It is 29th March, 2008. NK Zadar are playing a home fixture against HNK Cibalia.
It is still early in the game, the teams probing each other, and an aimless through ball is gathered by the Zadar ‘keeper, who then drills a long pass out towards the left of midfield from the Zadar end.
Hrvoje Ćustić and a Cibalia player, rush towards the ball as it bounces towards the touch-line, both angling their bodies across each other as they vie for possession. Ćustić then appears to get slightly further ahead, winning the chase, before he trips or is tripped, and falls forwards.
His momentum carries him, head-first, into a low, concrete barrier which runs the length of the far side of the pitch, supporting the fencing which separates the fans from the pitch and bearing pasted-on adverts. There is obviously something about that impact, a noise perhaps, because the Cibalia player turns immediately and throws his hands up, frantically beckoning medical staff onto the pitch, beckoning as though he might actually reach them and drag them on with the movement.
Players and the referee rush over, crowding around Ćustić, grabbing at him in their efforts to help, to rouse him perhaps from unconsciousness. A Cibalia player, wearing number 28, appears then turns away, his hand over his mouth, as medical staff rush towards the fallen player.
These images are from the videos that show the tragic accident that led to the death of Croatian footballer Hrvoje Ćustić at the age of 24. He died five days after the accident, probably of an infection while still in an induced coma after surgery on his brain. He was rushed to hospital immediately after the accident and underwent surgery very promptly, but he never began to recover beyond being stabilised.
His team-mates camped outside the hospital, praying for him, and a collective swell of both goodwill towards Ćustić and anger towards the club and the municipality for the almost wilfully dangerous nature of the pitch-side fencing bubbled up in the town of Zadar in the weeks and months that followed.
Zadar is a city on the Adriatic coast in the area known as Dalmatia in Croatia. A vibrant city with a population of just over 75,000 in 2011, Zadar is a former Roman settlement with a long and complex history, involving occupation by various nations or groups, including the Huns and the Venetians.
By the time Hrvjoe Ćustić was born in the city in October 1983, it was a prosperous and stable city, busy with tourists flocking to the Adriatic, though having fallen behind Split as the notional regional centre for Dalmatia. Until 1991, Zadar had growing population numbers and a burgeoning, if not booming, economy.
In 1991, all that changed. It seems such a cliché to write about the war in the former Yugoslavia when writing about a footballer from the region, but there can be no doubt that the war and its legacy left a lasting imprint on the generations who lived through it, on what they felt mattered and what they wanted from a new life in the new Croatia.
Zadar was subject to an almost total blockade from 1991 to 1993, which had an enormous effect on the economy. Attacks on the city continued until 1995, even after the nascent Croatian army had freed the area from siege.
It was under this daily threat of shelling, of economic privation, and of an awareness of the flimsiness of life and living, that Hrvoje Ćustić grew up. He was eight when the war started. In his history of eastern Europe, Jonathan Wilson notes the fervent nationalism, which veered between pride and bigotry, engendered among all the nations of the former Yugoslavia by the outbreak of the war and the gradual cohesion of various parts of the fractured country into new nation states.
An obvious outlet for these feelings was football, and, as Wilson describes, the tournaments of 1996 and 1998 provided a much-needed boost and visible platform for a thoroughly brilliant generation of Croatian footballers. By this time, watching and probably inspired by the performances of players like Robert Prosinečki, Zvonimir Boban, and Slaven Bilić. Hrvoje Ćustić was playing for the NK Zadar youth team alongside future stars like Luka Modric.
It must have been an incredible time to be playing football in Croatia, the country not only forging a new present and future as an independent nation, but with an array of players representing the country both in a successful national team and by plying their trade abroad.
NK Zadar, who currently play in the top tier of Croatian football, the Prva HNL, are something of a yo-yo team between the two highest divisions in Croatian football. One of the founding members of the Prva HNL, the club’s greatest season was in 1995/96, when they came second in the Prva HNL and reached the semi-finals of the Croatian Cup, the same summer as Croatia really burst onto the international scene with their quarter-finals appearance at Euro ’96.
While researching this piece, I was lucky enough to speak to someone who played football with Ćustić in the early part of his career at Zadar. He has asked to be referred to as Ivan. Ivan described how Hrvoje was very focussed on a career in professional football and was quickly marked out as being a talent.
“He was among the most talented players at Zadar, people spoke of him in superlatives. He was obviously talented but his hard work was his biggest quality”. Ivan describes a normal young man, “very motivated to make a football career”, “a very positive guy but determined to succeed in football, and nothing and nobody would have stopped him achieving his goal”. This work ethic, harnessed to an obvious ambition, made him stand out, though everyone in that Zadar youth set-up was secondary to Modric.
Ćustić was known as a very physical player, quick, and with an excellent eye for goal. He started out as a forward, but often played on the wing later in his career. I asked Ivan what Hrvoje was like as a teammate. He told me that Hrvoje was “a good teammate, a bit of a joker I’d say…he was always teasing the younger guys. He’d make them uncomfortable for a moment with his comments or something, but his big smile afterwards would seal the deal”.
Ivan recalled how Ćustić was also very much a team player: “He assisted me for my first official goal ever. We played in a big tournament in Genova, Italy. It was the last goal of the match. I [came on] as a substitute a couple of minutes earlier. He could have scored it himself but he decided to pass me the ball, and I had the easy task of just putting the ball in the net. Although he was very determined he was unselfish.”
This blend of talent, focus, and team ethic saw Ćustić capped seven times for the Croatian under-21 national squad, playing mostly as a winger, as well as three caps for the under-20 squad.
Between 2000 and 2005, he played 84 times for Zadar, scoring 7 goals, before being loaned out to NK Zagreb. He made 22 appearances for ‘The Poets’, scoring once, before returning to Zadar for the 2007/08 season. It was Zadar’s first season back in the top tier after two seasons playing at a lower level. Ćustić played twenty times, scoring once, before that horrific day in March.
I asked Ivan whether the Croatian FA did anything to mark the tragic accident. The UEFA webpage pertaining to the Croatian FA’s response no longer exists, and so it is difficult to check, but it appears that the following weekend’s matches were all postponed. Ivan told me that while there were some calls for the Croatian National Cup to be named after Hrvoje, nothing came to fruition.
The city of Zadar did name a street in front of the stadium after him though. His legacy also extends to improved conditions in the Stanovi Stadium, where Zadar play their home games. The tragically fatal concrete fence is now further from the pitch as a direct result of the accident: the whole pitch was shifted away from the stand in front of which Ćustić was injured, with the opposite stand being demolished and rebuilt. This work occurred in August 2008, and also brought in better lighting and safer areas for the fans.
Ivan said to me, “there was a lot of anger, because only [Hrvoje’s] death made people in the club and the city of Zadar, which owns the stadium, improve it”. That anger is clear in Ivan’s own words, more than five years after the event: “It’s tragic that nobody cared about the safety of the sportsmen in that so-called stadium before his death. The wall was obviously too close.”
The legacy of Hrvoje Ćustić is more than improved safety conditions for players though. It is clear from Ivan’s words that the death of Hrvoje left a sizeable hole in people’s lives, that the sadness and anger that swelled as a result of the accident were due in large part to Hrvoje’s popularity, his charisma, as much as the senselessness of his death.
Ćustić was a normal boy from Zadar who followed his passion for football, who worked hard as well as being gifted, and who died fulfilling his dream of being a professional player. The stupid futility of that death, the fact that with a little sense and effort it could have been avoided just makes it sadder. The reaction of the Croatian FA and the club itself could have been better but it is perhaps fitting that it is in the memory of his friends and teammates, rather than in the gestures of the football apparatus, that the memory of Hrvoje Ćustić lives on most forcefully.
It is perhaps unsurprising to find that things moved slowly and without a great deal of thought at NK Zadar and the Croatian FA in the wake of Ćustić’s death. Despite repeated efforts, I was unable to get any answer from the club itself about Hrvoje, and it does seem that there is a lack of organisation at Zadar; a local journalist I spoke to told me he also struggles to get in touch with people at the club. It is thanks to the efforts of Aleksandar Holiga and Mladen Malik that I was able to write this piece, and I am very grateful to them both.
My greatest thanks are reserved fro Ivan, who took time and effort to respond to my queries and revisit the sad death of a friend and teammate.
For further information and support about head and brain injuries check out the Headway website.