Astronauts looking down on earth in February 2011 would've been greeted with an unusual sight. Alongside the Great Wall of China and Felix Baumgartner on practice missions, thousands of flares lit up the night sky as the Torcida celebrated the 100th year of their beloved club Hajduk Split. Their slogan, 'Hajduk lives forever', appears apt.
The creation and continued existence of Europe's oldest football firm, Torcida, has proved one of the most engaging tales in world football. In 1950 several young sailors from the island of Korcula, Yugoslavia attended what is known as the Maracanazo – The Maracanã Blow. The landmark match on July 16 1950 in Rio de Janeiro saw Uruguay's Alcides Ghiggia crush Brazil's hopes of a first ever World Cup victory as they secured their second title. For the sailors, the passion and chanting exuded by the 200,000-strong crowd at the historic ground provided the inspiration to form the Torcida ultras, named after the Brazilian Portuguese word for supporters.
Returned home several months later, the young fans formed the firm just a day before their beloved Hajduk secured the most famous victory in their history - a 2-1 win over rivals Red Star Belgrade in Hajduk's Stari Plac stadium after going through the season undefeated, a record which still stands. The triumph, in front of 20,000 squeezed-in fans, was their first Yugoslavian league title and an ideal birth place for the Torcida.
However, the victory over the privileged Red Star inflamed the authorities and the Yugoslav Communist Party moved to clamp down on the Torcida and its members. Founder Vjenceslav Žuvela was expelled from the communist party and thrown in jail while the Torcida’s name was forbidden from being spoken.
Ultimately, the Torcida and its proud tradition for vocal and ardent support resurfaced. After a period of success in the 1970s, during which the club won four championships, a new generation of Hajduk fans reinvigorated the Torcida name, keen to collectivise their passion for the club through new anthems and flags and claiming the north stand of their new Poljud stadium. During the war for independence from 1991 to 1995 many soldiers were united by the Torcida bond on the front line. The ultras’ passion continues unabated to this day.
However, an anti-establishment firm spawned from a war torn region blighted by conflict has not existed without violence. In 1984, the club was banned from hosting international matches when a live rooster was slaughtered by a member of the Torcida in the centre of the pitch before a European fixture with Spurs, who carry the animal on their club badge. In 1961, referee Aleksandar Skoric was attacked and beaten by a fan following a match in which he ruled out a Hajduk goal against FK Sarajevo.
But Hajduk’s reputation is far from simply a violent horde of fans. Benfica’s No Name ultras have fostered a strong connection with the Torcida after an extraordinary incident in the early 1990s. During the Croatian war for independence, No Name displayed a ‘Freedom for Croatia’ banner at a match. When the teams played in the Champions League in 1995, three Benfica fans were killed in an incident on a bus and a strong bond was developed when Hajduk fans brought flowers to the Stadium of Light on the return leg.
The context of The Torcida's snowballing support is vital in understanding how the firm has continued to grow. It cannot be underestimated how crucial Hajduk Split - and fierce rivals Dinamo Zagreb - have been to the evolution of Croatian football.
The Independent State of Croatia played its first competitive match against Switzerland in 1940 during World War II however, when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed post-war, a cluster of clubs baring Croatian names were forced to disband and destroy their record. Hajduk was the largest club to avoid this. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Hajduk and Dinamo formed half of the Big Four of Yugloslav football alongside Serbian sides FK Partizan and Red Star Belgrade, arguably the most unlikely winners of the European Cup in 1991.
Hajduk have proved consistently key in representing Croatian football on the European club stage, not least in the European Cup where they are the only Croatian side to have reached the quarter finals doing so on three occasions, most recently in 1994-95. They also reached the semi-final of the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1972-73 and have contributed a raft of players to a Croatian national side which has acquitted itself well since forming in 1992 with strong showings in Euro 96 and World Cup 1998 spearheaded by national hero Davor Šuker.
The Torcida have become an inspiration for many groups of ultras around Europe and have even inspired a spin-off in the Netherlands. Torcida Rotterdam, made up of Croatian Feyenoord fans as well Dutch supporters, attend every Feyenoord match as well as Hadjuk’s European games.
Their brand of ardent support which has, admittedly spilt over into violence on occasion, contrasts significantly with some of the world's other notable firms predicated on violence and organised crime with football often a distant second. In the UK, the notorious Leeds Service Crew (LSC), which was founded in 1974, was named after public service trains which the firm would take to avoid heavily policed football specials. The LSC still has several hundred members and is rivalled only by similar fan groups at London clubs West Ham United and Millwall who have maintained tenacious reputations despite the best efforts of their respective clubs.
Further afield, Argentina provides a home to some of the most ferocious organised fan groups - named barras bravas - founded, like The Torcida, in the 1950s. Independiente's La Barra Del Rojo is among the most notable of these. The politically left wing group, which contains a swathe of sub-groups throughout the port city's suburbs, is a highly hierarchical organisation with a four-tier system of support from the drum and flag wavers at the bottom to the "bosses" of its sub-groups who handle ticket sales, drugs and even bodyguard services to union leaders.
Social media has also proved key in setting The Torcida apart in recent years. A considerable number of Twitter accounts and Youtube videos of fans in action have helped amass members and aid communication and organisation between fans. Meanwhile, a documentary released last year by filmmakers Mate Prlic and Milan Latkovic called 1950 - Hajduk and Torcida - has further aided member recruitment online.
But with support for the Torcida in rude health following mass celebrations of Hajduk’s centenary in 2011, Europe’s oldest firm was dealt a blow last year. Crippled by a mountain of debt, the club were forced to ask the city council for a loan to avoid bankruptcy. Fans chanted at the city hall in their thousands and handed out leaflets saying: “In the long history of Hajduk, we survived regimes of Austro-Hungarian empire, Kingdom of Yugoslavia, fascist Italy, socialist Yugoslavia and we will survive this regime.”
The council eventually gave way to political pressure and granted the loan which has prolonged Hajduk’s existence. However, the prospect of a one-year UEFA ban from Europe, along with eight other clubs from around the continent, due to financial irregularities and debt levels looms large and will serve as little comfort for a club in need of competition revenues. The Torcida has proved to be as much a movement as a football firm but its members and those caught up in its momentum will hope their beloved Hajduk really can live forever.
Read more from Alex at Footymatters.