The forgotten pitches of Hvar island
“They’re just local,” says the waitress at Conte cafe bar as she hands over a white coffee.
I look back towards the marina in Križna Luka and see the greens of the football pitch between the cracks of swaying trees. The pitch is in one of the most picturesque locations in football-mad Croatia, on the beautiful island of Hvar off the Dalmatian coast.
Football has been played in Hvar for over 100 years, where the first football clubs were formed in nearby Stari Grad. 11 teams compete on five pitches across the island.
The football spirit is alive and well here, not least because of the country’s recent run to the World Cup final. The pitches though, much like the country’s recent political history, are in a state of flux.
— MotherSoccer (@MotherSoccerNL) July 6, 2017
The waitress continues, “It’s mainly just kids who play there but the pitch is too dangerous. The best teams are in the main towns.” Such a lukewarm assessment feels at odds with the surroundings. Boats splutter into early morning action, shawls of tropical fish swim lazily in crystal clear blue water, and tourists loudly discuss the goings-on of the previous evening.
Hvar is the undisputed capital of nightlife in Croatia, and it shows. It’s 10:30am, and 31 degrees at pitch side. Minutes earlier, tourists walked by, apathetically glancing over as I took photos from every angle of the ground. The pitch looked as tired as the hungover travellers who skulked past me. I know the feeling.
Fresh from Croatia’s heroic exploits in reaching the World Cup final for the first ever time, the marina is awash with red and white chequered jerseys. Unsurprisingly, most are adorned with either ‘Modric’ or ‘Rakitic.’
Like all football pitches, it’s a thing of beauty. In a strange sort of way. Two supermarkets overlook the ground, litter scatters over the worn-out 3G surface and plastic seats are scattered in sporadic fashion in just one small corner of the stadium. Training goals with ragged netting sit lonely on the tattered pitch.
Most hauntingly of all, stone walls surround the pitch about three metres from each touchline. Due to the tragic case of Hrvoje Ćustić, there are plans to build a new stadium. Ćustić tragically died on a pitch similar to this one in a Croatian first division match between NK Zadar and HNK Cibalia in 2008.
The midfielder hit his head on a concrete wall close to the pitch, and died in hospital several days later. In response, the Croatian FA postponed all of the following weekend’s matches and set about improving the conditions of play in the country’s top divisions. Many critics felt it was a decision long overdue, lamenting the fact it took a tragic event for the authorities to finally improve the safety of football in Croatia’s top leagues.
Widespread cynicism persists about the lack of funding given to grassroots football in Croatia
The FA further launched the Hat Trick Project for the ‘building and renovation of the football pitches in Croatia’, but progress has been slow. Widespread cynicism persists about the lack of funding given to grassroots football in Croatia. Davor Suker, legendary striker and now president of the FA, has the issue firmly on his agenda.
Grounds like this one now justifiably lie dormant for professional matches, used almost exclusively for youth and lower league amateur football. This pitch, like many others on the islands across the Adriatic Sea, is empty.
It has the eerie feel of where football used to be played, which is what makes it so intriguing. It feels, I suppose, local.