There’s an iconic image. A silent pilgrim, standing above a “sea of fog”. Its author is the 19th century German painter, Caspar David Friedrich. There is another image. A silent hollow, standing over a mass of pixels representing fog. It doesn’t have an author per se, seeing as it is a screenshot from the wildly acclaimed video game “Dark Souls 3”. Between them lies a vast network of cultural heritage, spanning from the pre-industrial romanticism of Friedrich’s Europe to the postmodern pastiche of cyber culture of Miyazaki’s Japan.
The symbol, however, remains the same. Introspection, sense of uncertainty, an elusive future. Change.
And, after 11 long years, Croatian football faces changes. Not in the real sense of the word, though. There is still systemic corruption, lack of long term planning, almost non-existent infrastructure and a woefully lopsided (in terms of both quality and competitiveness) league. No, the change is, many would say, purely cosmetic. Although fans of NK Rijeka won’t care.
Their club won their first major trophy. After 11 years, Dinamo Zagreb have been overthrown by the boys in white from the north-west and Croatia has a new champion. But, as the mantle is being passed on from the capitol to the coastal town of Rijeka, questions remain. What exactly are the new kings inheriting?
Undoubtedly, at first glance, witnessing the rise of new champions after more than a decade of Dinamo’s dominance seemed, in the eyes of many, a refreshing change of pace. Afterall, Dinamo’s complete dominance over Croatian domestic football was perceived by many as a symptom of the persisting disease at its heart; personified in Zdravko Mamic, the grey eminence behind the perma-champions from the capitol.
Much has been written about Mamić (who now faces charges on numerous accounts of fraud, tax evasion and corruption) and his seemingly unyielding grasp on nearly all of the institutions of the Croatian football. Year after year, journalists, fans and a few brave officials from the other clubs from the First divison pointed out the numerous cases of nepotism, breaches of sporting regulations, shady financial deals and blatant (and mostly ignored) favoritism of Dinamo Zagreb at the expense of the other clubs from the First division.
Year after year, arguments were made, proof gathered, articles were researched and written, and year after year, Croatian footballing Godfather simply pointed at the trophy room; “We are the most successful club in the region,”, he would say, in his typical idiosyncratic blend of rage and pride, “we are playing in the Champions League almost every year!”, he would spit, holler and shout. “We are champions for ten years straight.” La Decima, many had jokingly called it.
And year after year, fewer people would come watch football in Croatia. Year after year, Dinamo’s players, many of whom play under lucrative contracts funded by seemingly illegal business practices, would celebrate their title on a ghost stadium, lifting the trophy among each other, surrounded by air and silence. Year after year, fewer people came to see the national team play, losing faith in the country’s chief footballing organization that seemed either blind, incompetent, or, worse, complicit in the malaise that gripped the nation’s most beloved sport.
Year after year, until these tensions escalated and powerless fans turned against their own national team. The sights from Milano and Saint-Etienne were that of a broken footballing culture: national team players begging the angry and desperate fans to stop throwing flares, the only weapons they had left. Torn between a corrupt governing body and disillusioned fans, Croatia’s golden generation, lost, without identity, stumbled through major tournaments, flattering to deceive.
At home, the stadium were empty and the flags stood still. Many smaller clubs were financially bankrupt, and money that would’ve otherwise been used to help bankroll footballing fields and academies for the youth was being shuffled from pocket to pocket in an endless cycle of crooked agent fees, sponsoring deals and player transfers.
And so, year after year, the title of “Champions of Croatia” meant less and less.
And that’s not to say that NK Rijeka’s officials didn’t benefit from this nepotistic networking. A few years back, Dinamo helped the club when it was on the brink of bankrupcy not only financially but with a steady influx of (unwanted but still quality) players such as Tomečak, Krstanović, Pokrivać and, most importantly, Kramarić. Afterall, Mamić’s own response after Rijeka’s triumph was telling.
“You could say that I’m a bit proud (for Rijeka’s title),” notorious Mamić said in a recent interview with the Serbian TV-network Arenasport. “Afterall, we helped them quite a bit 5 years ago, logistically, with players and some advice. Now the apprentice has beaten the master and I’m proud. They deserve this.”
Yes, but do the supporters deserve this? Over the past few seasons, league’s average attendances numbered around 3000 spectators per match (a lowly figure further inflated by Hajduk Split’s figure of around 10 000 per match). Sometimes, even victory can be sour.
But should that diminish the nature of this triumph? Of course not. Rijeka played by far the best and most consistent football in the division, they are a coherent team (some would say the only true team in the division), led by a competent coach and an unassailable team spirit. It is hardly their fault that the Croatian football seemingly lunges from one crisis to another. Nothing can take this away from them, and, judging by the scenes in the town the other night, nothing will.
It is in fact a grave injustice, that the victory of this fine team should still be shadowed by the sad context behind the scenes. That there remains a doubt, that every time this victory becomes a topic of conversation, someone may use those two damning words: “Yeah, but…”
It is sad that, after years of abuse and negligence, the crown they inherit means no more than an empty title to many that live and breath football in Croatia.
We live in pitiful times. The football that we deserve is a football mirrored in our own society - plagued by inequality, corporate greed and neverending thirst for profit. But football, like all communal cultures, lives and breathes on the flipside of those vices.
It lives in the brave hearts of supporters and their families that fought for justice of Hillsborough for three decades; it lives in the voices of underprivileged that keep buying that season tickets even when their teams plummet down, division by division; it lives in the persistency of the fans that are willing to be sacrificed as hooligans and betrayers if it saves their national team from the corrupt network of the few; it lives every day on every schoolyard where a new generation of boys and girls learn the magic of a simple feat of shooting a ball between two goalposts.
So, Rijeka fans, take heart. Today, you may be kings of nothing, but true triumph can only be achieved in the face of adversity. And even if you now wear the crown of a footballing culture that stands over a sea of fog, like that wanderer, that hollow, make no mistake, an uncertain future also means a future full of possibilities.