Last Saturday night in Split, on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, the local team, Hajduk, hosted the brilliant Barcelona. The omens weren’t good. Earlier that day, storm clouds had swept across the Adriatic from Italy and more rain fell more heavily than any of our seasoned Irish company had ever seen.
Not only torrential rain, but what the locals call “krupa” — giant hailstones — clattered out of the black sky. Imagine: the temperature is 25 degrees, yet ice is slamming down on to the roof, floods of water are cascading down previously parched hills, turning the terraces into overflowing estuaries and kitchens into gurgling eddies, flooding all the houses as these ferocious rain-bloated tributaries crash their way into the sea.
The McWilliams family is, at this stage, up on chairs with mops, brooms, towels and other makeshift implements, which, for a brief moment, we are convinced will arm us against the power of nature. The locals, on the other hand, are unfazed; they have seen it all before. As one of them said to me with a shrug: “Hey, Irish, water travels downhill — get used to it.”
Their minds were on more important things than material northern European concerns of property, damp, flooding, insurance and the like — they were focused on the game.
Hajduk is a religion in Dalmatia. They are the team that dominated Yugoslavian football and came to embody Jimmy Hill’s classic description of a “crack eastern European outfit”.
(By the way, the BBC referred to any team from Vladivostok to Belgrade as a “crack eastern European team” if they could “play a bit”).
Players from Croatia and the other nations that made up Yugoslavia can more than “play a bit”. Not for nothing were they called the “Brazilians of Europe”.
Arguably, the world was robbed of possibly the best European national team that ever pulled on a jersey when the brilliant Yugoslavian team of the early 1990s disbanded.
The Yugoslavs in the late 1980s and early 1990s reinvented the game in the same way as the Dutch had done in the 1970s. Tragically, total football descended into total war.
However, the Croatian team that emerged went on to come third in the World Cup in 1998 and of that team six had played for Hajduk.
Like Barca, there is more to Hajduk than football. Both sides stand for much more. They represent the spirit of their region. Barca is Catalonia in the same way as Hajduk is Dalmatia.
Thus, when two sides like this meet — even in a friendly to mark Hajduk’s centenary — the stakes are high.
If you want to experience the passion of Dalmatians, there are few better places to see it than at a Hajduk match. They have quite some heritage. For example, their fans were the first organised fan base in Europe with different branches of “Torcida”, as the fans are known all over Yugoslavia.
In the Second World War, when Dalmatia was occupied by Italy and the rest of Croatia was a puppet fascist state, Hajduk refused to play in either the Italian or Croatian leagues.
This independence was further exemplified when Tito made the “Torcida” a banned organisation. Communists don’t like other people organising in parallel to the party.
You can sense this history on the terrace, where the fans sing for the entire game, giant flares light up the sky from the packed stadium and fathers and sons urge on the Whites.
I travelled to the game with three generations of one local family, the 78-year-old granddad having been at the first game where the organised fans were banned — a top-of-the-table 1950 clash between Hajduk and Red Star Belgrade.
As much as football, a combination of history, politics and economics bind Hajduk and Barca together.
Years ago, when Yugoslavia was falling apart, a Spanish flatmate told me that many Spaniards, particularly Catalans, cautiously watched the Balkans and concluded that that type of conflict could happen in Iberia. She argued that the gradual easing of separatist feeling in Catalonia might have had a lot to do with seeing Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia as a possible terrible alternative. Given that the civil war in Spain — where a million were killed — was in living memory, she had a point.
Now the pride of Catalonia is the football dream team that is Barca.
A bit like much of Dalmatia — where the glorious Venetian architecture bespeaks a much richer, much more prosperous past — Hajduk’s glory days are behind it but it still embodies the pride of the Adriatic.
Despite their wonderful support, Hajduk are well off the pace in Europe. This is a club that has appeared in the semis of major European tournaments, yet now it struggles.
THE contrasting tales of Barca and Hajduk are the tales of globalisation, where initial advantages are magnified, the best get better and ultimately the winner takes all. Hajduk now exports talent and Barca imports it. No Catalans play for Split, yet lots of Dalmatians and other Croatians have played for Barca. Similarly, you don’t see many English players in Dalmatia, yet many Croatians make their living in the UK. In fact, a former Hajduk star, Slaven Bilic, trod that path well before the Modrics of this world. Now, Croatian players are made for export.
Because of the war and a lack of funds, Hajduk fell behind and continues to fall. The best players all leave to play in Germany, England or Spain. The local league standard slips and this reinforces the migration of talent. This, in turn, leads to less and less finance going into the game. In a generation, teams become little more than finishing schools for the best local talent before it moves on.
The opposite is happening at the top, where the talent seeks the best opportunities and thus players like Leo Messi leave Rosario in Argentina for Barcelona. Nothing could underscore this migration of national talent more than the Copa America, which Uruguay won this weekend. Practically all of the stars of Latin America’s finest now play in Europe.
What goes on in football is also going on in the global economy in general. As Ireland experiences emigration again, talent is leaving in droves, hollowing out the productive marrow of the country. Last time out in the 1980s, a graduate was three times more likely to leave Ireland than was someone who left school after the Junior Cert. So like Dalmatian footballers, the best leave here too.
We see this “winner-takes-all” phenomenon in many walks of life. Globalisation means that if you lose your edge, it is very hard to get it back and you are likely to pay. This is why this recession and the behaviour of the banks have been so damaging to Ireland.
Look at what happened yesterday. We end up selling more than 37pc of Bank of Ireland — a bank which has 30pc of the market in a country that exports â‚¬160bn — for the tiny sum of â‚¬1.1bn. This is after putting in billions of our own money to recapitalise the bank, in order to give it to others wrapped up with a lovely bow and a card saying “fire sale”.
The Bank of Ireland deal is the financial equivalent of Hajduk selling its best players for a song. Each deal is justified because it gets much-needed money in, but each deal just makes the edifice weaker and the future bleaker.
Sometimes, there’s more to be observed at football matches than the intricacies of the offside rule.