The State of Croatian Club Footballl
May 20, 2019
Most Championships: Dinamo Zagreb, 20
Last 5 Winners: Dinamo Zagreb (18/19, 17/18, 15/16, 14/15), Rijeka (16/17)
UEFA Ranking: 15th
Highest Ranked Club: Dinamo Zagreb, 51st
Since the Europa League was rebranded, Hajduk and Rijeka have both made Europa League group stages while Dinamo have qualified for the Champions League proper a number of times. Have these past few years been seen as successful for Croatian football?
More or less, yes. Hajduk’s qualification was a long time ago already, though, and they’ve stopped at the last obstacle in the last few years, coming agonizingly close on a couple of occasions (last minute goal vs. FCSB, penalties vs. Maccabi); Rijeka had two good seasons in the EL while we’ve had four teams in the playoff stages twice.
Dinamo have, of course, only once missed out on the group stages and this season they managed to break an almost half a century old ‘curse’ and remain in Europe until the spring.
The Croatian league has been very much dominated by Dinamo in recent years. Has this been a help or a hindrance to Croatian football?
Definitely a hindrance because Dinamo have been able to live well above their means with UEFA money, while the exposure in Europe also inflated their players’ market prices and selling players is their core business, not football.
Dinamo’s success in Europe has been the principle factor in creating disparity domestically because Dinamo’s budget has been bigger than that of all of the other league clubs combined. This has been killing competition in the league much more than Dinamo’s decisive influence in the federation, refs’ organisation etc. It’s a vicious circle, because with winning the title they increase their chances of making money in Europe and off selling players, which, in turn, increases their chances of winning the title again.
What would be seen as a successful year in Europe for Croatian fans?
I think Dinamo’s qualification for the group stage of either CL or EL is taken for granted. Anything more is seen as success. Also, largely thanks to Dinamo’s success in this season, from the 2020/21 season Croatia will have 5 teams in European competitions (that’s half of the league). There is a possibility of getting a 2nd team in the CL qualifiers as well.
Is there a lot of money in Croatian football?
All professional football clubs in Croatia depend heavily on player sales. TV money is extremely low, attendance (apart from Hajduk) low to extremely low, and there isn’t much money to be made from sponsorship deals, merchandise or anything else. Hajduk is the only club that has significant income from such sources, as well as from their members (30,000 or more), but still it’s far from enough.
Dinamo have been spending €50 million annually. Hajduk, despite the lack of success domestically or in Europe, have come back from the brink of bankruptcy, fully recovered and are now able to make more than €20 million a year, transfers included. There has been some significant investment in Rijeka and Osijek in recent years; Rijeka have since had to cut down costs and are facing uncertain future, while Osijek are now fuelled by Hungarian capital closely tied to political powers that be in that country, which is a doubtful position in the long run. Other clubs are just happy if they can keep their heads above the water. Each year we have at least one club falling apart financially and going straight to 3rd division because they can’t pay their players.
Dinamo can pay more than 1 million euros a year in wages for their top players and coach. The other 3 ‘serious’ clubs can do 300-500 thousand.
Do most of the country get behind the Croatian sides playing in Europe or is there a lot of tribalism still apparent?
Fans are divided on the issue. Some would support all Croatian sides in Europe, others would not. Particularly a large part of Hajduk fans would support any Dinamo opponent.
How is the EL viewed in general by Croatian football fans?
It is seen as an opportunity to play attractive opponents, test their strengths, fill the stadium, earn some money, showcase talent. Dinamo, of course, only see it as second best because there’s much less money than in the CL — but, on the other hand, they can be competitive in the EL — while all the others are desperate to get to the group stage.
How do you think the Europa League 2 will affect Croatian EL performances and what has been the reaction to the formation of the competition in Croatia?
There hasn’t been much reaction or even consideration yet.
What would you like to see UEFA do to level the playing field more for small European sides?
Leveling the playing field is impossible in this day and age. I think the UEFA should seek to help clubs from smaller markets develop and become sustainable on a higher level than their current one is.
One of the things it could do in that direction would be to reorganize its competitions in such a way that more of these sides get more games in Europe. Now you have many clubs from smaller countries desperate for participation, while those in the top 5 European leagues don’t care that much about the EL. The CL is going towards some kind of a Euopean Super League anyway; rather than introducing a “third-tier” competition such as the EL2 could be, the UEFA could form a number of competitions based on a territorial principle, maybe 4-5-6 “regional European leagues” that would provide such clubs with more meaningful games and could replace the extensive system of qualifiers and maybe the EL itself.
There are a lot of national leagues in Europe where two or three teams are much bigger than all others in every aspect; putting those together would increase their competitiveness and sustainability, which would also help the elite because they would have stronger feeder competitions. In the long run, something like that would make more sense than desperately preying on crumbs off the table where the richest clubs sit and dine; a number of games you get each season along with an opportunity to advance rather than a do-or-die situation in the qualifiers, where the difference between success and failure has a massive impact not only on the club’s season but on its long-term planning as well.
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Author: Tom Mortimer
Tom is the editor at Betting Circle and has been creating online content for over 10 years. Tom mainly writes about sport and gambling, but every now and then also delves into fleshier subjects like politics and psychology. When he was 18 he created HungarianFootball.com and over the last few years he's written on a freelance basis for ESPN, WorldSoccer, Goal.com, among many others.