Overshadowed by the vast popularity of Split’s powerhouse Hajduk, one cannot blame people who forgot about the existence of RNK Split, the football-crazed Mediterranean city’s other club. It’s perhaps lesser known, but the history of RNK Split (Workers’ Football Club Split) is also rich and tumultuous as it is the case with Hajduk.
It all began back in April 1912, when a group of pupils of the Men's Vocational School in Split formed the football club symbolically named Anarh, with the idea to play football for fun but also as a means of protest "against all evil". The first club president was Šimun Rosandić, 18 years old at the time. Today's RNK Split (Workers' Football Club Split) formally represents the continuity with that club and plays in the Croatian First League.
Although being proud of it on its website, the club's anarchist roots and its fascinating and often revolutionary history of the first half of the 20th century are definitely not recognizable in the club today. Under the current ownership, RNK Split was promoted three times from 2008 to 2010 up to the Croatian First league. As opposed to that success, the unsustainable way the club is run means, among other things, the terrible conditions for the players who are irregularly paid or even unpaid and have been massively leaving the club, and has nothing to do with the emancipatory politics the club used to revolve around. Leaving the problem of football clubs as toys for local businessmen aside, in this article we are turning to the club's early history, namely the period since its establishment in 1912 until the end of the Second World War, placing it in the context of the turbulent history of the city of Split in this period which the club is naturally inseparable from.
At the very beginning, the black strip wearing Anarh had its roots in the vocational school and the working classes of the Split dockyards. The first dissolvement of the club happened already in 1914 after the Sarajevo assassination of Franz Ferdinand that marked the beginning of the First World War. The club resumed its activities in 1919 only to be banned again. This is where the series of name changes and merges with other sport associations started, usually as the consequence of the repressive actions of the authorities of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (from 1929 the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) in the interwar period that were directed at the suppression of the increasing political organisation of the masses. The club's property was even burnt down in 1921 during the demonstrations of the Organization of Yugoslav Nationalists which included settling accounts with their local political opponents and the club represented one of the targets. The city of Split had a large revolutionary movement characterized by the growing political radicalization among the workers, most obvious in the massive strikes and demonstrations of the 1930s. These acts reflected the workers' strive for their rights and better working and living conditions, but they also protested against the approaching danger of fascism in Europe, such as the 1938 demonstration against the German occupation of Czechoslovakia.
In 1928, the club that grew out of Anarh was renamed to Split and the anarchist black was soon replaced by the socialist red, the club incorporating the red star into their emblem in 1933. As the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia was organizing different pro-Republican activities throughout the country, including sending nearly 2000 volunteers to fight in Spain. RNK Split, at the time JŠK Split (Yugoslav Sports Club Split), had a connection to this part of history as well. Some of its members were a part of the last attempt to send the volunteers directly from Dalmatia in March 1937, when 156 men gathered on the overcrowded boat that was supposed to be picked up by the French ship Le Corse and then taken to Spain. However, the ship had not waited but had left the Dalmatian coast area two days earlier and the boat ended up on the island Brač, where the locals informed the authorities after which the men were captured by the Yugoslav gendarms and police, interrogated, and kept in prisons for six weeks.
In 1939 and 1940, seven members of RSK Split (Workers' Sports Club), who were also the leading figures of the United Workers Union (URS), were arrested by the Yugoslav authorities because of their political activism and sent to the prison for the political opponents in Lepoglava without a trial. After the beginning of the Second World War, six of them were handed over to the newly formed Ustaša regime that took over the Lepoglava prison. They were sent to Stara Gradiška concentration camp where they died of consequences of torture and hunger. Petar Cecić was released, only to be arrested again and hanged in Zagreb (some sources say he was sent to Zagreb and executed), while another member of the group had been taken from the Lepoglava prison and his exact destiny is unknown, but it is certain that he was executed nearby.
With the outbreak of the Second World War in April 1941, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was dismembered into different occupied, annexed and nominally independent areas. The area where Split is ended up under the Italian occupation until her capitulation in 1943, when it was captured by the German forces and went over to the Independent State of Croatia, after the brief 17-day liberation period. In the sports context, the Italian occupation resulted in the abolishment and closing down of most of the sports associations in Split. The management of Split held a meeting and decided to disband the club. To use another example from the same city, the Italian occupation authorities attempted to incorporate Hajduk, the other football club of Split that competes in the first league today, in the Italian national league, but the club management refused and the club was banned. Many people who had been in different ways associated to football and other sports clubs joined the organized uprising against fascism, namely the People's Liberation Movement led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. The interest of young sportsmen for this cause was not completely surprising, as the League of Communist Youth of Yugoslavia (SKOJ) had been large in membership in Split and Dalmatia region before the war. According to Andrija Križević Drina, every 9th fallen Partisan soldier was a sportsman. Additionally, many citizens of Split, engaged in sports or not, died as non-combatants as victims of executions, persecutions, and bombings. Thirteen young men of RSD Split joined the First Split Partisan Detachment when it was formed in August 1941, at the same time joining the tragic destiny of the detachment, when 24 of its combatants were captured after the confrontation with the Ustaša and Italian forces the same month. They were taken to the prison in Sinj, sentenced to death, and executed near Ruduša.
The memorial to the fallen men was erected in 1962 but destroyed during the war in the 1990s, similarly to many other Partisan monuments in Croatia. On the initiative of the management of RNK Split, it was renovated in 2008. Immediately after the execution of the members of the 1st Split Detachment, the Italian occupation forces started investigations and arrests in Split, arresting many people of the club, including the prewar club president Petar Nisiteo. Among the locals who were sent to internment was also the player Bogdan Srdelić. This is not where the story of the football club Split in the Second World War ends. According to most of the available sources, around 120 club members were killed during the war, most of them while fighting against the occupation. The club was reestablished after the end of the war, first as a sports association and later as a football club, and, because of its contribution to the People's Liberation War and the sacrifice it made, the club was awarded with the golden Medal for Merit to the People.
RNK Split enjoyed its share of success back in late 50’s and early 1960’s, when they managed to enter the Yugoslav First Division, where they were also reunited with Hajduk in the same division; a matchup that would not occur for the next fifty years. Split enjoyed its share of popularity amongst the working class back then, as opposed to current state of affairs. There were even reports of unrests between the two sets of city rivals’ fans throughout their history, but nowadays it seems that only a few enthusiasts really care for the fate of the club. The terraces of RNK Split’s Youth park stadium, overlooking the dockyards just a few hundred meters away from Hajduk’s Poljud mostly remain empty on matchdays.
Before it was bought by the current owners, Jozo and Slaven Žužul, RNK Split was facing a shutdown. In a few years, the owners managed to revive the club and bring it to the First division. They even decided to pay respect to the club's antifascist history by renovating the memorial in Ruduša, which is a gesture not often officially taken by the clubs with the connection to the People's Liberation War and socialist Yugoslavia, that are many in the post-Yugoslav space, many still carrying the Yugoslav names and iconography.
Nevertheless, as opposed to the glorification of the club on many leftist websites for its history, RNK Split is obviously not a leftist club and this short overview of a few episodes from the club's history does not have a purpose of claiming the continuity in terms of politics. It is rather an example and the contribution to the idea that the football clubs are always deeply rooted and intertwined with local and national histories, often even becoming relevant historical actors. In this regard, the incredible history of RNK Split and the people associated with it represents a relevant part of history of Split and Dalmatia.
Especially in the contemporary context of social inequalities and discontent, it is important to remember this history but not for the purposes of the construction of the leftist image of "the workers' football club" some still believe in. Taking the current conditions in the club into consideration, it could rather be a point of departure and inspiration for addressing the problems of today by both supporters and players.