CROATIA SMASH AND GRAB FOR EURO CUP SPOTS
No less than four Croatian clubs made it through to the Group stages of the Euro Cup, while Hajduk crushed Reading to win the European Super Cup in Prague to open the European season.
Only France (4: OL, OM, Monaco, PSG) has more clubs in the Champions League group stages than Croatia, as RNK Split, and Dinamo Zagreb make appearances as bottom seeds of their groups, while Manchester City, Granada, and Bari failed to qualify as the fourth seed from their respective countries, falling out to Dortmund, OM, and Galatasaray respectively. And, while few people, if any believe that Dinamo will qualify from the group including Manchester United, Dortmund, and Valencia; not to mention RNK Split’s journey through Ajax, Barcelona, and Shakhtar, it is a fine achievement for a country of 4 million people.
But it is the Euro Cup where Croatia truly found its stride. Imotski knocked out Köln, who got relegated from the Bundesliga last season, but picked up the German Cup along the way, while Cibalia, Inter, and Zagreb were given fairly straightforward qualifying draw to get into Europe’s secondary competition. And, for the first time, all of their groups look passable. That is, by no means, to say that all four Croatians will make it through into the knockout stages, but they’re in with a shout.
Funnily enough… and, frankly, as expected, not every Croatian club has the infrastructure to support their European ambitions… in fact, only one of the four clubs that qualified for the Euro Cup is playing its home games at home. So, while fans will be commuting to larger stadiums… Poljud, and then the Bendiš Arena are promised to be sold out for all of Hajduk’s and Split’s games this season, it is Osijek… a club bouncing between the first and the second division, that enjoys at least one, if not two, European matches a week… hosting both Imotski’s and Cibalia’s home games.
The last question that remains is how long is FIFA going to be able to resist the talents playing in Croatia. With a European Championship winning squad... one that is based, for the most part, at home, and 7 teams that qualified for Europe, it is only a matter of time before the Bundesliga and Serie A... for all of their glamour... tumble down the rankings, and the money starts pouring into the Adriatic.
THE GREAT ESCAPE
A lone tower rose out in the Adriatic sea. Stone, with a metal vault door attached to a short pier. Inside, the naked Croatian prime minister was chained to the wall, as he shivered in his sleep, trapped in the damp hole, frigid water sloshing onto his head from the solitary window at the top of the tower as waves battered the weathered prison.
Only one person had ever been released from this prison, and he had been left, completely mad, on the docks of Split. Tonči Kardum had never been the same; he was found dead 9 months later in a house in Zagreb, sleeping pills strewn across the bedroom.
Mario Balić stopped screaming for help only two weeks into his forced captivity. He stopped marking the wall four weeks in, after he lost his marks amongst the thousands of other etches into the walls and lost track of the days that he had been trapped. As his first tooth fell out, he started to try to tunnel out, following the route of the people before him, choosing the stone the looked the most whittled down.
Six months and eight teeth later, Balić had been broken. His captors dropped him newspapers, recording his comments regarding the state of Croatia, which depressed him more, and the constant crashing of waves echoing in the tiny chamber began to flirt with the new voices in his head. From the little that his dysfunctional mind managed to process, Bendiš was getting stronger and stronger, as Balić was losing every last shred of his will to live.
Two days later, Balić, deprived of most nutrition, began gnawing on his arm, desperate for meat. He had forgotten how long he had been in the tower. He was sure that he would never leave, but he refused to give his captors the satisfaction. He paused for a moment, perturbed. It was faint, but Balić was certain that he heard the sound of a motor on the waves… coming closer. After thirty seconds of silence, he was vaguely aware of some shouting before an explosion ravaged the slit that he had come to love as his only window to reality.
His ears ringed loudly, as moonlight, wind, and seawater streamed into the chamber. Two men jumped through the window and mouthed to the Prime Minister, “We’re going to get you out of here”. They may have been shouting, but Balić couldn’t tell. The two men, dressed all in black, helped him out of the gaping hole, and onto the jetty, before they jumped into the sea, dragging him with them. They dived some ten meters before falling through the airlocked hatch of a submarine. Balić had passed out, as the submarine dived away from the tower.
It took two days for Balić to recover. The secret service agents had drugged the Prime Minister as to ensure that he would sleep soundly, but it took a far stronger dose than any of the the three of them were comfortable with. When he finally woke up, nearly 48 hours after the rescue, Balić walked into the main cabin of the submarine. A giant glass panel covered the ceiling, with a table strewn with Hungarian playing cards and three half empty bottles of brandy. He helped himself, and sat on the couch, covered in a fur blanket, before his colleagues awoke. The most significant part that he noticed about the submarine was that, despite the delightful array of sea life in the Adriatic visible in its complete splendor through the glass, they were not moving, and were parked on the sea floor.
“Good morning Mr. Balić”. The first agent had awoken, and headed to the bridge overlooking the main room of the cabin, checking a few instruments, before returning to the still quite shaken Prime Minister, “I hope you have managed to sleep”
Balić did not respond. The agent continued, unperturbed.
“I apologize that it took us a while to get to you, the island has extremely good security, and after we had found the place - no small feat I assure you it was a long time before we even stood a chance at reaching you, much less mounting a successful rescue.
“You may wonder why we did not rescue you by plane, or helicopter, or hovercraft. The answer is that Bendiš would have been able to find us on the radar. Submarine, especially this one, was the only way we could have gone in and out, without breaking the surface of the water for more than a few moments, and without disturbing the radar.
“Incidentally, this is powered by a nuclear power source, and is, as such, completely silent. You’ve watched “The Hunt for the Red October, I trust?”
Balić remained silent.
“No matter, this is better. We left from the Libyan coast a week ago after airdropping the submarine into the Qattara depression and sneaking through the canal into the Mediterranean. The Egyptians didn’t know about us. The Libyans didn’t know about us, and, if they did, Bendiš would have had us killed. After that, it was a jaunt down to the Adriatic, and to the island.
“We waited until it was an especially rainy night… one that you couldn’t quite see the tower as well as you normally can from a distance. They didn’t see us. We have special suits to mask our internal body heat, and yours was barely…
“… anyway. We wanted to wait here, on the bottom of the sea, for a few days before you became ready for the next step of the plan. See, your absence has lost you several friends in the community. In fact, there are no coastal nations in the Mediterranean basin that will let us dock there… Bendiš has made sure of it. Docking in Italy or Montenegro would be suicide.
“Our best bet is to dock in Rijeka and to make it out of there during rush hour. It may be his back yard, but we can have a motorcycle prepped, and we can make our great escape. All we need to do is make it past the mountains, and then we’re home free.”
He stared at the prime minister, pity in his eyes. Balić had slept for three days from the anesthesia for when they had to cut off his leg and fit a prosthetic. The hypothermia had been too much, and they could not stop it. His teeth were ground to pieces on the walls of the most miserable tower in the world. His eyes, once large and jolly, were sunken into their sockets, surrounded by black bags, and he had lost 40 kilos in an unhealthy amount of time, leaving his skin flopping around his belly.
6 CROATIAN CLUBS QUALIFY FOR EUROPEAN SPRING AS MATKO KARDUM, 20, HITS HIS STRIDE
Six of the seven Croatian clubs that entered European competitions in August have made it past the group stage and into the knockouts, an absolutely unprecedented number from the tiny country that has been rising in prominence ever since Timmy Bendiš took over Hajduk in 2012. That being said, the massive achievement for Hajduk, Dinamo, and Split, all of whom qualified for the Champions League knockout stages with one game in hand, and Cibalia, Zagreb, and Inter Zaprešić who made it out of the Europa League with relative ease, is not to be overshadowed by Bendiš's singularly impressive achievement.
What should be overshadowing it all is Bendiš and his keen sense of foresight: two and a half years ago, Bendiš brought in 17 year old, Matko Kardum, a Zagreb native who had moved to Marseille only a year prior, for 20 million euros. It remains the largest transfer fee that any Croatian club has ever paid or received in the last fifteen years. What is significant is that, with Matko Kardum finally displacing Tomislav Kiš to top Bendiš's ubiquitous 4-2-3-1 formation, he is in the very top of the European elite, and is on the 5 man shortlist to win the European Golden Boy this Christmas, only one month after scoring a hattrick on Hajduk's début at the 50 000 seat Bendiš Arena.
BENDIŠ GETS ON THE BOARD
After 12 seasons, five Champions League titles, and more than 700 games of management, the sold-out game against Schalke in Split this Wednesday will be the very first time that a member of his Hajduk squad has been nominated for the World Golden Ball, with Pero Bašić being the first player to ever be nominated while playing in the Croatian League.
The ten-team league on the crux of Central and Eastern Europe, a current center of political strife (because, if it's going to happen, it's going to happen on the Balkans) has been increasing in stature as Hajduk has been winning championship after championship, rising to the occasion to provide the Dalmatian heroes better competition. The league has finally been brought to the international stage as no fewer than 6 clubs of the 10 in the league have qualified for the knockout stages of European Competitions, as well as two youth teams for the U19 Champions League.
So, for Pero Bašić to finally get nominated is not so much an indication that Pero Bašić has been having an extraordinary year, which he has: assisting the sublime Tomi Kiš during the European Championship before lifting the Champions League on his own earlier in the year, but is more an indication that, with the Top Three leagues in the world becoming evermore dominant (France, England and Spain have all but three nominations) the Croatian league has finally come to play.
FIRST KNOCKOUT ROUNDS
CRO - 3 (HNK Hajduk, RNK Split, GNK Dinamo)
ENG - 2 (Liverpool, Manchester United)
ITA - 2 (AC Milan, Juventus)
TUR - 2 (Beskitas, Galatasaray)
FRA - 2 (OL, PSG)
ESP - 2 (Real Madrid, Barcelona)
POR - 1 (Porto)
DEN - 1 (København)
DEU - 1 (Bayer Leverkusen)
notable clubs out in group stages:
Schalke (4th Group A), Arsenal, Celtic (3rd, 4th Group B), AS Monaco FC (3rd Group C), Dortmund (3rd Group G), OM, (3rd Group H)
Established giants, Manchester United and Real Madrid face presumably easy challenges in the forms of RNK Split and GNK Dinamo Zagreb respectively, while Juventus faces the club that has been in every Champions League final for the last ten years in the First Knockout Round. And, while it’s easy to jump around and say that it is United’s and Madrid’s game to lose, it’s very hard to seriously discount the threats posed by the teams that are currently 2nd and 6th in Croatia, especially after Dinamo took the game to Dortmund and won, twice, and while Split’s frontman is currently the 2nd top goalscorer of the teams remaining in the competition, shooting 5 goals in 6 group stage games… in the group with Ajax, Shakhtar and Barcelona.
That, and that same “discountable” Croatian league (7th in Europe) currently holds the top spot for amount of teams remaining in the competition, especially out qualifying Germany (5), where Dortmund, the Bundesliga champions, were dismantled by Dinamo in Group G, and Russia (6), who failed to have a single club leave the groups.
So, while the Serie A champions aren’t holding their breath as they face off Bendiš at his eponymous arena, Real Madrid and Manchester United really should join them, as José Mourinho should surely remember Bendiš humiliating Madrid at Bernabeau, all those years ago.
AND, IN THE MEANTIME… http://i62.tinypic.com/6gyavo.jpg
…three of the five remaining Russian clubs face Croatian clubs in the First knockout round of the Europa League. Whether they’ll fare any better in the lower-division of Europe is only a matter of time
The greatest manager in the game rolled over in his massive bed, blinking bemusedly at the sun shining through his gargantuan floor to ceiling windows, the curtains, or lack thereof, doing absolutely nothing to shield his eyes from the streaming light. He looked at the empty spot next to him on the sheets: his wife hadn’t spent the night with him since her death at the collapse of the Centre Pompidou in Paris two years prior.
He rolled over once more before giving up. Friendly numbers shone on his nightstand: 05:53, Sunday, March 2nd, 2025. He might as well get out of bed, open the café with Zara. He hadn’t done that in many months. Quietly, he made his way down the hallway, and flung open the door to his balcony, gazing over the picturesque harbour, a lone fishing boat interrupted the otherwise calm sea, the tiny motor lending noise to the otherwise silent landscape. Zara had just unlocked the doors to his café downstairs, and he waved while reading the newspaper. Sep Blatter passed away the previous evening, it would seem: the perpetually ancient administrator had apparently tried to pass the FIFA governance to his only remaining son, but a crazy Englishman wouldn’t have it, pulled a rifle, shot him twice in the chest, and once in the groin. According to the paper, FIFA however, wouldn’t have elections for the next six months, instead preferring to be lead by the corpse of the rotting swiss.
Bendiš sighed loudly. FIFA was falling to pieces as usual, but no matter. They would survive.
He flipped another few pages before reaching the sports section. Hajduk would face Dinamo in the Champions League Quarterfinals after the northerners had somehow defeated José Mourinho on away goals. 0-0 at Maksimir, 2-2 in Madrid was all they needed and asked for, but, now Hajduk had an easy pass to the semifinal. Far easier than Los Galacticos, and better for both clubs’ incomes: a derby match in Europe would do them well. Beating Real Madrid just didn’t have the same appeal as it used to in Split. Especially with Matko Kardum recovering from injury just in time to give his old club a walloping.
Match Kardum’s father would never recover. The kidnapping had left him traumatized as he had tried to inform the southerner’s of Zagreb’s affairs. Taken away to a remote island, shunted to where the sun doesn’t shine, and forced to endure beating after beating after beating. Water spilling over, his lungs weak as they were already. By the time that he had finally been released, unceremoniously dropped onto the harbour steps, he could not even write his own name. He had had many hours of psychiatric help… spent weeks in the doctor’s office, but every night, he woke up screaming, until one morning he simply did not wake up at all. The nurse found him, a bottle of sleeping pills on the nightstand, his hand haphazardly strewn off the bed, and a vase, shattered on the ground, pieces lying in the pool of water. His pulse long gone. His last remaining family member sobbing on the floor, eyes sunken and red.
Three weeks later, he lined up against Dinamo, his boyhood club, to knock them out of the Champions League. He had already done his work at home, scored a goal, picked up the man of the match trophy. He was recovering as well as he could for the world’s next greatest forward. But there was still space. The shadow of his father, who had beeches greatest coach throughout all of those years, still remained. Here he was though… lining up with Igor, the massive twenty year old Brazilian, and Tomislav Kiš, now 31, preparing to knockout the former heavyweights, after trashing them in Split 4-1.
Maksimir, finally, after all these years, was packed. Not often did the former national stadium find it’s halls filled to the brim, but here they were, thirty five thousand people with UEFA’s little stars on their tickets. Ready for a show. Dinamo would come back from the hole. Three goals were all that was required. Sure it was Hajduk, but all Dinamo would need would be three simple little goals and they’d be through. Manchester United would await the winners, and the team from Zagreb would finally take out the Dalmatians. Why, they had even managed to defeat Real Madrid earlier in Spring… they could DO THIS!
It took Matko Kardum only three minutes to prove that, while Dinamo sold him to Marseille for five hundred thousand euros, he was worth every penny of the twenty million that Hajduk paid to bring him back. Admir Lotinac dashed up the right flank, before lofting the ball in front of Matko Kardum. Hector Torres, alone in between the posts did everything he could to stop the striker, but there were really twenty million reasons why he couldn’t. The ball bounced off the corner of the goal and into the net to trash Dinamo’s hopes just as fans were taking their seats.
Kardum, however, was not the hero of the night. Dinamo did not get to boo his move from Marseille to Hajduk for long, because Tomislav Kiš showed the world why he has two European Golden Boots. Why he has two Champions League Golden boots, a Best Player award. He showed everyone why he was, at 31, still the club’s icon. Kiš popped up and shot, not once, not twice, not even a hat trick, but four times. By the time the dust cleared, Kiš grasping the match ball, Dinamo fans looked at the scoreboard and saw “3-6, 10-4 agg.”
Hajduk had done it again. Bendiš turned around, held his index finger up, and spoke under his breath, as the fans in the south stand cheered "that's how it's done".
The two men sat on the Croatian manager's balcony, like they did for many many weekday afternoons. Training had, of course finished around 4ish, and Balić was leafing through the newspaper. Bendiš, as usual, was bothering himself with the absurd task of giving a chance to the occasional young fans that had sent him handwritten letters, begging for guidance. He had once had the naïve notion that he'd found a protégé when an ambitious American student had begged him for an internship, but found their lack of conviction and animation disappointing. He had only been a résumé padder, and had felt betrayed when he asked Bendiš for a letter of recommendation. Still, it didn't put him off from writing letters back. He sealed one with a wax shield.
"Your team has become too good." Bendiš scowled, but Maro continued, "Look here: Pero Bašić just got nominated for the World Golden ball last season, right?"
Bendiš, still scowling, proffered an acknowledgement, "sure..."
"He's, what, 27? Right now, you have at least one player in each position, under the age of 22 or so-ish that has the quality to challenge for the Golden Ball"
At this point, Bendiš burst out in laughter? "You've got to be kidding me, the Golden Ball? Last year was the first time any of my players were even SHORTLISTED for the Golden Ball... and you expect me to expect out of any one of them to WIN? I've been at this for more than a decade and only one made the list!"
"Yes, but that was when our league was the shitshow that everyone wanted to leave. Radošević went to Ajax! Remember that? Where's he now: Cibalia. He came back home after 5 awful years abroad. Then there was Ljubičić who went to LA. Do you remember the transfer fees back then? I think that our entire business back when you started was less than 500 thousand euros GROSS, and that's when the club was on its hands and knees begging for money. Remember when Goran Milović left for Moscow and you dumped his agent into the harbor?"
"In any case," Balić continued, "Now? It's fashionable. Not very fashionable, but, you know, players are coming here. You're winning titles. People believe in this league as a whole, being actually difficult to score goals in, and not just some shooting gallery like Slovenia."
"I don't get it, what's your point"
"Well, when Kiš, Milić, Maloča, Elež, etc... were all up-and-comers who, for some reason, despite all the foreign interest in the world, decided to stay at home... they were labeled as crazies.
"And now, Igor, Lotinac, all your goalkeepers, your entire youth academy, and then Kardum... oho... Kardum,... they're playing for the best club in the world. They're not crazies who are sitting tight because their families are cheering for them in front of a tiny 12 inch television screen that has antenae like a beetle.
"They're here because, at the prime of their careers, they're at the best club in the world... and the world knows it."
Two months later, Kiš scored at Wembley to lift the Champions League crown for the fourth time in a row. At 31, he was the oldest player in Hajduk colours by more than 5 years, while Olympique Lyonnais couldn't come up with anything to stop Bendiš and Co.
"So... at the end of the day... there exists a small problem."
"See, that's what I don't get: you present me having an amazing team like something that's a problem, and I just don't see it."
"Well... look at it this way. After 15 years of your star player getting snubbed from the one award he couldn't take for himself... the one he deserves the most... How can you possibly choose which one of these kids deserves it at all?"