Dinamo Zagreb and the Changing Winds of Croatian Football

Dinamo Zagreb’s start to the season currently sees them in third place in the Croatian Premier League, 4 points off leaders Rijeka and rivals Hajduk Split in second with a game in hand over both. Despite the fact that Dinamo Zagreb could still go on to win the league from this position, it is clear that this is not going to be a usual routine season for Dinamo and that there is a good chance of either Rijeka or Hajduk winning the league this season. Dinamo’s dominance in Croatian Football has been well documented, winning all but one title since the start of the 2005-06 season. For comparison, in the same time period the Bundesliga Bayern Munich have won all but four titles within the same time period and even PSG have not won the league on three occasions since Qatari investment came into the club in June 2011. The difference in Dinamo’s start this season compared to other slow starts is that Dinamo’s dominance could be coming to an end. The dominance Dinamo have had, has been coupled with allegations of corruption, match fixing and clear preferential treatment from those within the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) and the governments of Croatia. However, since the death of Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandić and the prison sentence given to Zdravko Mamić, who pulled the strings behind the scenes at Dinamo a new era dawns, one where they have not got the backing of the state or a crook in charge of footballing activities.

Since Croatia’s separation from Yugoslavia, Dinamo Zagreb has had a long history of those with immense power using the club as a tool for their own benefit, creating chaos within the club and the Croatian league in the process. Previously, the first President of Croatia, Franjo Tuđman, enforced a name change from Dinamo Zagreb to HAŠK Građanski (Croatian Academic Sports Club Citizens) in 1991 before settling on Croatia Zagreb in 1993. Tuđman achieved this through his political power, with at-the-time President of Dinamo, Zlatko Canjuga, also being the President of Tuđman’s ruling HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) Party in Zagreb. Tuđman enforced this move in order to give Dinamo a more nationalistic name, which could be recognised across the world. Dinamo fans resented the move, as they consider the name an important part of their history. In Communist Yugoslavia, all Football clubs were disbanded and many were reformed under different names, including Dinamo, who were originally named HŠK Građanski. Goran Kovac, who was the leader of the group that campaigned to change the name back stated, “For many years under communism it was not safe to sing a Croat national song, but you could sing Dinamo songs. When you sang a Dinamo song, everyone knew what you meant.”

Tuđman’s influence meant that favouritism for Dinamo was not something that was limited to the boardroom within Maksimir. If the President of Croatia pulling the strings in the boardroom was not enough to convince someone that Dinamo benefitted from the state, then it should be noted that Dinamo were also favoured dearly by those within the Croatian Football Federation (HNS). In the most extreme example this can be seen through the final day of the 1998-99 season. With one game to go, Rijeka, a city ruled by the Social Democrats 2 , the opponents of the HDZ, needed to beat Osijek in order to win the league for the first ever time. Dinamo started the day second, a point behind Rijeka. Dinamo comfortably beat Varteks (now Varaždin) 2-0 in Zagreb, doing what they needed to do in order to win the league. However, in Rijeka immense controversy unfolded. Going into the final minutes of the game at 1-1 Rijeka needed a goal in order to win the league title. In the 89th minute Barnabas Stipanovics crossed into the path of Admir Hasancic who put the ball into the back of the net. The goal was then subsequently ruled out for offside, a decision which has been since adjudged to be incorrect through the use of technology. 3 The controversy surrounding the decision huge, it was alleged by Croatian News Magazine “Nacional” in the week following the game that the game was rigged and that referee Reno Sinovcic was blackmailed by the SZUP (Croatian Intelligence Service) with a criminal record, suspected of Racketeering and Extortion. 4 The Interior Ministry also confirmed that the documents Nacional used were genuine. In response to the controversy, the President of the Croatian Football Federation at the time, Vlatko Markovic, stated that the win for Dinamo was fine as they were the “Most Catholic” club in the country. 5 The position of Catholicism within Croatian nationalism essentially means that this quote is the head of the Croatian Football Federation saying that a controversial win for Dinamo Zagreb is fine as they are his favourite club. In late 1999, Tuđman passed away after a long battle with cancer. Following Tuđman’s death, the name was changed back to Dinamo Zagreb and they also happened to go on a run of winning the league only once in seasons spanning from 2000-01 until 2004-05, finishing as low as seventh in the 2004-05 season.

However, the death of Tuđman did not mean the end of corrupt influence in the boardroom of the Maksimir Stadium. From the early 2000’s the club was bankrolled by the Mayor of Zagreb Milan Bandić and was effectively run in the boardroom by Zdravko Mamić, being presided over by the elected Mirko Barišić.

Bandić used public money in order to bankroll Dinamo, easing their ways to league titles. The official figures provided by the City Office for Sports and Youth of the City of Zagreb stated that from the period of 2006 to 2017, around 300 million Croatian Kuna was used in order to fund Dinamo. 6 This amount is equivalent to just under 35 million pounds. In turn, Zdravko Mamić used his power and influence within Croatian Football to turn this financial domination over the rest of the league in order to create financial benefit for himself. In 2009, former Arsenal striker Eduardo sued Mamić over a clause in a contract that he had signed whilst at Dinamo, which declared that 50% of all future earnings must be given to Mamić. In 2014, Eduardo won the case and the contract was considered void.

The list of wrongdoings by Mamić is long and worth an entire article just in itself. However, most importantly of all in 2019 Mamić was sentenced to six and a half years in prison due to fraud in the transfers of Luka Modrić to Tottenham and Dejan Lovren to Lyon. In these cases, contracts were illegally backdated so that the player would then receive 50% of the transfer fee they commanded. The amount of money received was then forwarded on to Mamić. 7 Lovren and Modrić have since been cleared of any wrongdoing. In 2021, the sentence was confirmed and Mamić resigned from all of his positions at the club. However, he is currently not serving any jail time after Mamić fled to Bosnia, who currently refuse to extradite him due to his Bosnian citizenship and lack of an extradition treaty with Croatia. As well as this, also in 2021 the aforementioned Bandić passed away, meaning the bankrolling of Dinamo coming from either the state or the personal interests of Zdravko Mamić has stopped abruptly.

Drawing parallels with the change in fortunes that occurred following Tuđman’s death, it could be entirely possible that this change could be starting again following the passing of Bandić and sentencing of Mamić. The squad from the season at which Mamić was forced to resign had largely carried over into the seasons of 2021-22 and 2022-23, in the summer of 2022 Dinamo only signed four players and continued to dominate the league.

Out of these 4 players signed, Robert Ljubičić has had the most successful impact, making 33 league appearances last season. Fellow signing, striker Josip Drmić has not been successful, making appearances mostly from the bench, scoring only 6 goals in 35 league appearances last season, paling in comparison to the 21 goals in 30 appearances at Rijeka the year before. Defender Boško Šutalo, signed for 4 million Euros, made only 4 appearances last season. The remaining signing Marko Brkljača has yet to make an appearance.

Their continued domination in the league allowed their poor transfer market activity to be overshadowed. Dinamo were allowed to ignore their poor transfer activity due to the weakness of the rest of the league during the 2022-23 season.

Most notably this can be seen through Rijeka, who’s final league position of fourth does not tell the story of their season. Rijeka are usually one of Dinamo’s biggest contenders for the league title, being the club responsible for stopping Dinamo’s clean sweep since 2005, winning the league in 2017. Rijeka’s start to last season was nothing short of disastrous, winning only once after 11 games, finding themselves bottom of the table and at one point in November lost 7-2 at home to Dinamo. With the appointment of Sergej Jakirović following this loss, alongside the emergence of Striker Matija Frigan, Rijeka regained form, moving from 8th to 3rd in the space of ten matchdays. The ease at which Rijeka moved through the pack of the league following a change in manager and emergence of a young player showed the reality of the majority of teams in the league, which was a league that last season lacked any strength in depth. With only one relegation spot in the league, some teams coast through the year, failing to make any real impression. Last year, towards the end of the season the relegation spot was almost certainly Gorica’s, before a remarkable comeback from Gorica and some terrible form saw Šibenik relegated. This year, NK Rudeš look likely to be relegated straight back down following their promotion last season. After 14 games, they currently sit winless on 3 points, 8 points behind ninth placed Istra 1961.

In reality the only team last season Dinamo had to compete against was Hajduk. Two derby wins and two draws meant that the league was never going to be lost by Dinamo. As well as this the re-emergent Rijeka found themselves in the second half of the season beating Hajduk twice, but losing to Dinamo each time they played. The small margins between teams are amplified in a league where only ten teams compete and each team plays each other four times. The home advantage which Dinamo has in derby games against turns three points a season into six. Having attended the 1-1 between Hajduk and Dinamo at Stadion Poljud in October 2022 myself, it was clear to see that in an atmosphere that didn’t favour Dinamo there was not much between the two teams. Only a controversial penalty given to Dinamo and scored by Bruno Petković gave Dinamo a draw, in what was otherwise an evenly contested game.

Since last summer’s transfer window, Dinamo have continued to make decisions that have not paid off in the transfer market.

The sale of Mislav Oršič to Southampton in January of 2023 was made in the knowledge that Dinamo would go on to win the league and that their European ambitions for the season had ended. Oršič’s replacement was due to be 20-year-old Lukas Kačavenda or Luka Stojković, both from Lokomotiva Zagreb, however both have found themselves injured since September and August respectively.

They have also signed Maxime Bernauer from Paris FC of the Second Division of France for 1.2 million euros. He has made only five league appearances so far this season, only completing a full 90 minutes once. Also, Dinamo signed Tibor Halilović from Heerenveen who has yet to complete a full 90 minutes for the club.

Dinamo Zagreb
Artwork by Charbak Dipta

However these are not the most damning signings so far this season for Dinamo. A sign of a club struggling for ideas in the transfer market is a club that is willing to re-sign players that they have just let go. Dinamo have done this not only once but twice. Dinamo sold North Macedonian midfielder Arijan Ademi to Beijing Guoan in March 2023, however returned in September, giving up a portion of his salary in Beijing in order to do so. They have also re-signed French defender Kevin Theophile-Catherine, who was released at the end of last season. The poor start Dinamo have had, combined with the fact Theophile-Catherine was unable to find a new club meant that in October he re-signed, starting against Lokomotiva Zagreb in Dinamo’s 2-1 win.

All of these signings which Dinamo have made would not be as bad if they did not actively sell players every summer. Despite Dinamo’s success, as per the days of Zdravko Mamić, they have continued to be a selling club. This summer alone they brought in at least 38 million Euros in known transfer fees, selling Josip Šutalo to Ajax for 20.5 million Euros, Luka Ivanušec to Feyenoord for 8.5 million Euros and World Cup Star Dominic Livaković to Fenerbache for 9 million Euros. Alongside this they sold Niko Janković to Rijeka, who has gone on to be Rijeka’s key player in their start to the season. At the time of writing Janković has scored 6 goals and 2 assists in 13 games for Rijeka this season.

Dinamo have now gone on to have a poor start to the season, which could easily be worse. In the league they have already lost 3 matches this season, a number which matches the amount of games lost in the entirety of last season. Two of these losses have come in the Derby against Hajduk Split, a fixture which they are usually dominant in. It is the first time since 2008-09 that Hajduk have won twice in a row. Their other loss came against currently 4th placed side Gorica, a team which has been transformed since February, as they looked certain to go down last season. There also could have easily been a couple of more losses this season. Dinamo have relied on late goals in order to get them out of jail against sides that they would easily be beating in previous years. Away to Osijek in September, Dinamo found themselves 2-0 down after 46 minutes but won the game 3-2 after scoring two late penalties through Bruno Petković, one in the 87th minute and one in the 99th minute. At home to Lokomotiva Zagreb, a side that was previously Dinamo’s feeder club, Dinamo relied on goals in the 94th and 97th minute in order to win 2-1. Most recently, Dinamo scored in the 94th minute through Mahir Emreli in order to draw
away to Varaždin. If none of these goals had been scored, Dinamo would have found themselves comfortably mid-table, with over a quarter of fixtures played.

Dinamo have also found themselves in trouble in European competitions. For the first time since 2017-18, they have been unable to make either the Champions League or Europa League Group Stages, instead falling into the conference league. Being competitive in European competition is paramount for Dinamo. With the ease at which Dinamo usually win the league, managers are usually judged on their European exploits. Again this has shown this season, former Liverpool midfielder, Igor Bišćan, who was only appointed in April was sacked following Dinamo’s infamous Champions League Qualifier against AEK Athens, which was known more for the off-field exploits of fans rather than the exploits of the players. Dinamo found themselves 3-2 up on aggregate heading into added time of the second leg. However, Dinamo then proceeded to lose 4-3 with goals from AEK in the 92nd and 100th minutes. Under new manager Sergej Jakirović, who left Rijeka in order to join Dinamo, a similar loss to Sparta Prague in the Europa League Qualifying occurred. Dinamo found themselves 3-1 up going into the second leg away, however they were unable to see out the tie, losing 4-1 on the night and 5-4 on aggregate. After finding themselves in the Conference League for the first time ever, Dinamo have again not hit form. After three games they have beaten Astana, who they also beat twice in Champions League Qualifying, but they have lost away to Kosovan side FC Ballkani 2-0 and 1-0 at home to Czech side Viktoria Plzeň. Following the loss to Ballkani, Jakirović hinted at leaving already, stating “I don’t know if it was my last game, I need to sleep and then make a decision about it.” The following day Dinamo made a statement, giving Jakirović a vote of confidence. Although managerial stability has never been a feature of Dinamo’s seasons despite their constant success, it would be more short-sighted than ever to get rid of a clearly talented coach after a mere few months in the job. Previously Dinamo could rely upon money being poured into the club to solve the problems, however now this ability seems to be limited compared to previous seasons. Dinamo have constantly been able to look at short-term solutions due to the weakness of league opposition, however with Hajduk and Rijeka being strong competitors this year Dinamo will have to look more long term with their solutions. The loan signing with the option to buy for teenager Gabriel Vidović from Bayern Munich may have addressed this as well as the signings of Luka Stojković and Lukas Kačavenda from Lokomotiva. These may well turn out to be good signings, however these again typify the laziness in the recruitment process. Two players they have again signed from their previous feeder club as well as the signing of a teenager that is highly regarded as one of the best prospects in Croatian Football.

Dinamo’s laziness in the transfer market may cost them for the first time since 2017 and it would be beneficial for the entirety of Croatian Football for it to do so. For too long has Dinamo been dominant, costing Croatian Football in the process. It is clear that Croatia, as a Footballing nation, is extremely talented. Players such as Luka Modrić, Joško Gvardiol, Matteo Kovačić, Mario Mandžukić and many more do not appear overnight. However, for too long has this talent usually benefitted just one club. There is potential for the Croatian League to be as strong amongst the big four teams (Dinamo, Hajduk, Rijeka and Osijek), as the top teams in Switzerland, Scotland, Belgium and even the Netherlands. However, if Dinamo continue to dominate the league they will inevitably crash out of Europe every year and sell their best players to clubs with more money in Europe, before buying the talent from the rest of Croatia. As long as Dinamo stays clear of another figure looking to use the club for their own gain, whether that be a political or financial benefit, the change should occur. The Croatian Premier League has potential to be one of the most competitive and high quality outside the ‘Top Five Leagues,’ however it needs to diversify the league winners in order to do so. Dinamo’s start to the season, showing they can no longer get away with short sighted signings and managerial decisions, hopefully means that their reign may come to an end and a new start for Croatian Football may be beginning.