everywhere, not just in Croatia’s second city but all around the surrounding region of Dalmatia, its beautiful islands and dominating mountains. Mario, my gregarious taxi driver, was keen to talk about his adventures watching Hajduk play at rivals Dinamo Zagreb. “Maybe I’m too old now” he said after regaling stories of burned-out cars and, given Hajduk’s recent form, burned out dreams.
We drove past Hajduk’s iconic Poljud Stadium, shaped like a shell and sitting squatly on the shore of the Adriatic Sea. Mario’s season ticket costs the equivalent of £65 but, given restrictions, I wasn’t able to visit his seat in the Poljud. Instead, Mario took me to the ancient Roman amphitheatre in his hometown of Solana, framed by a cement factory and a precarious-looking house, allegedly built illegally by a former Yugoslavian official. “This view sums up the history of Croatia” said Mario. Pleasingly, the amphitheatre remained a sporting arena of sorts and had recently been used for Olympic shot put qualifying.
Mario drove me to Klis Fortress, perched in the mountains above Salona, where Game of Thrones fans tried hard to imagine the ruins as a set from the hit series. I was more interested in the view. The fortress offered a superb panorama of NK Klis’ ground, a stunning place to watch third tier football. NK KIis play on an artificial pitch, something I never quite got used to during my Europe United travels (where 15 of my 79 top division matches were played on plastic). Synthetic surfaces became something of a theme across sun-kissed Croatia.
I took the ferry from Split to the island of Hvar. Beautiful party people sunned themselves on rock beaches. I searched out NK Hvar’s Instagram-famous pitch. Hvar reportedly has the most football clubs per capita in the world, but the Forska Liga had yet to kick off on this artificial pitch. I would encounter more matchday luck on my last Croatian night in the compact UNESCO World Heritage city of Trogir, close to Split’s airport.
I climbed the Venetian defences of Kamerlengo Castle for an incredible view of the home of NK Trogir, once a second division team but now playing in the amateur fourth tier. Their ground, revamped with an inevitable artificial pitch in 2019, is uniquely located between two protected monuments: the castle and St Marko’s tower. I noticed a man fiddling with the corner flag.
Several hours later, I passed the ground again and spotted several people looking out from the steps of the tower. I had chanced upon an evening match between NK Trogir and NK Omiš, the club where Croatia legend Ivan Perišić started his career. I settled down behind the goal, with a can and my camera, and chatted to Petar, who played for a rival club and was watching his nephew play right back for NK Omiš. Petar turned down a spare can. “Ahhh, training” I said as he lit a second cigarette. “No, I don’t like beer” Petar replied. “I prefer Jägerbombs”.
I explained that it was very difficult to find out about the match, corner flag alterations being the only premonition. Petar smiled. “You really have to know about Croatia to find out about these matches.” The small stand, with seating for around a hundred, was closed so a smattering of fans watched from the tower, more peered through the netting alongside another ancient monument whilst a few lucky tourists took in the game from the castle. Petar explained that it was one of the shortest pitches in Croatia as fortifications made it impossible to extend the playing surface. Quite a few balls must also land in the canals that surround the medieval city. Certainly, the game felt frantic and cramped, and Petar’s nephew instigated a flare up near the touchline before his Omiš side ran out 2-1 winners. NK Trogir’s home is a fortress in only one sense of the word.