By Leo Linden
A massive upset is brewing in one of Europe’s smaller leagues, and while they might be overlooked by the majority of the footballing world, HNK Rijeka is on the verge of deposing a footballing tyrant. The small Croatian side is currently battling for a trophy against Dinamo Zagreb, who have held it for the last 11 years. Now, after years of playing second fiddle, Rijeka is firmly in the driver's seat as the second half of the season kicks into gear, and despite their previous shortcomings, they look like a good bet to start their own run of titles and make the top of the league more competitive moving forward.
Hrvatski Nogometni Klub Rijeka, simply known as Rijeka (or HNK Rijeka), was officially founded 70 years ago, just as World War II came to its conclusion, under the name SD Kvarner. The club’s roots were deeper, however, as the city of Rijeka — thanks to its strategical port position — was occupied by Italy during the war. The actual origins of the club can be traced back even further to a side that competed in the Italian football system. However, when Italy ceded the city back to Croatia (then a part of Yugoslavia), the club found its new identity of Kvarner.
It was a far from auspicious start, as in their debut season in the Yugoslav First League (the top tier of football in that area), Kvarner were immediately relegated. Almost a decade later, the club took on the name Rijeka, and that corresponded to a return to the top tier, where they found a bit more success. However, they could never really get a good grip, with bigger teams from around the Yugoslavian territories always outshining them.
The club was good enough to stay in the top flight and did so until 1969, but even after that relegation, Rijeka remained near the top of second tier and earned promotion back to the First League five years later.
Rijeka would remain in the Yugoslav First League until the breakup of the country (and league) in 1991, and during that period, the club found moderate success in Europe. First, in 1979-80, the club made it all the way to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup (a now-defunct competition) before going out to Juventus, and in the 1984-85 campaign, Rijeka were robbed of a spot in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup (now Champions League) in controversial fashion. After winning the first leg 3-1 at home against Real Madrid, Rijeka were shown three red cards in the return leg at the Bernabeu and conceded three goals in the last 25 minutes (one of which was a soft penalty) to lose 4-3 on aggregate to the eventual champions.
While those European forays were a tough pill to swallow, Rijeka did pick up their first two pieces of major hardware during that same period, winning back-to-back Yugoslav cups in 1978 and 1979. Along with three Croatian Cups –– won in 2005, 2006 and 2014 –– those are the only significant trophies the side has in its trophy case.
The three most recent failures have been a bit of a blessing in disguise, however, as Rijeka has had a chance to try their hand in the Europa League. While they have only made it to the group stage (and have failed to even get that far on a couple of occasions), that experience has proved valuable for the growing side.
This year, Rijeka were eliminated in the third qualifying round of the UEL on away goals by Istanbul Basaksehir, but that has allowed them to turn their focus to the league, where they have been brilliant.
Thus far, Rijeka haven’t lost a league game, posting a 16-4-0 record. Better yet, the club has done so without star Roman Bezjak, who, after posting seven goals and two assists in his first seven league games, was shipped off to Darmstadt in the Bundesliga just before the summer transfer window closed.
Currently, Rijeka sit top of the table with a six-point lead on Dinamo Zagreb. They have the most goals scored (39) and have allowed a league-low eight. The latter especially is an extremely impressive number, as they’ve conceded less than half-a-goal a game, and it looks like the defense might carry them to an unexpected title.
The first monumental moment of the season was a 5-2 beatdown they put on Dinamo Zagreb in September. That stamped their intentions on the league, and they have not looked back since. In their
The run to start the year has been phenomenal, but even more shocking is that the club has done so in a stadium they do not even call home. During the summer of 2015, Rijeka moved from the Stadion Kantrida –– where they played for the previous 60 years –– with the arena was set to be demolished and rebuilt. Currently, they are playing their home games in the the 6,000-seater Stadion Rujevica, which has less than half of the old stadium’s capacity. The ground –– which in the long run, will be part of the club’s training complex –– could be their home for some time, too, with work on rebuilding the Kantrida beginning just this year, although they seem to have settled in nicely.
Rijeka certainly look built for the long haul as it stands now, but they need to continue to make strides forward to maintain their lead on Zagreb, who they still have to play twice in what will undoubtedly be their two most important matches of their last 16. They will get a chance to put the title in their back pocket at home on April 8, but if they fail to do so or struggle elsewhere, Rijeka could be set up for an intense finish. The two sides meet again on the final day of the season in Zagreb in a game that Rijeka will certainly hope doesn’t matter in terms of the title.
Despite Zagreb's 11 straight crowns, Rijeka are the title favorites at the moment, but they will need to fight off the nerves that come with being in a serious position to win the club’s first league title. The work they have put in over the last three seasons should help them with that as Rijeka tread into uncharted waters with a giant on their heels.