Footballers of Hajduk Split and Red Star Belgrade after the match was stopped (Photo: MN Press).
Footballers of Hajduk Split and Red Star Belgrade after the match was stopped (Photo: MN Press).

The Match when Tito Died

When there is more on the line than a game

Zdravko Stojkovic
Zdravko Stojkoski NI Museum of North Macedonia Skopje. FMH developer

Forty years ago, on May 4 1980, the football clubs Hajduk Split and Red Star Belgrade played their Yugoslav First League match on the Hajduk’s Poljud stadium when news spread that Josip Broz Tito, the country’s communist leader seen by some at the time as “the greatest son of Yugoslav nations and nationalities“, has passed away.

The official information was announced on national TV that Sunday afternoon in an emotional statement causing widespread grief and despair throughout the country.

Getting the news in the stadium

Hajduk and Red Star footballers received the news together with almost 50 000 fans in Split’s Poljud stadium that Sunday evening on May 4 1980 just before the half time. In one moment, a leading Split politician and then Hajduk’ president entered the commentary booth and told the radio commentator to stop the broadcast because he had something important to announce. At the same time the referee was signaled to interrupt the game. The players and officials were immediately lined up in the middle of the pitch when the shocking information was announced on the loudspeakers in front of the stunned attendees.

Songs of Grief

The 88 year old lifelong leader of Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia was already in critical condition for a certain time and the worst was expected to happen sooner than later. Despite that the magnitude of the announcement shocked all in the stadium leaving them at the first moment motionless and in disbelief. Witnesses claim that the entire stadium was overwhelmed by an impossible silence. Then people on the stands started screaming and sobbing something that immediately passed on the players and officials down to the pitch. And, in a moment the crowd began singing a song dedicated to Tito „Druže Tito mi ti se kunemo da sa tvoga puta ne skrenemo“, (Comrade Tito, we swear to you that we’ll never turn off from your way).

More than a game between two teams

There was a lot of symbolism in that match. Hajduk was the only big team in Yugoslavia that survived the Second World War because of its refusal to play in the football league of fascist Italy. All other pre-war major teams were disbanded and new ones were created instead, including the Belgrade based Red Star and Partizan, Dinamo from Zagreb, Vardar Skopje, etc. So, Hajduk was always seen as a partisan team and Split as an antifascist city. The encounter between the two teams represented something like ‘Yugoslavia in a small package’, a duel between Croatian and Serbian teams with Bosnian officials and players also coming from different nationalities through the country. At the moment they were all united in their grief. As in fact was the situation with the overwhelming majority of the population all over the multiethnic and multi-religious Federation.

The Match remembered

Many years later, some actors recall their experiences from that night, as well as, the period when the people from the now divided region lived together. Some memories tell the same story, some a different one.

Macedonian footballer Boško Đurovski who was part of the Red Star Belgrade squad on that memorable match believes that ‘those who say that they were not crying for Tito are simply lying’. ‘It was a terrible moment. We all knew that Tito was about to die, but the news that caught us down on the pitch broke us all. I cried like rain. Life was nice in the time of Broz and no one cared if someone was Macedonian, Croat, Serb, Slovenian or Bosnian. We’ll never have such a sense of unity again. That’s why I remember my tears for Tito and I’m not ashamed of them’, stated Đurovski on one occasion.

Hajduk’s legendary forward Zlatko Vujović, has similar thoughts. ‘There are recordings, photos, videos. There is no escape from history, nor is there any reason for it. My brother Zoran fell to his knees in grief. I, also, cried a lot. We sat side by side with all the players from both teams. It was difficult for all of us’.

But, Serbian and Red Star striker Dušan Savić has slightly different memories. According to him, when the match was officially interrupted the Red Star coach Branko Stanković, was angry and at first he didn’t want the match to be postponed because he believed that „we’ve got Hajduk“. At first I smiled, recalled Savić in one interview. When asked about the moment when he received the news on Tito’s death, he said: „I think that at that moment the fear prevailed of what would be tomorrow, because for decades we were taught that life wouldn’t be possible without him and that he’s the only thing that is worth in the country. Only later I realized the real side of the rule of Tito, the League of Communists and the whole that bloc …, but, there were good times, because when you’re young, everything looks good”, says Savić.

The Changing of Stadium Chants

During the last years of Tito’s life, Yugoslavia entered into the prolonged economic crisis that only deepened through the years. The Yugoslav economy was affected by the rising prices on the world markets, declining productivity, constant restrictions and the continuous growth of its external debt. All this and much more led to the political crisis, too. According to the last constitutional changes from 1974, the Federation was largely decentralized with relatively weak central government and most of the effective power lying in the hands of its federative units – the Republics.

So, contrary to the public proclamations that people will follow the path traced by their dear leader – the pledges that were often chanted at the football stadiums, too – as well as the claims that ‘after Tito, there will still be a Tito’, the situation in the society was quite different. The actual situation was increasingly showing that the ideological one party socialist self-management system created in Yugoslavia after the Second World War and that was maintained for more than 35 years including on Tito’s authority and his personal cult was already broken and needed its transformation and democratization. On the other side, the country lacked its unity and a political leadership that would be able to conduct the necessary reforms.

Growing political and economic crises during the 1980s, gradually, led to the rise of nationalist and secessionist feelings among the masses. And football stadiums were one fertile soil for their open expression. Another phenomenon that occurred at the time was the change of the attitude and the culture of the fans. Growing number of young and rebellious football supporters followed the Western patterns – examples from England, Italy etc. – and started to organize themselves in fan groups which now were able to more openly express their attitude. Thus, most dedicated supporters of Red Star Belgrade started to call themselves ‘Delije’, their main city rivals from Partizan were increasingly known as ‘Grobari’, Dinamo Zagreb fans created a group named as ‘Bad Blue Boys’, Vardar fans called themselves ‘Komiti’, the Hajduk’s were ‘Torcida’, and so on.

Toward Conflict

In time, most of these groups became openly antagonistic to each other. Under the existing political situation, many members were further politicized and fell under the influence of nationalist ideologies and mythologist histories. Most radical fans had criminal records and even more some of them had contacts with the elements of still mighty state security services. Such a situation exploded exactly ten years later on another „epic“ match involving Croatian and Serbian teams. On May 13 1990, just before the start of the derby match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade at Zagreb’s Maksimir Stadium huge riots erupted involving hooligans from both sides. The echo from these events surpasses the football field, again. Many still believe that it was one of the triggering events that led to the final dissolution and later military conflict in former Yugoslavia. But that’s another, albeit equally sad, story, on which one can read more in the article “Today in 1990: A Match to teach the Collapse of Yugoslavia”.

Explore the sources used about this game and how it is remembered at The Blizzard-Football Quarterly (English) or further background articles in Serbian and Macedonian. You can also watch, and hear the cries, in this short excerpt of TV footage from 1980.

On May 4th 1980 Yugoslav communist leader and lifelong president Marshal Tito passed away while the country was watching the game between Hajduk Split and Red Star Belgrade. Ten years later, another game siding a Croatian club against a Serbian club on May 13th 1990, had the country on the brink of collapse.

Let’s review

Footballers of Hajduk Split and Red Star Belgrade after the match was stopped (Photo: MN Press).
Reader Rating5 Votes
Helen Graham Matthews in 1895 (Photo: South West News Service, public domain).
Mrs Graham
Football game

Don’t miss our videos

Follow us

Football Makes History