Croatian Prva Liga
Prva Liga (Prva HNL) is where Croatia's best teams meet. Average attendances are anything but impressive, but those who do follow the league get the chance to watch not only their team's fights for success, but also several hugely talented young players, just before they move abroad to conquer the world wearing the jersey of a big English, Spanish, Italian, or German club.
Organizer: Croatian Football Federation (Hrvatski nogometni savez; HNS)
Most championships: Dinamo Zagreb (20)
Most played seasons: Dinamo Zagreb, Hajduk Split, Rijeka, Osijek (28)
The “Prva Hrvatska Nogometna Liga”, Croatian First Football League, started in 1992, right after Croatia declared its independence from former Yugoslavia. Croatian teams used to compete in the Yugoslav First League until 1990-91.
During that season, just before the war at former Yugoslavia broke out, there were some ugly scenes in games between Croatian and Serbian teams, it was obvious that the situation was getting out of control, which it sadly did.
Hajduk Split won the first title in 1992, the first and last season in which the championship started and ended in the same calendar year. Next season, Croatia Zagreb, as Dinamo Zagreb were called back then, finished top, which they have done more times that any other club.
Actually, starting in 2006, they went on to win 11 consecutive titles, leaving biggest rivals Hajduk far behind.
In 2002, NK Zagreb managed to grab a rare top spot, becoming the first club, other than the country's mega powers, Dinamo and Hajduk, to win the title. In 2017, a possibly even bigger football miracle happened, when Rijeka shocked the Croatian (and up to a point the European, at least those who follow the goings-on in less popular leagues) world, by becoming the team who put an end to Dinamo's impressive 11-year reign, and, at the same time, only the fourth to lift the precious trophy.
Interestingly, it took the Croatian football federation more than twenty years to come in terms with the fact that the country, with a population of just over four million people, could not support a top flight of more than just ten teams.
In 1992, the league had 12 teams. Two years later, it reached its peak, with 18 participants. Gradually, the Federation accepted that 12 was a more rational number, but starting in 2013 the number has been further pushed down to ten, which feels even more appropriate. Football is huge in Croatia, but still the market is rather small, so going for ten participants the Federation had to … sadden cities that are no longer represented in the top flight, but it was something that most-most probably had to be done.
Dinamo Zagreb, Hajduk Split, Rijeka and Osijek are the only teams that have taken part in every single season since 1992.
The league has had a series of sponsors since 2003. Plus, it enjoys great TV coverage in the country, two sources of income that are indescribably important to the smaller clubs, that don't “produce” a talent or two per year, and cannot count on huge amounts of money going into their coffers every summer from a sale or two.
Prva HNL is since 1992 the top tier of the Croatian football league system. The Croatian second football league is since 1991 known as Druga hrvatska nogometna liga (Druga NHL). Also inaugurated in 1991, was the Croatian third football league, Treća hrvatska nogometna liga (Treća HNL), which is divided into several regional subdivisions. An overview of the current league system in Croatia is presented in table 1.
Below the third level follows the amateur league First County Football League (Prva županijska liga) divided in over 20 regional zones.
Teams with most titles
Statistics of all Croatian clubs that have won the top league, concerning the period 1992-2023.
If Yugoslav First League had been included, Dinamo would have four and Hajduk would have nine additional titles. Among the clubs that haven't won a championship title, NK Lokomotiva has been runners-up the most times (2).
Capacity of Croatian Prva Liga
Attracting stadium-goers has always been an issue in post-Yugoslavia Croatia, with average attendances not being bigger than 4,000, a number that would be even smaller if Dinamo and Hajduk didn't attract huge numbers in some top games, mostly between each other.
The league, and the country of course as well, could definitely do with a new stadium or three, preferably football-specific ones, which would definitely give fans in some cities an extra motive to attend a game (giving clubs the chance to improve their game-day revenue as well).
Table 3 shows the capacity of all Prva NHL club stadiums (based on the teams that participated in the league season 2019–2020). Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split has by far the biggest stadiums, with both capacities beyond 30,000.
|Dinamo Zagreb||Stadion Maksimir||35,123|
|Gorica||Gradski stadion Velika Gorica||5,000|
|Hajduk Split||Stadion Poljud||34,198|
|Inter Zaprešić||Stadion ŠRC Zaprešić||5,228|
|Istra 1961||Stadion Aldo Drosina||9,800|
|Osijek||Stadion Gradski vrt||17,061|
|Slaven Belupo||Gradski stadion Ivan Kušek-Apaš||3,205|
|Varaždin||Stadion Anđelko Herjavec||10,800|
NK Lokomotiva previously played their home games at the no longer approved Stadion Maksimir with a much bigger capacity than Stadion Kranjčevićeva. Former Prva HNL clubs and stadiums: Rudeš, Kranjčevićeva (8,850).
Davor Vugrinec, a striker who made a name for himself at Varteks, from 1992 to 1997, before going on to play for eight more teams in his career, is the league's leading scorer, having netted 144 goals. The number would be much bigger if he hadn't spent a good part of his career in Turkey and Italy.
Actually, Vugrinec would not be the number one of the list, if Croatian clubs had a way (and the will) to keep their best talents. The list of the Croatian players who spent just a couple of years playing at home, before moving abroad to become not just European, but world-class stars, is really endless.
Holding the record for most appearances does Jakov Surać who played 453 matches for Zadar, Osijek and NK Zagreb between 1992 and 2016.
By Dimitris Basias
Prva Liga timeline
1923 Yugoslav First League (predecessor to Prva Liga) is established.
1992 The league is established.
1994 From the 1994-95 season, wins are awarded three points instead of two.
1995 The league is separated into A- and B- leagues.
1997 The A- and B- league system is abandoned.
2003 The league is named Prva HNL Ožujsko due to sponsorship reasons.
2007 The league is named T-Com Prva HNL due to sponsorship reasons.
2011 The league is named MAXtv Prva Liga due to sponsorship reasons.
2017 The league is named Hrvatski Telekom Prva Liga due to sponsorship reasons.