I’ve been told it smells like piss and weed. And I’ve been told it’s a dump, dirty, and dark. I’ve been told there were no bathrooms, and it is full of cops and security. Luckily for me, Stadion Maksimir really lived up to the hype.
I made my first journey there on Tuesday to watch my beloved Dinamo Zagreb play in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League. They were expected to win, and I also had my own personal tour guides, who were natives of Zagreb and fellow life-long Dinamo fans.
I took two more of my friends, one American, who has never been to any sort of professional soccer match, and one from Ireland, who is a fervent follower of Manchester United. I told them that it is going to be a little different than any other sporting events they have been to, but still expected to have a good time.
I also tried to explain the situation between Zdravko Mamić and the fans of the club, but it didn’t seem to register with them like I hoped. I guess all they needed was proof.
For those who are unfamiliar with Mamić, he has been called tyrant of the club. As “vice president” he is a convicted criminal, is irate, irrational, is known for his profanity-laden press conferences; he undermines coaches, pockets money from the club, and is known for using the police to keep the fans who disagree with his policies under his thumb. A true criminal with enough power and money to keep his position without any opposition.
Many fans no longer go to the matches to watch football, but to protest his reign. As we would learn, there are consequences for that.
Before the match, we bought several liters of beer and hung out in a courtyard a few blocks from the stadium where there was no shortage of other fans doing the same.
We then paid five kuna, which doesn’t even equal one American dollar, for our seats in the famous north stands.
Upon arrival, we were greeted with walls of geared-up cops ready to go. I had to show I.D. in order to get to security where I received a groping that you wouldn’t even find in an airport security line. I was also sent towards several other officers who fervently searched me as well before I was sent into what looked like the entrance of a basement. It actually turned out to be the gate into the stadium.
We crammed ourselves in the lower section of the north stands, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with what seemed to be every chain smoker in Zagreb.
Beauty that only exists in Maksimir.
Kickoff commenced on time. And so did the chanting. The second the ref blew the whistle, the crowd bellowed a harmonic “MAMIĆU CIGANE, ODLAZI IZ SVETINJE!” (Mamić, you gypsy. Leave the sanctity (of Dinamo) alone.)
Over and over, and it finished with a chorus of “Dinamo Ja Volim” (Dinamo I love). No one paid attention to the action on the field. It was more of a protest than a football match, a podium to voice their frustration.
After an uneventful first half ended, and I got up to use the toilets, which were exactly what you would expect.
I also caught my first glimpse of the fine gentleman who were there to keep the “peace” during the match. While we were all relieving ourselves, about 50 armed riot officers made their way to our section.
The second half begins, and so does the chanting. Police with bullhorns warned us to stop, but it only got louder.
The police brought face masks and shields out and physically cleared the top half of the north stands with batons, only one row behind where I was sitting, and proceeded to surround the remaining fans, not letting us leave.
Chanting got louder as more and more police arrived until the one on the bullhorn told us to leave, and we were marched up the stairs to the terrace where everyone thought we were leaving.
We were met with even more armed cops who herded us down the corridor stairwell. Other fans were trying to escape and stampeded in the opposite direction as if they were running from something. I had no idea what was happening, and we all continued down the stairs until we were abruptly met by more police throwing people onto the ground, sitting crisscross on the floor and not allowed to get up.
We were forced to join, and threatened with jail time.
Cops dressed in gear suitable for an NFL game surrounded us, wearing ski masks over their faces. I was told by someone next to me it was so we “can’t identify them after they beat us.”
And that’s where we sat. Over three hours of verbal abuse, threats of violence, and mass confusion.
No one had answers, everyone had questions. I was just told to make sure I cover my face, lie down, and never fight back if they go after us.
Over 300 of Dinamo’s most passionate supporters were detained on the floor.
My friend tried to explain to the police that we were just tourists, and the police would respond with, “Fuck your friends.”
Another one told us that he speaks English, but just “didn’t want to.”
One by one, the police would pick someone in the group and photograph them with their I.D. then take them off somewhere. They would line them up and walk past the police where the cops would get in their face and yell obscenities, screaming, “Pussy!” in the faces of kids who couldn’t have been 15 years old.
The match ended after the first hour of detention. Dinamo won 1-0 with a last-minute goal. This allowed all the journalists who were busy covering the game to come down to watch the mahem.
It was nearing 2 am when the tension started to lessen. My friends and I were among the last 20 or so to be let out of the stadium.
Police were still letting us out one by one, but we had to get our pictures taken with our identifications. They told me to say “cheese” and I gave them a big smile before I was released outside to leave. We were also slapped with a two-year ban from Maksimir Stadium, and joined 300 more, bringing the season total to 600 on Mamić’s banned list.
Fortunately, we were not part of the 67 other fans who were arrested and taken into custody.
UEFA has fined the club 25,000 Euros ($33,000) for the trouble the fans caused at the game.
Most, if not all, Dinamo matches are played in an empty stadium these days. Many fans are not allowed back in, or are protesting on their own will. It is not uncommon to see 1,000 patrons sit in a stadium that is accustomed to 35,000 cheering fans.
Mamic has tried to appease fans in order to bring them back to the stadium, but many have refused. No one is willing to work with the European “soccer tyrant” and he has made a mess that he must lie in.
This particular Dinamo fan was disappointing with the way things happened on that warm Croatian summer night. Even more disappointing that I’m not allowed back at Maksimir Stadium until August of 2015, but don’t tell Mamic, I already booked my flight there again for this July.