Before I begin this post, I want to say that I am not a Dinamo fan, a Hajduk fan, or a fan of any specific team in Croatia. I follow the national team as my favorite team and enjoy when any Croatian club team is doing well.
Now to answer the question is Dinamo Zagreb’s dominance of the HNL bad for Croatian soccer as a whole? The short answer is: yes and no.
Let’s start with some of the good that Dinamo does for Croatian soccer. Dinamo is the leading producer of talent for the national team and is responsible for the development of some of the best Croatian players we have ever seen such as Luka Modrić, Robert Prosinečki, Mario Mandžukić, and Zvonimir Boban, just to name a few. Also, some of the best youth talents that we have now currently play for Dinamo. For example, Antonio Marin, Joško Gvardiol, and Tomislav Krizmanić are all tipped to be good players one day.
Now for the bad. Since the 2005-06 season, Dinamo has won the league title every season except for in 2016-17 when Rijeka narrowly beat them to win their first ever league trophy. Dinamo has become so much better than its competitors in the HNL that it is almost a certainty that they will win the league and everyone else is playing for second place. Why is this bad? Because it ruins the competition aspect of the sport and makes it less enjoyable to watch for the neutral fan. Yes, even some of the top leagues are essentially one team leagues with the likes of Bayern Munich, Juventus, and Paris Saint-Germain winning their respective leagues almost every season for nearly a decade now. The difference is that those leagues have more money to go around than the HNL does. I will not claim to know how much money each team gets in each league, but I am pretty sure that Dinamo gets less for winning the league than some relegation level teams receive at the end of their respective seasons.
The reason I bring this up is because the HNL gets little-to-no coverage. So basically, the only way for clubs like Hajduk Split, Rijeka, and Osijek to make money is to sell players that they’ve developed or qualify for continental tournaments like the Champions League and Europa League. This is another area where Dinamo Zagreb has recently helped to improve the standing of Croatian soccer as a whole. With their recent performance in the Europa League, they earned the HNL a second Champions League qualifying spot, allowing the team that finishes second place to also have a chance at qualifying for the Champions League.
Here’s the main problem. None of this is Dinamo’s fault. Dinamo is the best in Croatia because they have been running their club like a well-oiled machine. Whenever they sell one of their better players, it is almost always for a substantial fee and some of that money is usually invested back into the club either to buy a player that will likely be a useful player for the first team or to help fund the youth program. That is why they always have new talents emerging each year. They bought Bruno Petković and Mislav Oršić for small fees and basically helped them make it onto the national team. Not only that, but when they are inevitably sold to bigger teams, they are going to be sold for likely close to $10 million. Then you look at Dinamo’s realistic competitors and pretty much none of them can seem to replicate this strategy. Let’s use Hajduk Split as an example. Until recently, Hajduk Split rarely sold their players for good money. They are arguably the second most popular Croatian team, yet are miles away from Dinamo in terms of ability. Hajduk’s youth program is also a great youth program, but it just seems like once they have a top-level talent, they don’t really know what to do. For example, Andrija Balić was one of the top talents in all of Croatia a few years ago and they sold him to Udinese less than $4 million. Granted, so far he has not turned out to be great, but that’s not the point. Hajduk seemed to take the first decent offer they could get rather than maximizing the player’s impact before selling him for a good fee. Not only that, but they would then invest some of the money they received into players that are already in their prime and often times not even good enough to make Dinamo’s bench. However, as mentioned before, they have recently turned a corner. They have been getting more for their players like Nikola Vlašić, Ante Palaversa, and Domagoj Bradarić, and seem to be investing more in the future rather than just the present with purchases like David Čolina and Ivan Dolček. Rijeka and Osijek are not much different either. Their squads are filled mostly with journey-men that are 26-years-old or older who are unlikely to become much better and really improve the squad.
Yes it is good to have a mix of veterans and youth, but if anyone is truly going to make the HNL more competitive, it will likely be the team that decides to invest more heavily in their youth teams to start developing players on their own for often and in their scouting programs in order to find those hidden gems that will not only improve their team instantly, but also make them some money after being sold on. It will not be easy as Dinamo is so far ahead in these departments, but it is absolutely possible.
What do you think? Is Dinamo’s dominance of Croatia good, bad, or does it not matter?