Mario Juric became the new president of Croatian union Hrvatska Udruga Nogometni Sindikat (HUNS) in May 2023, following in the footsteps of Dario Simic who stepped down from the position after 13 years. Both Juric and Simic were involved in establishing HUNS in 2010 along with Juric’s brother Miroslav (lawyer) and former player Ivica Landeka.
Juric paid tribute to the integral role Simic, a celebrated defender with Dinamo Zagreb, Inter, AC Milan and Monaco, played in the union’s 13 years so far.
"Dario joined us and then played the most important role in getting our union recognised. His arrival opened many doors," said Juric, a former Dinamo Zagreb midfielder. "I knew everything about the issues facing players in Croatia, and Dario knew all about the status of footballers in the world’s biggest clubs. We complemented each other perfectly."
Juric, a two-time international with Bosnia and Herzegovina, was inspired to start a player union in Croatia after seeing the level of organisation in USA.
"I realised things that I considered to be normal when in Croatia were in fact not normal, such as not receiving your salary on time," he said. "Back then, the average salary delay in our top league was ten months, and only six of 16 clubs fulfilled their obligations towards the players. Around the same time, 17 players were imprisoned because of their involvement in a match-fixing scandal. This triggered us to establish our union.
"When we officially started, I proposed to Ivica and Miroslav to choose Dario as our president. We needed a leader who was recognised in Croatia and abroad. My football career was not even close to Dario’s. I played two matches for Bosnia and Herzegovina; Dario played 100 matches for Croatia, won the bronze medal at the 1998 World Cup and was a two-time Champions League winner with AC Milan."
Little over two years after being established in 2010, HUNS was welcomed as a FIFPRO member in 2012.
"That was a breakthrough moment, and Dario played a crucial role here," said Juric. "During our 13 years together at HUNS, we took all decisions together, but Dario was the initiator and organiser of many activities and projects. He was selfless and sincere, and he dedicated himself with great enthusiasm to improve the status of professional football players. He left an indelible mark at HUNS."
Juric lists the union’s establishment and becoming a FIFPRO member as two of his organisation’s main achievements, but quickly adds other milestones such as changing the dispute resolution system and creating annual player awards.
"To raise awareness about salary arrears, we organised various protests and arranged that a match between NK Rijeka and NK Karlovac was not played,” he said. “It was the first time in Croatian football that a match was not played – even during the war matches went ahead. Soon after, the football federation (HNS) changed its regulations, and among other things established a dispute resolution chamber in accordance with FIFA circular letter 1010.
"Today, we don’t have clubs who are 10 months behind with salary payments, we don’t have 150 annual arbitration cases, and we don’t have match-fixing scandals. Our footballers have various legal instruments at their disposal to protect their rights."
One of the annual highlights is the vote for the player awards – the Trophy Footballer – which, according to Juric, has become the most prestigious player award in Croatia.
Last month, HUNS announced the winners of the 11th edition. Among the winners in nine categories was Luka Modric who, according to his colleagues in Croatia, is still the country’s best footballer. He received that honour for the 11th consecutive year. Other winners included Marko Livaja (best men’s player in the Croatian league) and Izabela Lojna (best women’s player in the Croatian league).
HUNS has 1200 members, including around 200 women’s players, and offers various benefits. The union recently organised its tenth training camp for out-of-contract players. HUNS expects that 80 percent of the 20 participating players will find a new club before the season starts.
To help players prepare for life after football, the union has a second-career project. Through the years, HUNS has helped more than 40 players obtain Sports Management university degrees at the FIFPRO Online Academy (UCN Denmark) or Croatian Aspira University College.
HUNS also arranged that all players can have a free heart check at a private clinic and organised CPR courses. All participating players at this year’s training camp, for instance, had a heart check.
Regardless of the progress made, Juric maintains HUNS "still has enough to fight for".
He continued: “We need to improve the working conditions for players in lower leagues, women’s football, futsal and youth competitions. Through better conditions we aim to improve the quality of play. We also want more highly educated football players and better medical care.”
Next to that, HUNS is preparing a mental health education program. The union has an agreement with a company that will accompany union staff when they visit clubs to discuss players’ mental health. The union also wants to warn players of the dangers and risks of gambling, having learned some are struggling with betting or gambling problems.
“When we started with the union in 2010, there were players who didn’t want to support us or become a member,” said Juric. “Now they approach us and congratulate us with our achievements. That is the biggest compliment we could get.”