Croatia’s de facto second club, given the recent demise of Adriatic rivals Hajduk Split, HNK Rijeka have a passionate fan base, a jaw-dropping location for their stadium and a penchant for surprise wins in Europe. Now, though, this major deep-water port and transport hub also has an oil-rich Italian as a major shareholder for its flagship club.
At the start of the 2013-14 season, Ligurian entrepreneur Gabriele Volpi, a naturalised Nigerian who made his millions in oil, bought 70 per cent of HNK Rijeka for 54 million kuna (about €7 million), leaving 30 per cent for the City of Rijeka. Volpi had already invested part of his fortune in the waterpolo team of his native Recco and nearby Spezia Calcio, who narrowly missed out on a Serie A place this June. Selling key striker Andrej Kramarić to Leicester for a club record €13.5 million in January 2015, Volpi sees value in overseeing a club with a relatively straightforward passage to Europe each season.
The next task concerns the legendary Kantrida stadium, set right on the beach, due for a complete reconstruction during and beyond the 2015-16 season. During that time, the Whites will play at the Stadion Rujevica, just the other side of the main Kvarner highway, halfway between the Kantrida and Rijeka train station.
With the Kantrida and Italian influence in focus, everything has come full circle where football is concerned in Rijeka. HNK originated from US Fiumana, who represented what was the city of Fiume between the wars. The border between Italy and the new Socialist state of Yugoslavia moved after 1945. Fiume became Rijeka, and the football club became NK Kvarner, after the region. They inherited most of Fiumana’s players as well as the dramatic Kantrida stadium.
Hewn from a stone quarry and set by the beach of the same name, the Kantrida saw top-flight league action after NK Kvarner became NK Rijeka in the mid 1950s. A decent force in the Yugoslav game in the late 1970s, when Čiro Blažević of 1998 World Cup fame was in charge for 18 months, Rijeka won two domestic cups, held Juventus to a 0-0 draw and beat Real Madrid 3-1 at the Kantrida.
From 1987, a fiery supporters’ group, the Armada, adopted the trends of Italian ultra groups, but European football eluded the Whites for more than a decade. After Croatian independence, the newly named HNK Rijeka took a while to adapt to more modest regular opposition.
Despite frequent changes of management – current incumbent Matjaž Kek has excellent international experience with Maribor and the Slovenian national team – Rijeka began to win silverware again. Two consecutive cup wins came in 2005 and 2006 but it wasn’t until 2013 that they again shone in Europe. Overcoming VfB Stuttgart in a play-off, Rijeka made the group stage of the Europa League to hold Lyon, Betis and Guimarães to draws at home.
It was then that the prolific Andrej Kramarić began to get noticed. This time beating Standard Liège and Feyenoord at the Kantrida, Kramarić scoring a hat-trick against the Rotterdammers, Rijeka showed their mettle. Despite the sale of Kramarić halfway through, the Whites beat Hajduk by a country mile to a runners-up spot in the Croatian top flight in 2014-15. Kramarić ended the season as top league scorer. Albanian striker Bekim Balaj now has the task of filling his boots – and filling the net.
Due for a complete overhaul from the autumn of 2015 onwards, the Kantrida is one of European football’s great experiences. Set right on the Adriatic, this modest but atmospheric ground was originally a stone quarry until a pitch was created here in 1911.
It was here that the first side from Rijeka, from the Croatian neighbourhood of Sušak, played – and here that the local Italian side, US Fiumana, also strode out. Renovations were carried out in the 1950s but the Kantrida remained reasonably basic and open to the elements.
At some point in the 2015-16 season, it will all be knocked down to make way for the new, all-roofed Kantrida, whose 14,000 capacity will include 4,000 places for home fans, 1,000 seats in the family zone and an underground car park.
Currently away fans are allocated the nearest sector to the sea, on Portić ulica, right by the beach. The Armada are placed at the other end, below the complex that includes the Stars bar/nightspot.
The Kantrida is in the far west of town, past the train station. From town, the No.1 bus (direction Bivio) runs every 15min, and takes 15min to reach the Kantrida, around ten stops away. It calls at the bus and train station en route.
For league games, tickets are available on the day, entrance around 60kn.
The HNK Rijeka Fan Shop is to the right of the main entrance at the stadium and keeps Mediterranean hours, closing at lunchtime and reopening at 4pm. There’s another shop in the city centre, at P Rittera Vitezovića 1, just tucked in from the river.
The stadium is surrounded by bars and restaurants. On the main road near the bus stop, HAD (Liburnijska 18) is a sturdy bar/restaurant and HNK fans’ hangout, with team line-ups and old photos of the Kantrida on the walls. Further along on the same side, Miramare (1.Maja 12) is an equally affordable fish restaurant, with a sadly underused terrace.
Behind the home, Armada end of the stadium, Stars (Portić 1) is a more contemporary bar-cum-nightclub, whose terrace hangs right over the stadium. Down below, at street level by the main entrance, the KN Armada is a small fans’ bar, decked out in scarves and pennants.
Above is the cream of the crop, the Pod Kavun, one side leading to the VIP and press section of the main stand, the other with a terrace and stunning view of an endless Adriatic. Team line-ups through the ages line the walls, with a display of trophies on the other side of the bar.
From there, it’s a few steps down to the sea, where you’ll also find the Morski Prasac beach bar, ideal for a sundowner before evening kick-off.