Throughout its history, Croatia has seen the ideals of unity and fraternity thoroughly trialled and tested. But in the southern region of Dalmatia, it can boast a football team that has arguably done more to celebrate Balkan brotherhood than any other. That team is RNK Split.
The city of Split stands a tad over 400 kilometres from the Croatian capital Zagreb, leaning into the Adriatic Sea. There is no doubt that Hajduk is the most illustrious of the city’s football sides.
Formed in 1911 in Prague by a group of Split students, Hajduk have since gone on to win 15 league titles. Founded just 14 months later, RNK have still to win a major trophy. But despite a lack of silverware, ‘the workers’ football club’ have won the affections of their countrymen through a fierce desire to represent the people.
RNK were formed in April 1912 at house No. 7 of Veli Varoš, nestled into the quaint cobblestones of the Old Town. Split’s working classes, many labouring in the dockyards, had grown resentful of the abysmal living conditions and low wages, and the denizens of the city searched for an outlet for their frustrations.
“We decided to found a football club. We only played for pleasure but also to protest against all evil,” Šimun Rosandič, one of the club’s founders, explained.
They took the acronym HRŠD – the Croatian Workmen’s Sport Society – but the second part of their name took more consideration.
“We thought for a long time what to call the club and I first thought – Anarchist. Later on, we shortened it to Anarch,” Rosandič said. “It seemed like the best name because it also contained – something else. What else? Well, I’ll let others think about it.”
Anarch donned an all-black strip to complement its rebellious stance and the young dockland avant-gardes began life playing in the Croatian lower leagues, but their presence was such that they were disbanded during World War One by the government, who perceived them as a threat to state security.
After the war the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was created, and Anarch resumed life under their original name before switching to JNSK Jug in 1919. But a change in title brought no change in their relationship with the authorities.
Attacks by local police forced Jug to change its name frequently and in subsequent years they were known as Borac, HAŠK, Dalmatinac and Arsenal, until 1933 when they settled on Radnički Nogometni Klub Split – the Workers’ Football Club –shortened to RNK Split.
That year, the club also changed their strip to a flush of deep crimson and incorporated the socialist red star into their emblem in support of Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslav Partisans, an anti-fascist movement gaining considerable momentum in Yugoslavia, which aimed to create a multi-ethnic communist state.
The relationship began long and active opposition to fascism and nationalism for RNK. It was a cause they were prepared to not only play for, but die for.
In 1936, with bombs falling on Iberian earth as civil war ripped through Spain, RNK sent volunteers to fight on the side of the left-leaning Spanish Second Republic against Franco’s nationalists. They were among 1,500 Yugoslavs that were part of the International Brigades fighting for the Republican armed forces.
Many lost their lives as Franco won the three-year war. For the Reds, it was simply a battle lost.
Shortly after the end of war in Spain, Axis powers invaded Yugoslavia in World War Two. The Nazis had carved the Kingdom into four portions and created an Independent State of Croatia.
Split was annexed to Italy and Mussolini’s men seized control of Dalmatia, but following their capitulation in 1943, Tito’s Partisans ruled the streets of the city. Both Hajduk and RSD – the sports association into which RNK were incorporated during the war – refused to be part of the Italian football league. Instead, they suspended their endeavours and joined thousands of volunteers to fight the Axis forces.
No less than 120 RNK players and staff died fighting with the 1st Split Partisan Detachment, part of the most effective resistance against the Axis occupation during the war. A large number fought in Sinj, were captured in conflict there, and finally executed in nearby Ruduša, where a memorial is built to honour them.
A more sombre significance was added to the club’s blood-red kit colour.
The efforts of RNK in the conflict meant that they were one of the few Yugoslav clubs not to be disbanded after the war. They resumed playing and in 1955 moved to Park Skojevaca, a 4,075 capacity athletics stadium dedicated to the members of SKOJ – the Youth Communist League of Yugoslavia.
Two years later the club won the 1957 Yugoslav Second League to play in the Yugoslav First League for the first time in their history. RNK matches were never dull; they recorded just one draw all season, the lowest of any team. However, 12 wins against 13 losses meant they finished in 11th place – the last relegation spot.
They would have been relegated immediately had they not finished level with Montenegrin side FK Budućnost on 25 points. As a result of their identical 0.833 goal average, the league’s secondary criterion in such instances, a playoff was ordered. RNK were on the wrong end of a 4-0 hammering, and were duly relegated. They were promoted again in 1960 but were again relegated in 11th place, this time by a point.
After their brief flirtation with top-flight football, RNK spent the 1960s and 1970s in the lower Yugoslav leagues, fixed firmly in the shadow of Hajduk, long considered the older and bigger brother.
Hajduk fulfilled their role in Split’s football family by donating the floodlights from their Stadion Stari plac to the refurbishment of Park Skojevaca in 1979, the year Split hosted the Mediterranean Games. It was a touching gesture between two clubs that shared much more than simply a geographical bond.
In 1983, three years after Tito’s death, RNK became Croatian Republic Football League champions, but this was only the third tier on the Yugoslav football pyramid, and they saw out the decade in further obscurity.
The ramifications of the fall of communism in 1990 immediately reached football. RNK’s ground was renamed Stadion Park Mladeži – Youth Park Stadium – eradicating any homage to their communist youth. Two years later, both the Croatian First League and the Croatian Football Federation were established, but RNK would have to wait nearly two decades to play in the top league of an independent Croatia.
After years of wandering through the bleak doldrums of Communist and post-independence Croatian football, fourth-tier RNK achieved three successive promotions from 2008 to 2010 to reach the Hrvatska Prva Liga, where they play today.
In that time, the team has journeyed far from the rabble of angry workers that convened on Split’s Musas Meadow to play football as a means to protest. But their very substance and beliefs had travelled with them.
In 1962, a 15 metre tall monument designed by Vuko Bombardelli to remember those who perished fighting for 1st Split Partisan Resistence was erected in Ruduša. Thirty years later it was destroyed in an explosion during the Croatian War of Independence. In 2009 it was renovated with financial help from the RNK owners, a gesture of remembrance and solidarity to the brotherhood from the people’s club.
Today the fans of RNK Split have a saying: ‘Split and only Split and nothing else. Hajduk is the older brother, but Split is the first love.’ Such respect is rare between teams from the same city. But for two teams that have had to fight alongside each other, their relationship can only ever be sibling rivalry.
RNK Split will always be many things: the workers’ club, the younger brother, the anarchists, but most of all they will be the symbol of brotherhood in the face of hardship and struggle as strongly today as they had been when playing as a rambunctious group of workers on a local meadow over a century ago.
By Daniel Armstrong. Follow @DannyWArmstrong