“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting." That was George Orwell, here's Diego Pacheco.

Red Star Belgrade’s trip to Zagreb to play Dinamo at the Stadion Maksimir on May 13th 1990 was a powder keg waiting to explode. The Communist League of Yugoslavia had just broken up in January of the same year, Croat nationalist Franjo Tuđman had just beat out the old communist leaders in the first multi-party elections in Croatia, and Slobodan Milošević’ was busy carrying out his radically Serb-centric plan for Yugoslavia. With all of this occurring in the background, someone should have known that putting two of the most violent, fascist supporters’ groups in the same stadium was a recipe for disaster, yet, on that fateful day, Red Star’s Delije (Heroes) and Dinamo’s Bad Blue Boys took their places at opposite ends of the Stadion Maksimir and began spewing hate at one another. Although it cannot and should not be used to explain the causes for conflict and war, football can provide a unique perspective for explaining these conflicts. In Yugoslavia especially, football clubs and stadia played a significant role in exacerbating the conflict.

The perseverance of distinct ethnic identities within Yugoslavia led directly to its disintegration. The unified “Yugoslav” identity was never able to completely uproot Serb or Croat identities, and without Tito’s strong arm to keep everyone in check, the country fell apart. The football stadium played a significant role in the advancement of nationalist movements in Yugoslavia, most clearly evident in the actions of supporter’s groups or ultras.

Croats and Serbs both have proud national identities that have been shaped by years of struggle and foreign domination. At its height in the 14th century, the Serbian Empire extended from parts of modern-day Greece in the south to parts of Croatia in the north. Defeat in 1389 at Kosovo Polje to the invading Turks, however, would see the end of the great medieval Serbian Empire. The independent Croatian Kingdom had only existed for two centuries when, in 1493, it became a semi-autonomous province of Hungary. With the death of the Hungarian king at a battle against the Ottomans in 1526, Croatia, along with the parts of the Hungarian empire that were not conquered by the Ottomans, became part of the Habsburg Empire. Although these empires were short-lived, Croat and Serb nationalists have turned them into a part of the national myth, calling for a return to this supposed golden age (Bennett 18).

You’d be hard-pressed to find a Serb or a Croat to admit it, but the reality is that before World War I, relations between the two peoples were relatively tranquil (Bennett 27). It wasn’t until the establishment of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in 1918 that relations turned ugly. Ironically enough, the Croats were the ones who came up with the idea of a unified Yugoslavia—the Illyrian movement that began in 1830s Croatia envisioned a union of all south Slavs as the same peoples (Bennett 24).

The first incarnation of Yugoslavia was a Serb-centric affair, a fact that left many Illyrians who had imagined a Yugoslav nation centered in Zagreb disillusioned (Bennett 29-30). With the fall of the Habsburgs, the Serbs simply replaced all of the old institutions with their own, making no effort to accommodate or even listen to Croat interests, something that soured Serbo-Croat relations indefinitely (Bennett 35). This unjust Serb rule hardened Croat nationalism and led them to form the Ustašas, a Fascist organization whose sole goal was the creation of an independent Croatia (Bennett 38-9).

In the 1941, Hitler invaded the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and quickly went about dividing up the country among the Axis powers. What could not be allocated to any particular Axis country was put under the orders of Nazi-friendly rulers. In Croatia, this was the Ustaša. In describing the Ustašas, one British journalist noted, “above all, they were terrorists who had overnight been handed total power” (Bennett 43). Indeed, the Ustašas plan to deal with the Serb population in their Croat state was as macabre as it sounded: kill a third, expel a third to Serbia, and convert the left over third to Catholicism (Bennett 44).

The Ustašas were brutally violent: bands of them would turn up “unannounced at Serb villages and wipe out every last man, woman, and child” (Bennett 46). In their concentration camps, they refused to waste bullets on prisoners, beating, starving, or knifing them instead. The Ustašas’ rule was one in which tens of thousands of Serbs, gypsies, and Jews were savagely murdered, and ruined the face of Croatian nationalism and a Croatian state for years to come (Bennett 46). The Croat reaction to Serb centrism only served to harden Serb nationalism.

As the Axis powers fell to the Allies, Marshall Josip Broz Tito and his Partizans took power in Yugoslavia. Tito created a new Yugoslavian federation, designed in a strong, centrist manner and with checks and balances so that no republic in the federation would be more powerful than the other (Bennett 54). Whenever the leadership of a particular federation stepped over its bounds, Tito was quick to strong-arm them back into their place and maintain balance.

Like all communists, Tito believed that nationalism would disappear as soon as the “proletariat won power and the inequalities which had bred [it] it in the first place were eradicated” (Bennett 51). However, despite the communist rewriting of history which taught schoolchildren that the revolution was an epic struggle against fascism, a “word of mouth history” was passed along from generation to generation, ensuring that the “open wounds” of the First Yugoslav Republic and the brutal Ustaša rule remained fresh (Bennett 52). This coupled with the fact that children were also taught that they could be Yugoslav and Serb or Croat or whatever their respective nationality was contributed to the continued existence of strong, if suppressed, nationalist ambitions and identifications (Bennett 64).

In the 1960s and 70s, the Croat intelligentsia led a nationalist revival, fearing that Croats would lose their national identity within the Yugoslav state. Although initially a cultural movement, the “Croatian Spring,” as it was called, grew more militant and anti-Serb as time went on (Bennett 73). Eventually, Croatian nationalists began trashing Cyrillic signs and other Serbian symbols, and riots began to be seen in cities and soccer stadiums across Yugoslavia.

The soccer stadium played an interesting role in Yugoslav society. Although Yugoslavia was seen as the “acceptable face of communism” throughout the world, there was still social and political repression, and Tito would not hesitate to resort to violence if he found it necessary (Bennett 4). The stadium was a space where Yugoslavs could “[throw] off restraints and rules” as they supported their team (Čolović 272). Thus, it was no surprise that stadiums were venues for a variety of protests both during Tito’s rule and after.

When Tito died in 1980, “prophets of doom” began to speculate about Yugoslavia’s future; many argued that without Tito’s “charismatic leadership and unifying presence, the country would surely not survive” (Bennett 4-5). Indeed, after Tito’s death, “nationalist sentiments that had been repressed for decades were suddenly released in torrents of violence that surprised the rest of the world in their ferocity” (Sack and Suster 309). As Serbian anthropologist Ivan Čolović notes, Serb and Croat football fans were the first members of Yugoslav society to be openly nationalist (272). This observation makes a lot of sense if we put together some of the circumstances of the era.

First, the 1980s were a period of economic decline for Yugoslavia, with the global rise of oil prices and the country’s mounting debt to Western financial institutions finally caught up to them (Bennett 69). Second, feelings of intense nationalism tend to be higher among unemployed or underemployed men under the age of 25 (Class Notes 4/26). Third, in a study conducted for the book Soccernomics to determine the demographics of a club’s fan base, the authors quoted trained economist and current Arsenal F.C. manager Arsène Wenger, who noted, “football has different types of people coming to the game… the fan is a guy between 15 and 25 years old who gives all his money to the club,” implying that the “fan” is the one who goes to all the games and supports his team through thick and thin (Kuper and Szymanski 281). Finally, as noted before, the football stadium in Yugoslavia had been a place with relaxed rules, where fans could go to vent their frustrations without fear of reprisals.

Putting all of this together, we have the perfect recipe for fervent, violent nationalism: the poor economy had left many young Croats and Serbs unemployed. These young, angry Croats and Serbs went to the stadium to support their teams and vent their anger at their situation. These angry youths at sporting events were naturally attracted to right-wing nationalism and fascism: the athletic arena gives a nation the stage to prove physical superiority—that of one race being superior to another (Čolović 281). Their turn to violence was a reassertion of their masculinity: they were unemployed or underemployed and humiliated, the jingoistic media of each respective republic portrayed the other republic as the root of their problems, and thus radical nationalism “worked as a metaphor for their lives… their nations and races had been victimized by the world just as badly as they had been themselves” (Foer 13-4)

With the politicization of their fans, clubs became national symbols. Zvarko Puhovski, a Croat philosophy professor and basketball fan, tells a story from his childhood to illustrate this phenomenon. He recounts how when one of his teachers asked pupils whether they were Croat or Yugoslav, two Algerian students answered that they were Croat. When the teacher reprimanded the students for answering absurdly, Puhovski came to their defense, saying that they were Croats because, “Firstly they speak Croat, and secondly they support Dinamo” (Kuper 277).

The same phenomenon occurred in Serbia. One Serb father, for example, took his son out of school for a day to go watch Red Star Belgrade play. When he took his son to school the next day, he told his son’s teacher that he was teaching his son a lesson in Serbian nationalism by taking him to the match, and that it was up to her to determine whether or not this was a reasonable justification for his missing class (Čolović 267). Being a Red Star supporter was equated with being a Serb nationalist—as one man’s contradictory statement proves: “I am a Partizan Belgrade [Red Star’s local rival] fan who supports Red Star” (Čolović 266-9).

This nationalism only got worse with the arrival of Slobodan Milošević. Milošević’s plan to revamp Yugoslavia consisted of three parts: first, he would establish a centralized base of support within the Serbian Communist Party. Using this new power base, Milošević would centralize power in Serbia, including the then-semi-autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina. After establishing this centralized power in the Serbian republic, he would move to consolidate power over the rest of Yugoslavia (Class Notes 5/3). To build his popular support, Milošević began appealing to the growing sentiments of Serb nationalism, despite the fact that he himself was Montenegrin (Class Notes 5/3).

Naturally, Milošević found one of his strongest support bases in the Delije of Red Star Belgrade. The Delije had been incorporating Milošević’s name into their chants at games, making the connection between sport and politics undeniable (Čolović 273). Instead of repressing the Delije, Milošević channeled their violent tendencies against his enemies, most notably, the Croatians (Čolović 280). In Zagreb, meanwhile, the Bad Blue Boys were building the same relationship with Franjo Tuđman, Croatia’s nationalist leader—chanting his name at matches and embracing Croat nationalist symbols (Sack and Suster 311). Both politicians recognized the potential pool of nationalist supporters and fighters in the Delije and the Bad Blue Boys, and thus helped them grow “in size and power under their, [Milošević and Tuđman’s], secret patronage” (Goldblatt 557).

It all came to the fore at the Dinamo-Red Star match of May 13th, 1990. Twenty-five thousand people gathered in the Stadion Maksimir to watch the two great rivals of the Yugoslav Prva Liga face off. Things were getting violent even before the match had started: half an hour before kickoff, Red Star fans began “[tearing] down commercial signage and [attacking] Dinamo fans,” and chanting Serb nationalist refrains and “we will kill Tuđman” (Sack and Suster 311). The provocations continued from both sides as the match began. The Bad Blue Boys were infuriated—the Delije had come to their stadium, attacked innocent Dinamo fans, and attacked their national pride. Breaking down the fence, the Bad Blue Boys invaded the pitch and began to fight Delije who had done the same.

It was at this game that Zvonimir Boban, Dinamo Zagreb captain, became famous—not for a kick of a football, but for kicking a cop. The federal police were mostly Serbs, and thus seemed to be favoring the Delije over the Bad Blue Boys (Goldblatt 708). When he saw a police officer trying to arrest a Dinamo fan, Boban ran over and aimed a flying karate kick at the officer, helping the fan get away and effectively becoming a Croatian national hero in the process (Goldblatt 708, Kuper 276).

Present at the match that day was the leader of the Delije, Željko Ražnatović, known as Arkan. Right after the match, Arkan began to organize a paramilitary unit, the Tigers, saying, “I foresaw everything and knew that Ustaša daggers would soon be slaughtering Serbian women and children again” (Čolović 276). The Tigers would become Milošević’s shock troops, “the most active agents of ethnic cleansing, highly efficient practitioners of genocide” (Foer 13). Composed primarily of Delije members, the Tigers went to war in Slavonia, Croatia’s eastern region, singing the same songs on the battlefield as they did in the stadium (Čolović 277, 278). The UN would eventually indict Ražnatović for crimes against humanity.

The Bad Blue Boys did the same. As David Goldblatt notes, “among the earliest and most advanced units in the new Croatian militias were detachments recruited from Dinamo Zagreb’s Bad Blue Boys, who wore their football insignia alongside their military emblems” (708). The Delije and Bad Blue Boys were, effectively, “as much paramilitary organizations as they were fan clubs (Sack and Suster 311).

For many Croatians, their War for Independence began at the Dinamo-Red Star game (Guilianotti 13). Indeed, the intense fighting seen between Serbs and Croats on that fateful day at the Stadion Maksimir was a preview of the harsh, intense fighting that would follow. If anything, this story provides, in the words of sociologist Richard Giulianoti, “the most notable instance of club football’s ethno-nationalism coming to the boil” (13).

Serb and Croat nationalism withstood the long period of repression under Tito and re-emerged with a vengeance in the 1980s. The brutal fighting that occurred in the early nineties only served to show that the imposed Yugoslav identity never really took hold, and that nationalist sentiments had only grown stronger over the years. The supporters groups of Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade exemplified just how powerful these sentiments had become with their clashes in the stands and, eventually, on the battlefields. Outside of Stadion Maksimir today, a memorial stands in memory of the Dinamo supporters who died during the Croatian War of Independence. The caption underneath reads, “To the fans of this club, who started the war with Serbia at this ground on May 13th 1990” (Kuper 276). For Dinamo and Red Star fans, football really had become war with guns.

Works Cited:

Bennett, Christopher. Yugoslavia's Bloody Collapse: Causes, Course and Consequences. Bathurst, N.S.W.: Crawford House Publishers, 1996. Print.

Čolović, Ivan, and Celia Hawkesworth. Politics of Identity in Serbia: Essays in Political Anthropology. New York: New York UP, 2002. Print.

Foer, Franklin. How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.

Giulianotti, Richard. Football: A Sociology of the Global Game. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1999. Print.

Goldblatt, David. The Ball Is Round: a Global History of Soccer. New York: Riverhead, 2008. Print.

Kuper, Simon, and Stefan Szymanski. Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey and Even Iraq Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport. New York: Nation, 2009. Print.

Kuper, Simon. Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World's Most Popular Sport Starts and Stops Wars, Fuels Revolutions, and Keeps Dictators in Power. New York, NY: Nation, 2006. Print.

For more from Diego, visit Fútblogging