When Jeremy Atiyah watched a grim derby clash beween Croatia's two top clubs, he expected an explosive encounter. But not that explosive
You often hear that the Slavs of eastern Europe are a tormented lot, oppressed by poverty, nightmares, history, bad weather and long distances. My experience of this torment was a Croatian football match.

It was odd enough, on a summer morning in a quaint Mediterranean port, to see football fans asleep under every hedge and bush. But this was Split, and it was derby day: the sleeping visitors were fans of Croatian rivals Dynamo Zagreb, here to visit the stadium of Hajduk Split. I decided to go to the match as a variant on the normal holiday routine. And the stadium, on the edge of town, turned out to be the most impressive sight in the city: architecturally this was Split's most important statement since Diocletian finished his palace 16 centuries ago. I joined a queue of tough men drinking from litre bottles of beer, and tried to relax.

Once inside though, I was not at ease. I found myself jammed in far above the pitch, seated amid thousands of unaccompanied smoking males, all wearing singlets, stretch- denim jeans and two or three days of black stubble on their chins. The only exceptions were the scattering of uniformed people from various branches of the armed forces. I sat up and looked over the top of the stand at the jagged Dalmatian coast which was turning purple as the sun sank into the sea.

But the bitter faces around me were intent on the pitch, where a struggle of strength and menace was about to begin. The warm-up amounted to players from both teams competing against each other in 100-metre sprints, while military music swept around the stadium. There was no chat or humour, just a tense shuffling in the seats.

The game itself did not progress according to plan. Presented with a first half full of fouls but no goals, the local fans decided enough was enough. The mass letting off of flares and rockets from one end of the ground began. In minutes, half of the pitch was enveloped in a body of rolling purple smoke. The entirety was made luminous by the flashes and fires from what sounded like an exploding arms dump. I wondered, idly, how so many sacks of fireworks could have been sneaked into the ground without anyone noticing. This was no celebration: this was an attempt to stimulate - to demand - the conditions of victory.

The referee's first reaction was to throw up his arms and run for shelter. The game ceased, the players fled. A petulant public announcement followed, presumably to the effect that the public had better behave themselves or else. It made no difference.

By the time the ammunition supply had been exhausted, and the smoke had cleared away, the atmosphere of mob violence and timorous officialdom had triumphed. In this mood after the restart, Hajduk Split successfully hacked their way to an unhindered 4-0 victory in the final half-hour.

At the whistle, no one left their places. Fifty thousand pairs of shoulders were shaking in an almighty ovation. As I made my way back through the dark streets I saw the stadium lighting up the city night, resounding with marching music. Back in town I tried to get a comment on the match from a little brown-suited waiter in my restaurant, as he translated the menu for me.

"We have very good prstaci with spinach or chicken," he began. "...and hot spices in rice with a little salad, we have a little pork with lamb and bacon marinated on a bed of rice..." It seemed for a moment as though football talk did not enter his repertoire - until he pointed one finger to the sky and announced: "Yes, it is very promising, we performed with great spirit! The referee could not stop us winning today!" Franjo Tudjman could not have put it better.

Comments