I had one of the most interesting coversations of the year earlier this week at Caffe Bajamonti with a lovely man who is a clock maker. I had been looking him or one other man – a policeman – for some time, and was grateful to my growing list of contacts in Split not only for finding him, but also for persuading him to speak to an English writer.
The reason I was looking for him was because he was a key part of one of the most remarkable stories I have come across about Hajduk Split in my research for our forthcoming book on the history of the club. This is what I had learned about events in May 1991 prior to our meeting.
Hajduk were due to travel to Belgrade for the Yugoslav cup final in May 1991, where they would face Red Star Belgrade. Things were tense in the region, with war imminent, and the first deaths had occurred the previous months in Plitvice. The Hajduk team flew up in a military plane, won the game 1-0 with a 65th minute winner from Alen Boksic (you can watch the game below) and flew straight home. The travelling support consisted of just two fans, who must have been totally crazy and totally committed to the Hajduk cause. Upon arrival in Split, the trophy was buried in the foundations of a building, where it lay untouched for twenty years. In February 2011, Hajduk celebrated 100 years of existence, but the trophy remained buried until the following May, when the law of 20 years’ possession came into effect, and the trophy went to its permanent home in the Hajduk trophy room at Poljud.
An amazing story, and I really wanted to interview one of the two fans to include their story in the book. Far from being a standard history, I want the book to reflect the personality of Hajduk and its characters, and an interview with one of the fans was high on my list.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a text from a friend: “I have found one of the 1991 fans. His name is The Doctor, and he will talk to you. His number is…”
An interview with a hardcore Torcida called The Doctor. This was going to be interesting. My co-author Frane arranged the meet and introduced us at Bajamonti, then left us to chat. I was not sure what I was expecting, but what I found was a cultured, gentle clock maker, father of three drinking tea, a biker with lots of stories of his Torcida past. It was a lovely hour, and I will certainly be meeting him for a beer again. Rather than ask him about 1991, I asked him to tell me about his association with Hajduk, how it started, and then we could see where the conversation went.
“We must start with 9/11. Not Al Qaeda for September 11, 1971, the day I was born. My father bought me a 20-year membership for Hajduk, and a year for all the extended family. I was destined to be a Hajduk fan, whether I liked it or not. My first game. It was much later, and I don’t remember exactly, but I was five, perhaps six months old. Yes, I went to games with my father as a baby.”
One of the more interesting things I have learned about Hajduk is why so many people follow the club in Split. The old maternity hospital was right next to the old stadium, and so when a baby was born and the mother showed her child the outside world, the first thing they saw was the Hajduk stadium.
The Doctor got in with a crowd of hardcore fans and started to go to all the games, home and away all over former Yugoslavia. There were fights – good fights – with rival teams and the police, and this became a way of live. A few weeks before the first deaths in 1991, The Doctor and about 15-20 others went to a match in Banja Luka, where they got into a good fight, and they talked about the upcoming cup final in Belgrade in May. As the events in Plitvice unfolded, however, most of them realised the seriousness of the situation, concluding that a trip to Belgrade could result in loss of life if war was about to break out.
Not The Doctor. He announced he would go to the match, alone if necessary. There was only one other fan who agreed to join him on the journey – a policeman today. Due to the regional situation, the regular train via Knin was not an option, so they had to travel by bus along the coast to Ploce, then up by train through Bosnia. The two fans agreed to meet at Split Bus Station and The Doctor was surprised to see the future policeman arriving draped in an huge Croatian flag, and wearing… a sombrero!
As the train passed through Bosnia, some Bosnian Serbs going to the came joined the train. The Doctor went to the bar to get a beer, and his Croatian accent was immediately noticed, so he bought a case, went back to the compartment, locked it and sat drinking beer in silence with his companion, as the Bosnian Serbs went to look for them. Arriving at the stadium, they had the whole section to themselves and were surrounded by 5-6 policeman. The first thing they did was to unfurl the Croatian flag, and then they set about singing their Hajduk songs, just the two of them. This earned them a beating from the police.
The home fans did not believe they were really Croatian fans initially, thinking it was some kind of joke from the fans of the other Belgrade team, Partizan, but when the truth was known, one fan ran over and a fight ensued. The police intervened, and then asked The Doctor for his ID card. Instead of the ID card, he produced his passport, saying he had crossed an international border and so did not need the ID card. When the policeman saw the Yugoslav passport, he beat The Doctor again, for he had placed a flag of Croatia on the front cover.
About forty minutes before the game was due to finish, and a few minutes before the winning goal was scored, they were escorted from the stadium for their own safety. They heard some strange sounds from the home support when the goal went in, and assumed Hajduk had scored. At full time, they were taken to the Hajduk team bus, where the players were incredulous that they had travelled to the game. They returned home to a hero’s welcome in Split, flying in the military plane with the team.
There was one more beating to come, however. As they were coming off the plane, The Doctor took the trophy from the hands of one of the players. A Split policeman saw this, ran up to The Doctor and hit him, assuming he was trying to steal it. The players came to the rescue and The Doctor just smiled:
“Don’t worry, I am getting used to policemen beating me.”
The story was told with humour, passion, detail, and I really enjoyed meeting him. There was just one question that remained, and I felt brave enough to ask it:
“Why do they call you The Doctor?” My mind had been racing with possibilities.
“Ah, that is a funny story. A year before the game, this guy started having some kind of fit. Everyone just stopped and stared. I took him, slapped him and threw some water on him, and he returned to normal. I had no idea what I was doing, but it seemed to work. Every since then, I have been called The Doctor.”
A History of Hajduk Split by Paul Bradbury and Frane Grgurević will be published later this year.