Mostar Derby – Where Football Meets Nationalism and Ethnicity

War ravaged Bosnia and Herzegovina has its own set of football history to be explored. Suprodip Ghosal from Goalden Times takes you through one such experience with a tale of the Mostar Derby comprising of clubs FK Velez Mostar and HSK Zrinjski Mostar.

Football in Bosnia & Herzegovina

War-ravaged Bosnia and Herzegovina have never been on the forefront of the football world until recently when they qualified for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil with superstars Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic taking up key roles. The former Soviet territory gained full independence in 1995 from the Yugoslavic state after years of political and ethnic unrest in the region. Red Star Belgrade was the most famous team from the region, having won the European Cup in 1991. They remain the only club to have won the coveted trophy from the Yugoslavic region also the only club from the region to feature in a list of the top 200 European clubs of the twentieth century.[1]

The Two Clubs of Mostar

One of the most famous derbies in the Bosnia and Herzegovina region is the Mostar Derby. This derby between the clubs HSK Zrinjski Mostar and FK Velez Mostar. Zrinjski Mostar was formed in the year 1905 by Croatian youths and is the oldest football club in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It participated in the Prva HNL, the Croatian First Football League and hence got banned once the Social Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed post World War II. The ban lasted from the year 1945 to 1992 and the club was re-established when Bosnia and Herzegovina was formed and joined the top division in the year 2000. Velez Mostar formed in the year 1922 by a group of teachers, who were training students and workers of a sports club. The club had a leftist orientation since its foundation and was a result of budding Bosnian national sentiment.

Velez playing the derby against Zrinjski [Source –
These Football Times]

The history of the derby can be broken into two separate periods. The first took place before the World War II following the inception of Velez in 1922. The first meeting took place in September 1922 and Velez came out on top by 2-1.  Fifteen matches took place up until the first shots of the war were fired. The last meeting of that first period took place in 1938, with Zrinjski winning 1-0. Shortly after the World War II, Zrinjski was banned by the communist Yugoslav authorities because of their participation in the Croatian league (the Prva HNL, the Croatian First Football League) under the fascist Ustasha regime during the war. The ban lasted for nearly half a century, from 1945 until 1992.

Looking Back Into History

During World War II, the rise of the Croatian NDH (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska) meant trouble for Velez. A friendly match turned into a massive anti-fascist rally, which did not bode well with Croatian forces. They reacted ruthlessly against the club, its management and the players. More than 80 people associated with the club died during that period, either in concentration camps or in their fight against the monarchist forces. Shortly after the war ended, newly formed Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia suspended Zrinjski. Velez capitalised on the absence of their rivals and became a very popular club in the country for the latter half of the 20th century.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Velez Mostar, Josip Broz Tito, the President of the SFR Yugoslavia, addressed the club with the following words:

“Comrades, you are on the right path, not only since yesterday, but from your origin…Furthermore, you have remained politically united. I want the future to foster brotherhood and unity, which is needed to steadily become stronger and to be consolidated. I want especially that you, the young generation that follows sport, become the first soldiers of those who will guard against every nationalist assault. You must be united; you should cherish and strengthen the brotherhood and unity of our nation. That is our socialist way” [2]

Those words sent out a strong message to club authorities that the good work must be continued and they had the backing of the government. Such was the aura that Velez had created in the absence of rivals Zrinjski.

Despite being the more popular club in Mostar for the greater part of the 20th century, Velez has failed to keep up with the success they obtained in the absence of Zrinjski. Eventually, after Zrinjski re-formed, they swore in new board members who brought in better sponsors and players. Modern day superstar Luka Modric was a member of the club on a loan deal from Dinamo Zagreb in 2003-04.  He made 22 appearances, scoring eight goals[3]. The efforts put in by the Zrinjski board have paid off as they’ve finished over their city rivals Velez fourteen times. Zrinjski has also become the league champions five times since their comeback with back-to-back titles in the last couple of seasons. The political consequences of the collapse of Yugoslavia greatly harmed Velez and supporters remain frustrated, relying on nostalgia to help them through these tough times.

The Modern Day Derby

The 1993 destruction of the Stari Most – the Ottoman bridge of Mostar spanning the Neretva River, which connected the eastern and western parts of the city, marked the end of the Yugoslavia and the dawn of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mostar was named after mostaris (the bridge keepers) who guarded the bridge over the Neretva river in medieval times. The bridge acted as a physical symbol of cultural and political divide. It kept the Croatians on the Western side and the native Bosniaks in the east. This affected the footballing roots on both parts of Mostar

Following formation of the independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, the three ethnic groups namely the Croatians, the Serbians and the Bosnians simultaneously conducted their own leagues up to a point with Velez playing in the Premijer Liga and Zrinjski in the Herzeg-Bosnia First League. Zrinjski was supported by the Croatian entity in Mostar and Velez was supported by the local Bosniaks and hence no common consensus could be reached as the divide between the clubs were far and wide. This delayed their next encounter as the two clubs finally met for a friendly on 1 March, 2000, which took place for the first time in over 55 years. The match ended in a 2-2 draw that was played in Sarajevo, a neutral venue. The first official encounter took place on 13 August, 2000 in the First League of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina after all the three leagues got merged officially. Zrinjski won 2-0 in the Bijeli Brijeg Stadium. Velez Mostar were relegated in 2003 but were promoted back to the first division in 2006, thus bringing another break in their derby sequence. The two clubs have met 45 times in total with Zrinjski emerging victorious 23 times while Velez have won 15 times and the remaining seven ending up in draws.

Ethnicity and The Clubs

Since their inceptions, both clubs have never been on the same page; the differences beginning in their roots of formation itself, as both have different political backgrounds. Velez has Bosnian roots while Zrinjski originate from the fascist Croats. When Zrinjski was reestablished, war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The war, which was fought between the Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and the Catholic Croats, eventually led to a divide in the city of Mostar. The Croats settled on the west side and the Bosniaks with the remaining Serbs settled on the east.  Velez Mostar’s home ground was the Bijeli Brijeg Stadium but they had to leave the place as it was located deep inside Croatian territory owned by the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They shifted to the Vrapcici Stadium on the eastern side of the city.

Scenes from Derby Day [Photographer -Joseph Melin]

The football rivalry is also linked with the Balkan roots that the supporters come from of the two rivals. The ethno-nationalistic tensions are pretty much distinguishable in the city of Mostar and this has become a part of their rivalry as well. The Croatian nationalism and Bosniak communism as well as memories and repercussions of the blood spilled during the war drive the hatred of these two sides’ supporters.[4] Both clubs have extremist supporters as a result of this ethnic divide. Supporters of Zrinjski are known as Ultras Zrinjski while the Red Army Mostar represents Velez. The fans of both the sides have clashed in the derbies thus bringing in more hatred and disgust and a lack of respect for each other. Also the fact that Velez were forced to change their stadium after the war has led to much more bitterness and tension amongst the fans.

Division of Mostar

The city of Mostar is divided in every possible aspect; in terms of geography as well as on the basis of culture, ethnicity and political roots, thus giving little reasons for people to unite. Every point of difference that the people on the two sides of the city share gets intensified by the Mostar Derby. The ethnic Croats refuse to go to the other side of the city other than for attending the away fixture of the derby because of their ethnic hate and nationalistic ideologies. The Bosniaks, being a bit more open-minded are of the idea that the nationalism and past resurfaces only during the times of the derby while the remainder of the calendar year is just as normal as it would be in any other city in the globe. Often before the derby, nationalistic slogans, graffiti depicting the Ustasha regime and images like swastika appear in places of the city. On the day of the derby, a very heavy police presence is deployed to keep things under control. The away fans are told to meet at a point in the city and are directly driven to and fro from the stadium by the police in buses. Despite these measures, fascist salutes, slogans and flags are often used by the fans to intimidate their opponents.

The hatred and violence has even spilled into the stadium on one such occasion. In a cup tie September 2011, Zrinjski fans climbed the terraces and went onto the pitch to confront Velez players who had scored a decisive goal in the extra time. Velez players immediately fled the pitch and the stadium to avoid getting hurt by the numerous objects being thrown in the stadium.[5] A couple of years later in 2013, police arrested 30 fans of Zrinjski who had been banned by the club as they tried to attend the match in the stadium.[5]

Identity Crisis f Velez

One serious question that arises today is how to describe the identity of Velez. On pen and paper, left wing ideologies are associated with the club but the truth is most Serbs left Mostar at the start of the war in 1992 and most Croats of Mostar are associated with Velez’s arch rivals. The majority Velez fanbase that is left is the Muslim Bosniaks thus hurling the club into an identity crisis. According to journalist and Velez fan Sasa Ibrulj:

“Older people like to say how nothing is the same anymore – and I’m afraid to say they are right, However, I wouldn’t say that Velez’s identity is completely lost, especially in comparison with the situation at other clubs or the fan movement of Yugoslavia. Velez is still the closest club to the ‘left wing’ movement, which has almost ceased to exist in Bosnia-Herzegovina and is one of the rare clubs that identifies itself with the anti-fascist movement, and on whose stands you can see images of Tito and Che.”[6]

He also tells that

“Mostar is a slave to politics. This is the way of things throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina; politics uses sport for all it can get”[6]

The general demography on the eastern side of the city faces the lack of ethnicity other than the Native Muslims today. If we dive back into the past, we can see that Croatia was ruled by the Habsburg dynasty and as a result of which ethnic Croats are oriented towards Europe. Bosnia, on the other hand, was ruled by the Ottoman Empire and hence ethnic Bosniaks are influenced by Turkey and the East. The youth teams of both the clubs are prime examples of how the ethnic divide is pretty much there and is unlikely to go away in the years to come.

A Look Into The Future

The next generation of the youth in that region are also being subject to nationalistic ideas through education and are getting polarised at a very young age. Politics has entered deep into education and this is instilling the young brains about hating the other community from the young ages. This derby acts as an outlet through which they can vent out their anger against each other and the atmosphere inside the stadium is almost like a political campaign. This is one of those cases where the supporters of both the sides have been living and continue to live in mistrust and hate for each other. This derby has multi-dimensional aspects which are far greater prevailing than the football that is actually played. Little known throughout the globe, this derby has high elements of passion, fight and a deeply rooted sense of nationalistic feelings which makes it special and different.

Given the way things are at the moment, it is very unlikely that the Mostar Derby will lose its nationalistic and ethnic aspect anytime soon in the future. Greater tensions may be on the horizon.

References :

  1. 1. Eessevee Forum
  2. 2. Football Republik
  3. 3. HSK Zrinjski Mostar
  4. 4. Balkan Insight
  5. 5. Football Republik
  6. 6. Four Four Two
Suprodip Ghosal

About Suprodip Ghosal

Suprodip Ghosal is a budding engineer right now. A huge fan of German Football, he is an avid reader of football stories from all across the globe.