It was impossible to avoid news of Josip Broz Titos deteriorating health as the heat of summer descended on Yugoslavia in May 1980. Daily updates from the presidents medical team were presented via TV, radio and in print format. Aged 87 and confined to Ljubljanas Medical Centre, he had already had his leg amputated and, despite the efforts of his team to reassure his citizens, it was clear that the nations leader was days from departing. Yugoslavs tried to carry on their duties as normal, but the country was preparing for the end of an era and the beginning of a new one that everybody knew might be difficult.

Ivica Profaca, a 15 year old from Split, enjoyed a familiar pre-match ritual. He would meet his friends from school and his local neighbourhood a few hours before kick-off, before then heading to the stadium, past the stalls selling seeds and nuts, to grab their usual spot in the stands. On 4 May 1980, Profaca made his usual trip with a quicker pace, as many do before the big games.

Hajduk Split were hosting the league leaders Crvena Zvezda in the Yugoslav First League. Hajduk had won the championship the previous season and sat two points behind Zvezda with nine games to go. The Croatians had already won 1-0 in Belgrade earlier in the season and were expected to win again this time; Hajduk were the only team who held a positive record against Zvezda when Yugoslavia fragmented in 1991, winning 35 matches to Zvezda’s 32. As if history and the notorious atmosphere Hajduk fans created weren’t enough, the Serbians were heading to Split on the back of a 2-0 loss at relegation-threatened Budućnost. 

The 1979-80 season had been one of change for Hajduk. They had left their historical Stadion Stari Plac – the Plinara – earlier in the season to move to the city’s new Gradski Stadion u Poljudu – known simply as Poljud – built for the 1979 Mediterranean Games. Tito had opened the new stadium and the Hajduk captain Dražen Mužinić led a delegation of players to meet their leader. “He spoke to us like we were family,” he said. “We were supposed to meet him for ten minutes but after 45 minutes we were still talking, and it was clear he was a big fan of Hajduk.”

With an increased capacity of 55,000, up from Plinaras 20,000, more fans could watch games, but many felt the atmosphere generated by the tight old ground had been lost. Soon after moving into the new ground, they played one of Hajduk’s most famous games, as 52,000 witnessed a 3-2 victory over Kevin Keegans Hamburg in the European Cup quarter-finals. The Croatians had lost 1-0 in Germany so crashed out on away goals, but those present claim it was one of Hajduk’s most complete performances1.

Ivica wasnt really aware of politics, but he had picked up his parents’ concerns about Tito and much of the conversation in the town focused on the president. Tito officially ruled Yugoslavia for 35 years from the end of the Second World War. His life is a story of near-death, politics and a firmness, or even harshness, that held the country together throughout his reign, a country on the brink of break-up prior to his leadership. 

Born in 1892 as the seventh of fifteen children to a Croatian father and a Slovenian mother, Josip Broz lived a peasant life in the small farming village of Kumrovec, close to Zagreb. He was employed first as a locksmith, then as a mechanic before leaving to work in Austria and Germany. It was in Vienna that he first entered politics, becoming a member of the Social Democrats in 1910. He was drafted to fight for the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I, being captured by the Russians, although he did then join the Red Army following the Russian Revolution of 1917. He spent much of his time between 1915 and 1920 and a great deal of the 1930s in Moscow, but there is little evidence of exactly what he was doing. A document recently released by the US National Security Agency entitled Is Yugoslav President Tito Really a Yugoslav?” concluded, through analysing Titos speech patterns and grammar, that his accent was less Croatian and more Russian or Polish – although it’s far more probable he just spoke with the characteristic thick accent of his region, interspersed with some Slovenian, Russian and Serbian terms. One popular urban myth was that Tito died in Russian captivity in 1915, his replacement hand-picked by the Soviets. His sympathisers, however, simply put it down to the amount of time he spent in Russia, even if the whispers never truly went away.

His return to Croatia saw him sign up as a member of the banned Communist Party of Yugoslavia (KPJ, something that brought eventual arrest). After release and spending much time in the Soviet Union, he was eventually appointed leader of the KPJ in 1937 following Stalin’s purges of the partys leadership, although it is said it was Stalin himself who sent Tito to reinvigorate the party and attach Yugoslavia to the Eastern Bloc. 

After the Axis powers, lead by Italy and Germany, had occupied Yugoslavia and forced the Royal Yugoslav Army to surrender during the Second World War, Tito founded his Partisan guerrilla force in 1941 to fight not only against the Axis powers, but also the Chetniks, led by Draža Mihailović. They began as a Royalist resistance movement but became more concerned with battling Partisans and the ethnic cleansing of the non-Serb population, even collaborating wth the Axis forces in some areas. That eventually led the Allies to switch their support from the Chetniks to the Partisans, even though they were predominantly Communist. 

The Partisans are a divisive topic. Some Yugoslavs were proud of a group that stood up to Nazi occupation, liberating large pockets of land from Nazi control, but others point to the killing of tens of thousands of members of rival military groups, such as the Croatian-nationalist Ustaše and the Chetniks, who worked with with the Axis powers, as well as civilians who were perceived as collaborators. Mihailović himself – although very controversially rehabilitated in Serbia this year – was tried and executed for high treason and war crimes, as the supreme commander of a military group that not only fought Partisans, but also collaborated with the Axis powers, for which there is plenty of evidence.

Tito assumed the role of prime minister in 1945 and sought to cleanse Yugoslavia of political opponents. In 1948, Yugoslavia was ejected from the Communist Bloc by Stalin after Tito defied Soviet financial and political demands. Threats of an economic blockade and military intervention only solidified Titos popularity amongst Yugoslavs, who were delighted to have a leader fighting for their rights rather than submitting to the eastern superpower as other communist nations had. By 1953 Tito was named the first president of Yugoslavia, before the 1963 constitution declared him president for life.

The level of repression declined as time went by; his enemies had long been vanquished and those born in post-War Yugoslavia accepted their way of life. Tito attempted to steer a middle path between east and west, sought to maintain good relations with Arab nations as part of his commitment to the non-Aligned movement and was a staunch supporter of the UN.

Football under Tito started again soon after the war, but only after most clubs were disbanded for alleged collaboration with the enemy, including the Zagreb sides Građanski and Concordia, and Belgrade club SK Jugoslavija, all of them pre-war champions. In their place came the clubs of today, including Crvena Zvezda and Dinamo Zagreb, but Hajduk were the only pre-war champion not be disbanded due to their role in the war. Hajduk were invited to play in Italys Serie A after the city of Split was occupied by Italian forces, being offered flights to all away games if they changed their name to the Italianised AC Spalato. Hajduk declined, choosing instead to disband voluntarily. The Italian fascists started their own club, but couldn’t force any former Hajduk players to sign up, with many members preferring to join the Communist resistance.

Hajduk were reformed and used as the team of the resistance, sent them abroad to promote Yugoslavia (although there’s no evidence Tito, who had little interest in football, bore any responsibility for the scheme). They played several games against teams of servicemen in Italy, most famously losing to a team of young professionals including Stan Cullis and Tom Finney 7-2 in front of 40,000 in Bari in 1944, before winning the rematch (against a weaker side) 1-0 in liberated Split later that year. They also played friendlies in Egypt, Palestine and Syria. Tito even met Hajduk’s players three times, leading to the story that Hajduk were his team. After the war ended, Hajduk were invited to move to Belgrade to become the team of the Yugoslav army. The club refused, which in turn gave birth to Partizan Belgrade, formed later that year.

On that fateful day in 1980, Profaca, wearing white as almost all the fans did, and still do when attending Poljud to see Hajduk, took his place in the north stand. His spot was near the front, towards the west stand, with the real tough guys standing in the centre directly behind the goal, a new home after gathering in the east stand at the old Plinara Stadion.

Despite levels of violence being relatively low during Tito’s reign, there were still instances of fighting and brawling at football matches. Torcida Split are thought to be the oldest supporters group in Europe, having been formed in 1950 by a group of students prior to a Hajduk-Zvezda game. Wanting to encourage their side by waving flags and banners, they were soon investigated by the Communist party who were concerned by gatherings of unruly young men and quickly banned the name. One of the founders of Torcida, Vjenceslav Žuvela, was not only excluded from the Communist party but sentenced to three years in prison (later reduced to three months) for wearing a badge with the letter T next to the letter H. Some claim the prosecuting authorities interpreted that as denoting Torcida Hrvatska (Torcida Croatia), although “Hajduk” would be the far more likely meaning and it’s more likely that any citizens’ association – formal or informal – not affiliated with the Communist Party was viewed with suspicion.

The gatherings continued but to avoid arrest the meetings were conducted without the Torcida name. In the 1970s Hajduks youngsters began meeting at bars on the sea front, listening to music and poetry about life as a Hajduk fan in the past. A Torcida fan website notes that the seventies were a time when there were changes in football violence, with a rise in incidents involving supporters of opposition teams. 

Because of Hajduk fans’ reputation for violence and intimidation, many away supporters didnt attend games in Split and in May 1980 there were hardly any Zvezda supporters inside Poljud. The fixture had brought out the worst in supporters in 1974 when Hajduk fans and soldiers supporting Zvezda clashed, leading to numerous arrests and injuries before the soldiers were evacuated from the stadium. That, though, was an isolated incident involving a few dozen people, long before the ultra movement had developed its edge and its mass following, and for the most part the game was often seen as a celebration of Yugoslavia, the two biggest and best-supported clubs meeting, with large crowds and a high standard of football.

Profaca began chanting and cheering for Hajduk, shouting “Gypsies at Zvezda’s players whenever they touched the ball; to use such an insult in the street would have led to a reprimand or even arrest, but in such a large crowd it was impossible to spot individual culprits. 

The game was as tense as was to be expected but, as it turned out, the actual match was of little consequence. No newspapers carried a report of the game and almost all the available video evidence is of the events after the referee stopped the match. The vast majority who were there remember very little of the play, although those who can remember details describe a balanced affair of few chances. Some papers and many subsequent reports stated that the match was 0-0 before the spectacle was brought to a halt in the 43rd minute, at 19:12, but it was in fact 1-1; Vladimir ‘Pižon’ Petrović had given Zvezda the lead from a penalty he himself won in the 13th minute, before Hajduk equalised as Zoran Vujović swept home from eight yards 15 minutes later. 

Edo Pezzi is a retired radio commentator. Now 73, he can still recall vividly the precise details of the events leading up the announcement that Tito had died. Pezzi was squeezed into the press gallery at Poljud, describing events to his listeners when Splits leading politician and president of Hajduk Ante Skataretiko walked into his commentary booth and gestured for him to stop his broadcast immediately, for he had to make an announcement over the loudspeaker.

As Pezzi was being taken off air, Ivica Profaca noticed a club official walk to the edge of the pitch and say something to the referee. The cheering and chanting stopped as both teams were asked to line up in the middle of the pitch. Instantly he and most others around him knew what had happened; nobody in Yugoslavia would forget where they were at that moment.

The sight of Hajduk Split and Zvezda players lined up in the middle of the pitch was the perfect image of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Serbs, Croats and the Bosnian officials, led by referee Husref Muharemagić, stood alongside each other, co-existing. 

Taking the stadium microphone, Skataretiko proceeded to announce to the 50,000 crowd that at just past 3 o’clock that afternoon President Tito had passed away and the game would be stopped. At first a hush, an almost impossible silence given the size of the crowd and the magnitude of the news they’d just digested. The Hajduk midfielder Dražen Mužinić recalled, “We just weren’t prepared for it, and that moment is forever etched in my memory.”

Profaca stood motionless. He heard some screams and then sobbing from people dotted around Poljud. Players from both sides and the referee were soon joining them. Muharemagić remembers, “I stopped the game while the ball was at left-back with Mile Jovin. I looked at the presidential boxes but they were empty and I knew what had happened. It was very emotional, I remember it like it was yesterday.”

“Before the match we were told this could happen, because information was circulated that Tito had died,” explained Dušan Savić, who was on the bench that evening for Zvezda. “There were screams, someone was crying. I think at that moment the dominant feeling was fear of what might happen tomorrow.” Savić also noted, “No matter what it was like back then, it was quiet. You could lie down on a bench in the park and no-one would touch you, unlike nowadays.”

Spontaneously, the crowd then began singing one of the many songs dedicated to Tito. “Comrade Tito, we pledge to you that we won’t stray from your path. Players continued to weep, others simply stood motionless. Cameramen and photographers walked away wiping tears from their eyes. “Those who say they werent crying for Tito are lying,” said the Macedonian former Zvezda midfielder Boško Đurovski on the 35th anniversary of the match. I can remember and I’m not ashamed of my tears for Tito.

Mužinić explained, “Because Hajduk and Zvezda were the two top sides, many of us played international football together for Yugoslavia, so naturally we hugged and cried with our friends.”

Two photographs taken in the aftermath symbolise perfectly how a nation was feeling. The first image is of the twin brothers Zoran and Zlatko Vujović, both stars in the Hajduk side, slumped on the turf crying. “My brother Zoran fell to his knees,” said Zlatko. “I began crying as my heart sank. We cried with the Zvezda players: Petrović, [Miloš] Šestić, Đurovski… they all found it difficult.”

The second is of Zoran still lying on the ground, with the Hajduk coach Tomislav Ivić beside him, standing with his head in his hands. Ivić is a symbol of Hajduk and indeed the city of Split. He won three Yugoslav First League titles with the Dalmatians, while also claiming championships in Greece, Holland, Portugal and Belgium. No other coach has won titles in five different countries. Ivić would leave at the end of the season, pursuing a nomadic career that saw him take charge in 14 different countries. The Split native often wondered aloud whether Hajduk could have conquered Europe and perhaps felt a tinge of guilt that he was the first to leave, followed by players. But that was in the future; his emotion to the news of Tito’s death represented a city and a nation crying for their departed leader. 

Profaca stood still for what seemed like an age, not sure what to do. Without an order and with the game clearly over, the crowd drifted out to a lingering silence; no-one said a word as they trudged back towards the city centre. The situation in Yugoslavia was tense as rumours circulated of Soviet intervention over debts run up in the seventies. With Tito’s passing, serious instability was predicted. Normally after a big game there are people shouting in the streets, the hubbub of fans discussing and arguing, but that night there was only quiet. Profaca walked to the meeting hall where his scout group assembled; inside they held a small commemoration for Tito.

The next day Profaca met his schoolmates again and was told that the price of bus tickets had gone up. 

By how much?” he innocently asked.

Two rubles [ie, the Soviet currency, as opposed to the dinars used in Yugoslavia],” said his giggling friend. With adults mourning openly in the streets, it was left to the youngsters to find a funny side, in blissful ignorance of the gravity of the situation.

Titos funeral is widely acknowledged to have been the largest state funeral in history until the Nelson Mandela’s in 2013. The president’s body was brought back from Ljubljana on his own train to Belgrade before his funeral on May 8. It was attended by leaders from both west and east; mourners arrived from 123 countries and included four kings, 32 presidents and 22 prime ministers. The Yugoslav news agency Tanjug called it the summit of mankind.” The politicians were there to pay their respects, but also to discuss the potential instability in Yugoslavia, with fears the USSR was ready to step in at any moment. As the Kosovar Albanian politician Mahmut Bakalli put it, We all cried, but we did not know we were burying Yugoslavia.”

History of course tells us that Yugoslavs were right to be apprehensive about a future without Tito, but it was from the inside that the country fell apart. A succession plan was drafted by the president as early as 1974, with more autonomy being given to each republic within Yugoslavia; with this, some have since suggested, the first seeds of independence were planted. The idea was to rotate the presidency on a year-by-year basis with each republic assuming control, but by the time Tito died the plan was seen as unworkable. Firstly, those who were lined up for the presidents role, such as Tito’s right-hand man Edvard Kardelj, had already died, and many potential successors had been purged in Croatia and Serbia in the mid-seventies for being too nationalistic. The beginnings were there for the bloody wars that devastated the region the following decade.

The abandoned game was replayed 17 days later at a packed Poljud. After the ‘Derby of Sadness’ (as the Yugoslav magazine Tempo christened it), Hajduk’s season had fallen apart, as they lost 1-0 to Dinamo Zagreb before going down 3-1 to the Montenegrin side Budućnost 3-1. Zvezda drew with Radnički before beating Dinamo 2-1 in Belgrade. The players lined up for kick-off before Ante Skataretiko again took the microphone to ask for a moment’s silence to remember Tito. Unlike today there was no gathering in a circle, the players simply stood in their on-field positions and bowed their heads. Zvezda dominated the game, the Bosnian Srebrenko Repčić firing wide when one-on-one and hitting the post via Dušan Savić inside the first ten minutes. Savić eventually found the net, poking home a Petrović free-kick just before the half hour.

Petrović then headed into an empty goal and although Hajduk pulling one back through a Damir Maričić penalty, Savić wrapped up the game in the final minute. Hajduk were out of the title race, seven points behind Zvezda with seven games to play, and dropped as low as fifth after losing their next two games 3-2 to Radnički and then 1-0 at Vardar of Macedonia. After falling to Hamburg and then meekly surrendering their title, Ivić’s grand finale was as anti-climatic as his reign was spectacular, eventually finishing ten points behind their Belgrade rivals.

Titos death allowed the aggressive nationalism that had begun to simmer after 1974 to boil over. Over the following decade Serbia, then Slovenia and Croatia began agitating for greater autonomy and independence, demands that came to a bloody head at the beginning of the 1990s. Zvezda’s European Cup win of 1991 was the crowning glory of Yugoslav football and the final act of a sporting nation, a team of Serbians, Croatians, Bosnians, Montenegrins and Macedonians beating Marseille on penalties in Bari. But the break-up of Yugoslavia was by then inevitable, and with it the disintegration of its greatest side. Its highly unlikely a team from the former Yugoslavia will ever come even remotely close to repeating that success, even less so with the domestic make-up of that Zvezda team. Tito’s death not only buried Yugoslavia, but also Yugoslavian football.