Slaven Maticic

Football History: A Club That Said "No"

Created on Feb. 23, 2014 1:00 PM EST

The year was 1944. Europe was struck with invasions, brutality, bloodshed, fear and terror. World war II brought hard times for sports in Europe. However, there was a handful of men, a team of players that pledged "for better or for worse" when it came to football.

A small Croatian club looking for its place among the giants of European elite, seeking to write it's name on the European football map. And believe it or not, they've made it. This is their story.

When World War II started, HNK Hajduk was a Croatian club playing in the Yugoslavian football league. After Yugoslavia was conquered and split up between Germany and Italy in 1941, a good part of country's coast, along with Split as Hajduk's mothertown, fell under Mussolini's rule.

At first Hajduk was officially disbanded, but later that year the whole team was assembled together with club's management and politely asked to participate in Mussolini's Italian football league. The alternative was a firing squad. To everyone's astonishment, the team did the unthinkable. They said no.

Immediately thereafter, most of Hajduk's players and management escaped from Split and joined the antifascist guerrillas, switching from football pitch to a battlefield. In Split, Hajduk was replaced with Societa Calcio Spalato, Hajduk's stadium was renamed in honor of Bruno Mussolini and it seemed like the end of one of the most famous Croatian football clubs.

However, players in the resistance movement did not allow this to happen, and the club was restored by the surviving players in exile on May 7, 1944. They had no stadium, no sponsors and no equipment but they did have the thing that mattered – talent, heart and will to fight terror with football.

Meanwhile in the rest of Nazi controlled Europe, FC Barcelona did not boycott the Spanish championship although generalissimos Franco threatened it's players with a death penalty if Real Madrid, his favorite club, didn't win the Spanish Cup. Inter Milan, which has a reputation as a proletarian club, did not refuse to participate in the Italian league when Mussolini changed its name to Societa Sportiva Ambrosiana.

The great Bayern Munich did not refuse to play in Hitler's monstrous Gauliga even when the club's coach Kurt Landauer, a Jew, was sent to Dachau. Schalke 04 did not have any problems with the fact that, as a symbol of new Germany sponsored by the state, it did not lose a single game from 1935 to 1943.

Ajax from Amsterdam did not refuse to play in occupied Netherlands; nor did the famous Olympique Marseille join the resistance in humiliated Vichy France. But small, until that time insignificant Hajduk Split said no.

The period after club's restoration was the time of this small club's greatest glory. With assistance from western Allies, team went on their "big world tour" - passing through northern Africa, Middle East and Mediterranean. Players tortured by sickness, wounds and malnutrition traveled 30,000 kilometers, played 90 games in seven countries and won 74 of them – all that in just a little over a year.

The most important game of that tour took place in Bari, Italy. On Sep. 23, 1944, HNK Hajduk played a game against the team of the British Army, whose ranks were bolstered by some of the best English players of that time, including James Merphy from West Bromwich Albion, Andy Beatty and Tom Finney from Preston and Jimmy Rudd from Manchester City.

Hajduk was led by it's captain Frano Matosic, while British team's captain was famous Stan Cullis, the legend of Wolverhampton who even today has a stand named after him at Wolves' Molineux Stadium. With more than 40,000 football fans in the stands, that match is considered to be the most visited, and the most important sporting event in wartime Europe.

The tour came to an end in May 1945. After the referee signaled the end of the last game, French general Humblot payed tribute to all of the club's wartime achievements. In the name of Charles de Gaulle, HNK Hajduk was decorated with a title of honorary member of Free French football league.

Today, almost 70 years later, all of these achievements are ancient history known only to the few. However, the fact remains that a small football club from Croatia played it's part in victory over tyranny.

HNK Hajduk joined the resistance and played their own Champion's League among the ruins of war-torn Europe. Instead of taking the easy road, they traveled through fire and death to play football. Instead of accepting Nazi sponsorship and living comfortably, they openly defied Hitler, Mussolini and any other fascist dictators in times when few in occupied Europe dared to do so. They had the courage to say no.  

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