"Rich, Italian businessman to invest in HNK Rijeka." It sounded an unlikely story when the headline emerged earlier this year, but this was no joke – Italian oil magnate Gabriele Volpi is the real deal and is determined to make a splash in Croatian football.
It is not Volpi's first foray into the sport, having previously been involved with Italian lower league outfit Spezia Calcio. He is also owner of perhaps the most powerful water polo club in the world – Pro Recco – but for now at least, Rijeka are the apple of his eye.
"I'm so happy to invest in this club," he said when taking over. "My goal will be to win the UEFA Europa League, though I know it will not be easy." With such lofty ambitions, it is little wonder Rijeka have had a busy summer in the transfer market and can now be considered the greatest domestic threat to GNK Dinamo Zagreb ahead of the start of the new Croatian First League season this weekend.
Among the recent arrivals are captain Dario Knežević, who was bought from AS Livorno Calcio, and former HNK Hajduk Split centre-back Mato Neretljak. The list goes on: midfielders Drago Gabrić and Jurica Vranješ, forward Leon Benko, and a host of foreign acquisitions such as Italian Diego Vannucci, Belgian Andréa Mbuyi Mutombo and Poland midfielder Łukasz Mierzejewski.
Hajduk are experiencing difficulties and are unlikely to challenge the Dinamo monopoly, though city rivals RNK Split look to be heading in the right direction and could be surprise contenders for a top-three place. Dinamo, having won seven straight titles and five of the last six Croatian Cups, are obvious favourites, but there is no doubt Rijeka mean business.
"We're a really strong team now and we don't need to fear Hajduk or Dinamo," said Vranješ. "When you look at the players in our team you can see we have the quality to do something big, though maybe not the championship as it is our first year and it's always hard, especially with so many new players. If I had to place us somewhere it would be among the top four in Croatia this season."
Knežević, meanwhile, added: "We are really doing a good job. We have 15 new players and we will need some time to settle things down, but I think we could repeat the achievements of 2005 and 2006 when Rijeka won back-to-back cups. I wouldn't make too ambitious a prediction but the battle for a Europa League place is realistic."
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