There are a few sports that capture the national attention throughout Croatia, but none makes so much of an impact as football. Particularly after the national team’s unexpected run to the World Cup final this past summer, where it was defeated by France, one could argue that enthusiasm for the sport is at an all-time high. Building even on this highlight for the country, it was mere months after the Cup’s conclusion that Croatian star Luka Modric was awarded the Ballon d’Or over the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, signifying that he was the best player in the world for 2018! All things considered, 2018 was arguably the best year in history for Croatian football.
Because of this, and because Zagreb is something of a centre of football activity within Croatia, it’s not a bad idea to include a match or two in your travel plans if you’re visiting the area. There are actually several stadiums catering to clubs at different levels of the Croatian football system. Two, in particular, stand out though as worthy options for tourists who want a feel for how Zagreb embraces the sport as part of its fabric.
Stadion Maksimir is first and foremost the home of Dinamo Zagreb, which is one of the most successful clubs in the history of the Croatian first league, and the class of Zagreb. Even relative to its history, this club is in the midst of an excellent run, having been league runner-up in 2016-17 and winner in 2017-18. And currently, if you were to look at the football odds hosted by numerous platforms based in the UK and around Europe, you’d be hard-pressed to find a place that didn’t have Dinamo favoured to win again this season. It’s simply a fine club and offers the best chance to see great football in Zagreb.
The same stadium is also the primary venue for the Croatian national team when it plays home matches. These are a little harder to come by in terms of scheduling your trip, but clearly it is a treat to see a team as good as the Croatian national side in any completion - let alone one on its home ground. Additionally, the stadium is surprisingly intimate for this sort of event. Despite effectively being the primary stadium in the city, its 35,000-fan capacity and an open-air feel make it feel almost like some of the smaller Premier League venues in England rather than some colossal complex built for European powerhouses. At the same time though, those who might prefer a more state-of-the-art experience may get their wish, as there have been proposals to replace the stadium with a modern wonder topped with a solar cloud.
This is a far cry from Stadion Maksimir in terms of size and modern relevance, and again there are plenty of other stadiums to visit. However, this is perhaps the best one to give you a feel for the sport’s history in Croatia, because it’s the home of a club in NK Zagreb that is among the very oldest in the country. Originally founded in 1908, the club has now been operational for 110 years, and though it’s currently playing in the third tier of the Croatian system, it has had some highlights in its history. Most notably, these include six wins in the Yugoslav Second League (when such a league existed), a win in the Croatian Second League in 2013-14, and one championship in the top division back in 2001-02.
The stadium itself is nothing special from a visual or engineering standpoint. But it’s quite something to recognize that it’s been the home of the same club for close to 100 years, and its capacity of just over 8,000 make the matches feel like truly local affairs. For the true football junkies who may travel to Zagreb, this can be the ideal experience.