Prva Hrvatska Nogometna Liga
Stadion u Kranjčevićevoj, Zagreb
att. 1,200 (approx.)
Holidays are a time for relaxation, for discovery and for adventure. Or, in my case, it’s a time to rediscover just how bloody English I am. I don’t mean in the “fank gawd I’m not like these stinkin’ foriners” way, far from it. After all, following a burst of brisk activity like, I don’t know, padding from the front room to the kitchen and back, I can hum to an international standard myself.
Rather, I discover how I’m just like everyone else from this green and pleasant land, floundering with basic bits of whichever native language I happen to be attempting, and relying on the foreigner in question’s knowledge of English to get me through. Honestly, all I need to be asking for is a chocolate ice cream, and I begin to sound like a heavily scratched vinyl LP entitled “The Hollywood soliloquys of Hugh Grant.”
Once I become aware of this, I shut up shop like a thoroughly guilty fraudster awaiting the arrival of their brief, saying nothing apart from coughing needlessly and raising an unnecessary eyebrow every now and then. This may be a regular tourist gambit, but it certainly allows for one to be hoisted upon one’s own petard. For example, during my four days in Zagreb I went through 36 hours of headache simply because I didn’t know the Croatian for ‘aspirin’.
As it turns out…it’s ‘aspirin’. Yes, that might seem obvious now clever-clogs, but I. had. a. FACKIN’. HEADACHE. and…and…even if I’d figured that out at the time, I still didn’t know the appropriate phrase for “not the soluble if you can, just the capsules, or the regular tablets. Are they the same as caplets. I don’t know. Oh well, I’ll take the soluble if it’s all you’ve got.” I’m profoundly rubbish, quite clearly.
A headache ain’t such a burden in beautiful sunshine as had been the case on the Friday, wandering around the city centre, clambering halfway up the Medvednica mountains, bouncing around Maksimir park and rumbling around on trams wherever fancy dictated. The cold, bracing wind of the Saturday was a touch more trying. However, in the absence of drugs (or rather the absence of the gumption to ask for said drugs by tapping at your head like Stan Laurel trying to pretend he’s on the cusp of being picked up by an amusement arcade grabber-arm and making a wincing face like you’ve just stepped on a six inch nail) it turns out there is another remedy. Football. Or, as they say in Zagreb, nogomet. See, I’m learning.
Not that I ever said the word ‘nogomet’ out loud whilst there, I just relied on the happy foursome of ‘dobar dan’ (good day), ‘molim’ (please), ‘hvala’ (thanks) and ‘Engleski’, the latter said whilst holding my fingers against my chest like I was trying to massage my failing heart. The latter is the kind of word that you can’t quite believe IS the actual correct phrasing, sounding more like the word a 1960’s Young Conservative revue satirising the Soviet Union might have overused.
Aside from that, it came down to proudly reading things off menus like “štrukli” and “zagrebački odrezak”, only to be met with a “so will that be with potatoes or vegetables” by a distinctly unimpressed waiter. You do find bits of English in the oddest places though, for example the pink tarpaulin sign flapping around reading “SECOND HAND SHOP” just outside the city, and an old woman in a backwards-facing beanie hat stitched with the words “Gutter Covers of MD & VA.”
The same applies with football as both groups of hardcore supporters for Zagreb’s two major clubs have a name from themselves and these are most commonly found written in English on scarves, walls and no doubt a few tattoos. Dinamo Zagreb’s are known as the Bad Blues Boys, and you’ll see B.B.B. written all over the city, often with a stencil of a bulldog with a pronounced underbite and in a studded collar that he appears to have nicked off a Judas Priest drum roadie. The language chosen and the bulldog certainly suggest that the B.B.B. take their cue from the English hoolie groups of the 1980’s.
This is certainly not the case when it comes to NK Zagreb’s Bijeli Anđeli, known more popularly and even amongst themselves as the anglicised White Angels. While that name might send a chill down the spine when one considers the extreme right-wingers that populate many central and eastern European ultra groups, it actually refers, not to white supremacism, but to the fact that NK Zagreb are inf favour of more gentlemanly conduct. Being an ultra-group that opposes all forms of discrimination as well as hooliganism in general does set them apart somewhat. On top of that, the club’s nickname is ‘The Poets’. This would appear to be my kind of club, particularly as they don’t appear to be overrun at the turnstiles either.
Zagreb’s crowds are in keeping with those leagues in Europe that always lose their star names to better paying leagues elsewhere on the continent, but you could argue they are the Fulham to Dinamo’s Arsenal, well sort of, considering the Scottish-esque duocracy that occurs within the Croatian game. The league was formed in 1991, following the break up of Yugoslavia and the dissolution of the Yugoslav First League, which was probably just as well considering the three-way pitch battle between both sets of fans and the Serbian police that had seen a game between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade abandoned the previous year.
Since then the title has been largely shared between Dinamo (nine titles) and Hadjuk Split (six). The 2001/02 season was the only one thus far that has seen their joint hold broken and, this being where the Fulham analogy breaks down a touch, it was NK Zagreb that both divided and conquered. Last season the Poets finished third behind the usual two, but this campaign has been disappointing thus far. Prior to this game, Zagreb lay in eighth place, one place behind opponents HNK Cibalia Vinkovci. In their previous encounter this season at the Stadion Cibalia, Vinkovci had triumphed 3-1.
Strolling up to the Stadion u Kranjčevićevoj, the away supporters coach was just arriving, those on board marshalled into place by a relatively heavy police presence – about one for every five fans - on the long strip of terracing opposite the main stand. Only the two sides can be used for spectators, both ends curved like a shallow velodrome. As the Vinkovci fans took their places, the voice of a native crooner warbled loudly from the tannoy; the warm strings and smooth melody possibly being used to calm any potential hostility. British police, take note, if dealing with Millwall supporters travelling away, it’s not batons and shields you need, its Andy Williams belting out ‘Moon River’.
Having bought the ticket from an old woman seemingly inside a World War II pillbox built into the perimeter wall and entered via a thorough frisking (clearly the club aren’t taking any chances with this ‘white angels’ ideal) I took a seat in the Tribina Zapad. This half of the main stand plays host to your quieter sorts, albeit with an old geezer in the full garb amongst our number, clearly one of their ‘characters’, his replica shirt reading ‘Deda 100’ on the back. The Domaći Navijači half of the stand further along is home to the White Angel vocal mob.
On the opposite side, the Vinkovci boys were at the halfway line waving flags, banging a drum and putting up their blue sheet, white-washed with the words ‘Ekipa Vinkovci’ (simply, ‘Team Vinkovci’). In the stand merchants were wandering around with their baskets filled with coke bottles and bags of nuts for sale, whilst also giving away free slabs of polystyrene. Buy a 60 kuna ticket (about £6.30) and get a makeshift seat-cushion thrown in!
The White Angels also had a drum, and were fond of doing their NKZ version of ‘Carnaval de Paris’, like many English crowds of course, but theirs had a much deeper, Gregorian monk tone to it. Both sets of fans were getting the early singing in but it was the Angels’ side that had the early chances, Davor Piškor forced a save from Davor Burcsa, the latter later able to fairly harmlessly pick up the ball after Mensur Mujdža’s cross hit Ivan Parlov on the side of his face rather than the intended forehead.
However, despite the missed chances, Zagreb eventually took the lead after 22 minutes. Tomislav Labudović dribbled into the box before being upended by Boris Leutar. Senijad Ibričić stepped up and hammered the penalty kick firmly into the upper middle section of the net, before peeling away with an ear-cupping celebration that brought the Cibalia fans cascading down the terraces to grill their angry faces up against the fence.
To try and gee their team up, the away followers began going through their interpretive dance routines on the terrace. They sang their version of ‘Carnaval…’, first with their back turned and done quietly, then turning round to belt it out at full volume. After a couple of rounds of that, they began careering about having a fake riot, like a poorly subscribed death metal circle-pit, then amassing once more in song - an intricate ballet worthy of Sadler’s Wells.
All the theatrics were to no avail however as Zagreb increased their lead four minutes prior to half-time. Ibričić, having been put through in the box, fired a first-time half-volley through the keeper’s legs. The Cibalia fans at least had the matchball they had nicked after it appeared in their section from a defensive clearance to keep them entertained.
During the half-time interval, the rain began to fall then teem down dramatically, causing the uncovered away support to run for cover aboard their coach. Those sat in the bottom of the main stand also clambered quickly to the rear. On the far side, the flimsy advertising hoardings began to fall over, a swam of ballboys trying their best to keep them buoyant. The scoreboard began to flicker between 5-0 to the home side and 0-9 to the away before giving up the ghost completely.
At the beginning of the second period, those that are braving the away section got a conga-line together. This was not the only thing to cheer them though. Two Zagreb players appeared on the edge of the box, the ball came across and while one dummied, the other was caught unawares. He fired a shot that hit only the air behind the ball, then fell over. Even the home crowd guffawed, one chap pushing my arm with such hearty joviality, I almost went the same way as the hapless striker.
Talking, as I was earlier, of things recognisable in English, Orangina had a presence here, sponsoring not only the fourth official’s half-way line stationed potting shed, but the stretcher-on-wheels wagon parked up nearby, which was called into action early in the second half. However Cibalia’s Adin Džafić had to hobble off under his own steam after the buggy’s tyres got stuck in the increasingly heavy pitch. After a push start from a physio and a couple of players, it eventually made it away, the driver waving at the applauding crowd as he went.
With matters on the pitch falling back into some sort of order, Zagreb increased their lead on the hour as Ibričić and Čutura exchanged the ball before passing to Piškor whose shot beneath the keeper hit the post before nestling in the back of the net. Fifteeen minutes later, Piškor scored his second and Zagreb’s fourth, turning and backheeling the ball into the net without any trouble after Parlow had stromed into the box and threaded a perfect pass. Rather than delight in this, the large group of young people in the corner of the Tribina Zapad disappeared en masse, clearly bored with the ease of it. Cibalia did manage a consolation in the last minute Ante Zore skidding a 25-yard free-kick past the outstretched arm of Zagreb keeper Dragan Stojkić.
Thus, after three months off for the winter break, the two sides switch places in the Prva Liga. One more match will complete the main body of the season, the twelve sides having played each other home and away. After that, the clubs will play each other one more time, with a draw held to decide host teams. The league title and direct relegation place both seem sewn up, Dinamo fourteen points clear at the top, Medjmurje eleven points adrift at the base. However, with the second from bottom side entering a play off with the side finishing as runners-up in the Druga HNL, and both Zagreb and Cibalia only four points above current eleventh placed side Inter Zaprešić, there remains much to play for.
NK Zagreb website
HNK Cibalia Vinkovci website