In the name of the beautiful game, ethnicity and nationalism

When Yugoslavia was collapsing through different phases of armed political conflict in the early nineties, football grounds served as the theatre stage for the people of  myriad political ideologies. They showed their love and hatred driven by ethnic nationalism in such a way that it shocked the world. Arghya Lahiri is  narrating the story of two such significant incidents.

Two facets of the erstwhile Yugoslavia and the nations created after the collapse of Yugoslavia are always interesting to follow — football and politics.  The two are practically inseparable.  It was great to study those when the country was known as Yugoslavia (first the ‘Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes’, then the ‘Kingdom of Yugoslavia’ since 1929 and later, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia or SFRY since 1945). In Yugoslavia, politics was always very controversial, dangerous and deadly and the football reflected the ground realities. It remained the same when the country was breaking into pieces in the early nineties. For a long time, the Communist Party under the strong leadership of Marshal Jozip Tito ruled Yugoslavia. In his time there was no scope of ethnic conflict that could rupture the nation. His death in 1980 and the winds of change which turned into a storm in late 1980s on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, triggered the long suppressed ethnic nationalism in Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians,   Bosnians and Albanians (of Kosovo). All wanted their own independent nation. They complained that in the name of communism, Yugoslavia  was basically ruled by Serbs. The whole of Yugoslavia were waiting to disintegrate but the majority of the Serbs did not want to lose any part of the country from their control. When the Serbian nationalists and then Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic found that it would be difficult to hold the entire nation together, they changed their goal. Then their aim was to create a ‘greater Serbia’ only for Serbs. To achieve  this, nationalist Serbs wanted to include ‘Serbs majority’ areas of Croatia and other Republics with Serbia. This very idea initiated the armed conflict in former Yugoslavia which went on for the major part of 90s.In that whole conflict, sometimes enemies of one frontline became allies in another frontline, to fight against the people of a different ethnicity. Majorly Serbs are Orthodox Christians, Croats are Catholic and  Bosnians are Muslims. For centuries, this region has been a hotbed of violent conflicts. During the rule of Ottoman Empire, people of other religions were forcefully converted to Islamism. During the Nazi backed fascist era, Croats forced Orthodox Christians to embrace Roman Catholicism. Tito’s communist regime successfully prevented any sort of religious bigotry whatsoever.  But  his death opened the Pandora’s box of ethnic as well as religious hatred. However, during the armed conflict of 90s, it was often found that a very small number of people  belonging to each ethnicity and/or religion of that region, inspired by perhaps nationalism, or just to defend their homes and lands where their families had been living for centuries, fought for the cause of a republic where these people are actually minorities. This whole thing added a new dimension to the already prevailing faction, consequently   making that conflict very confusing most of the time.

Marshal Tito (, Slobodan Milosevic ( [Left to Right]
Marshal Tito (, Slobodan Milosevic ( [Left to Right]

Yugoslavia  was a strong footballing  nation, specifically  in European tournaments. Football aficionados used to call them  ‘Brazil of Europe’, such was their flair.  The records will corroborate this fact . From 1930 to 1990, they participated in eight of the 14 World Cups; they got the third place in the very first World Cup in 1930 and fourth in the 1962 World Cup in Chile. They were runners-up in the European Championships twice in 1960 and 1968 respectively. Yugoslavia men’s team won one gold (1960), three silvers (1948, 1952, 1956) and one bronze (1984) in the Olympics.

Yugoslavia team in 1930 world cup (milanvukovic in
Yugoslavia team in 1930 world cup (milanvukovic in

Club football was very popular in Yugoslavia. Teams like Hajduk Split, FK Velez Mostar, FK Vojvodina Novi had been there even before the second world war. The war forced few clubs to be disbanded. After the war, the communist  authority forced upon the clubs to disband those teams which played football during the era of Nazi backed Fascist regime; these clubs were accused as collaborators. Just like other socialist or communist countries in Eastern Europe, new football teams, backed by different state wings of  communist government, started forming to fill the vacuum, like Partizan Belgrade who were a team of Yugoslavia People’s Army(JNA). Few teams were formed by uniting disbanded old clubs or by creating a direct descendant of the disbanded clubs. Red Star Belgrade, Dinamo Zagreb were such clubs. Rivalries between the major clubs were always there in the communist era and that tradition is still there perhaps with more ferocity. When the country was on the verge of collapse, few old and almost obsolete attitudes started coming out of the closet. Serbs started calling ultra fans of Croatian clubs by an almost forgotten name: Ustaše or Ustasha.  Ustasha were actually a military organization of right wing Croats. They became infamous for its atrocities and they were responsible for killing of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and Muslims during their Nazi backed Fascist reign. Similarly  a certain type of Serbian fans was targeted by the name Chetniks by Croats and even other Serbian fans.  Chetniks were the traditional Serbian guerilla fighters. In the Second World War, they were also responsible for enormous violence and atrocities. In the Yugoslavian conflict, Chetniks paramilitaries took a visibly prominent part. Ustasha and Chetniks had no place in Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia. However,   in the era of Milosevic in the mid 80s, Serbian right-wing Chetniks started to re-appear again.

Not a very unusual atmosphere, Red Star Belgrade-Partizan Belgrade(
Not a very unusual atmosphere, Red Star Belgrade-Partizan Belgrade(

In European tournaments,  Yugoslavian clubs gained enough attention through their performances. In Champions Cup, Red Star and Partizan Belgrade were semifinalists in 56-57 season and 70-71 season respectively. Partizan Belgrade  was runner-up in the 65-66 season. Red Star Belgrade won European Cup in 90-91 season which was the best performance of any Yugoslavian club in European tournaments. In Cup Winners Cup, Dinamo Zagreb, OFK  Belgrade, Hajduk Split and Red Star Belgrade, all were semifinalists in 60-61, 62-63, 72-73, 74-75 seasons respectively. These Yugoslavian clubs also had recognizable performances in UEFA Cup. Red Star Belgrade was the runner-up in 78-79 season. Radniki Nis, Hajduk Split and Zelzejnicar Sarajevo, all were semifinalist in three consecutive seasons of UEFA Cup, 81-82, 83-84 and 84-85 respectively.

Runner-up Partizan Belgrade team of European Cup in 65-66 season(,90-91 season’s European Cup winner team of Red Star Belgrade at Italy’s Bari. One very significant thing is that 60 meter long flag which was actually not a Yugoslavian flag but a Serbian flag( (Left to Right)
Runner-up Partizan Belgrade team of European Cup in 65-66 season(,90-91 season’s European Cup winner team of Red Star Belgrade at Italy’s Bari. One very significant thing was that 60 meter long flag which was actually not a Yugoslavian flag but a Serbian flag( (Left to Right)


13th May 1990, The Beginning of the End?

League of Communists of Yugoslavia (till 1952 it was Communist Party of Yugoslavia) was the only major political party that existed in Socialist Yugoslavia until 1989. In late 1989, under the pressure of different political voices, other parties were allowed to be formed. Thus under the leadership of Franjo Tudjman, Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) were formed. Decades back, ex-army officer Tudjman was even president of Yugoslav Sports Society, Partizan of Belgrade. During his tenure, the black and white striped jersey  had been  incorporated. His idea was to make Partizan Belgrade such a club which would be a true representative of Socialist Yugoslavia and would stand against the ‘pro-serb’ Red Star Belgrade. He always had a dormant apathy towards Belgrade and Serbs and a hidden support for Croats. After HDZ were formed, first multi-party-election was held in Croatian Republic on 22nd April and 6th May of 1990. Politically significant,  this was the first multi-party-election held after half a century in that region. HDZ whose main agenda was immediately achieving more sovereignty for Croatia and an Independent Croatia in future, got the majority of the vote and was ready to establish a new Croatian Govt.

Franco Tudjman(
Franco Tudjman(

In the midst of such a tense political  situation, Crvena Zvezda, world-renowned as Red Star Belgrade, and Dinamo Zagreb (now Gradanski Nogometni Klub Dinamo Zagreb or GNK Dinamo Zagreb) met each other on 13th of May in the second last league match of 89-90 Yugoslav First League season at the Maksimir stadium of Zagreb, the capital of then Socialist Republic of Croatia. Stadion Maksimir or Maksimir Stadium has its own story. It was built in 1912 and since then it has been serving as a ground for football matches, political rallies and musical concerts. In May 1941, when the fascists were in power, during a political speech and exercise program for youths at Maksimir Stadium, Zdenko Blazekovic of Ustasha asked Serb and Jewish young boys to stand separately from Croats. But the young boys led by the communists refused to do so; later they torched the stadium. In the European championship of 1976, Maksimir hosted few important matches including one semifinal and the match for the third place play-off. Dire Straits performed there in 1983 when they were on the Alchemy Tour. For a long time, it has been the home ground For Dinamo Zagreb. In independent Croatia, U2, Bon Jovi, Madonna also performed here.    These days it hosts the international matches of Croatia.

Euro ‘76 Semi-Final, June 16, 1976. Czechoslovakia v Netherlands, Maksimir Stadium, Zagreb (
Euro ‘76 Semi-Final, June 16, 1976. Czechoslovakia v Netherlands, Maksimir Stadium, Zagreb (


Red Star, comprising footballers, rather stalwarts, like Darko Pancev, Robert Prosinecki, Dejan Savisevic, Dragan Stojcovic and Dinamo Zagreb who had Zvonimir Soldo, Zvonimir Boban, Davor Suker, Mladen Mladenovic in their squad, always had a fearsome rivalry. One of the reasons was that after Red Star, Dinamo were one of the three major football clubs (others two were Partizan Belgrade and Hajduk Split who are Dinamo’s arch enemy), and perhaps the best team, outside Belgrade in Socialist Yugoslavia .

Both Red Star and Dinamo Zagreb had a strong fearsome fan base. The most well-known ultra fan group of this Belgrade club is Delije or Heroes. Delije are an umbrella organization for different Red Star ultras. Likewise Dinamo Zagreb’s toughest ultra  group is Bad Blue Boys or BBB. Like Delije, it also works as an umbrella organization for different Dinamo Zagreb ultra groups.

Delije ultras( & BBB ultras( [Left to Right]
Delije ultras( & BBB ultras( [Left to Right]


13th May, on that sunny, beautiful match day, around 3000 Red Star fans including more than a thousand Delije ultras poured into Zagreb.  It was almost a war like atmosphere, fermenting from the start. Chaos, hand to hand fighting, stone pelting (fans collected stones from nearest railway tracks), setting cars on fire took place outside the stadium, many hours before the match even started. Inside the stadium, it was no different; Red Star fans were giving provocative slogans like “Zagreb is Serbia” and “Tudjman will die”, “We are the Chetniks, we are the strongest…”. Dinamo fans replied with chanting like “When you are happy hit a Serb to the ground/ when you are happy slaughter him with a knife…” After a while, in the south stand of the Maksimir Stadium, Delije ultras started breaking chairs and tearing hoardings apart. The Zagreb Police Force  was blamed for being controlled by Serbs and they did not take enough action to stop Delije ultras.

In the meantime players started to come into the ground but the match could not be started owing to the  trouble in the stands. Most of them went back into the dressing room. A few of them like Zvonimir Boban, Vjekoslav Skrinjar of Dinamo Zagreb stayed on the pitch. After a while, encouraged by the inaction of police force, Red Star ultras started breaking apart fences and gates between them and Dinamo fans sitting in upper tier of the south stand. Then the Delijes flooded the upper tier, started breaking chairs and throwing them like missiles towards Dinamo fans and if they got one or two alone, they even started beating them up mercilessly. It was pandemonium all over. Fallen Dinamo fans were kicked again and again by Delijes. Dinamo fans tried to save themselves throwing back broken chairs but they were outnumbered and with their families around, they were not prepared or strong enough to fight against the ultras.

Delije ultras were tearing apart hoarding and trying to break the gates(,now they had entered into the upper tier. delije ultras are beating Dinamo Zagreb fans in the stand([Left to Right]
Delije ultras are tearing apart hoarding and trying to break the gates(,now they have entered entered into the upper tier. delije ultras are beating Dinamo Zagreb fans in the stand( [Left to Right]


Now the Dinamo Zagreb ultra fans, the Bad Blue Boys (BBB) were provoked enough in the north stand and they demolished the fences between them and the football pitch. Police had tried to stop them but in vain.  BBB ultras invaded the pitch and ran to help fellow Dinamo fans in the south stand. A full-fledged football riot started on the ground and in the stands. During this whole incident, songs were being played through the PA system. That riot was not tackled earlier because of two reasons. One was the  obvious indifference of police and security personnels to act against Red Star fans. The other was that they far too outnumbered to tackle that chaos when BBB ultras joined in. Now the Maksimir stadium was experiencing an ugly display of football hooliganism mixed with ethnic nationalism. Politics, driven by immense outrage of nationalism, had outmuscled football. When it seemed that the things were totally out of hand, police brought reinforcement, water cannon and they also started firing plenty of tear-gas shells.  Eventually, the almost inactive police force became very active and started beating up the Zagreb fans. A few police personnel were even protecting Red Star fans. It made the Zagreb fans even more furious and in the stadium almost everybody, even women and teenagers, got involved in that chaos. Those who could not gather the courage for a hand to hand  combat, used their vocal chords to support their own groups. Different parts of the stadium were literally burning.

Chaos in the stand, BBB ultras are entering in the pitch( ultras invaded the pitch [Left to Right]
Chaos in the stand, BBB ultras are entering in the pitch(, BBB ultras have invaded the pitch [Left to Right]


Now Boban and Skrinjar decided to move in to help Dinamo fans who were being beaten by Zagreb policemen. In the middle of the pitch two policemen were beating one fan named Bruno Sirok and that fan was lying in the ground helplessly saving his own head. This incident triggered a very symbolic action of a certain player. Zvonimir Boban, a star player for Dinamo Zagreb who was already a member of Yugoslavia national team,  felt strongly for ‘Croatian cause’. On seeing the Zagreb fan being beaten up, he rushed  in, jumped and kicked one police. Dinamo fans erupted with a shout “Zvone, Zvone”. Ironically, that policeman was a Bosnian Muslim named Refik Ahmetovic who later understood that Boban’s anger was driven by his nationalism and forgave him for his action. It appeared that the people of three different ethnicities were fighting against each other for different reasons. At the micro level, it was nothing but the typical ‘Balkan’ conflict. After that kick, one policeman hit on Boban’s arm and shoulder with a baton.  The officials and BBB ultras rushed there to protect Boban. As narrated by the few Dinamo fans who were present there, a policeman was asking another one to shoot Boban. This incident outraged  Dinamo fans more. BBB ultras started running around the ground holding aloft the Croatian flag.

Police are beating BBB ultras(,and ‘THE KICK’ of Boban(,
Police are beating BBB ultras(,and ‘THE KICK’ of Boban(,

That violent battle went on for 70 minutes. At last police managed to push fans back to the stands. Then they were hurled  out of the stadium. Helicopter was brought in to take away Red Star players. Hundreds of policemen and football fans were injured. Many people were stabbed. Dozens were arrested after that and most of them were Dinamo fans. The match was abandoned completely. The battle  had continued outside the stadium long after that.

Caption: from left: BBB ultras, challenging delijes(,a battle between water cannon and BBB ultras, police were building a strategic formation to advance while protecting themselves from the flying missiles of BBB ultras(, police were trying hard to manage the situation(
BBB ultras, challenging delijes(,a battle between water cannon and BBB ultras, police are building a strategic formation to advance while protecting themselves from the flying missiles of BBB ultras(, police are trying hard to manage the situation( [Left to Right]

Both the Serbs and Croats blamed each other for the disaster. Yugoslav authorities, Serb  controlled media and Serbian football supporters claimed that the whole thing was organized by HDZ to gain more support, more hatred against Serbs and to take a control over Zagreb Police. Croatian media blamed Serb controlled Yugoslav authority as Croatian Authority of Internal Affairs  was under the control of Belgrade at that time. Allegations were made that the police were advised to act in a pro-Serb way. Stones, bottles and even acid were stockpiled in the stadium much before the match.  Another person who was heavily blamed for this incident was Željco Ražnatović, popularly known as Arkan. Arkan was a gangster who formed Delije by changing the group name from Gypsies in 80s. He made this ultra group more united, stronger and more violent. Arkan was actually backed by the Secret service of Yugoslavia to do their dirty work. Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic took Arkan’s help to organise the violent youth of Belgrade and asked him to unify them for the common Serbian interest. Obviously those interests were neither healthy nor were the ways peaceful. Arkan had a strong influence over Red Star club. That day he was roaming in and around the stadium, outside of the playing area wearing a suit and talking to Red Star players, football authorities and police. Arkan was accused of  being an instrumental part of the battle-like situation  that  day. He was accused of  orchestrating the chaos by provoking and later attacking Dinamo fans in and outside the stadium.   Ironically,  that very day was designated as National safety day in Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

This whole incident is very symbolic for several reasons. After that season, away fans were banned from travelling to the opposition’s stadiums which belonged to another republic. Slovenian and Croatian clubs pulled out their teams from the Yugoslavian league after 1990-91 season and then the league was completely disbanded after 91-92 season. For many people, this incident marked the beginning of the collapse of an almost 50-year-old football league. Boban was suspended for six months and criminal charges were filed against him. He missed the 1990 FIFA World Cup held in Italy due to the suspension, which was later reduced to four months. He played only one match for Yugoslavia after that incident. He went on to represent Croatia at the international level until he retired in 1999 from international football (he was a star player for Italian giants AC Milan which won the Champions League, was runners –up in another one and won four Serie A titles during his stint at the San Siro). In 1998 he was the captain of the Croatian team which surprised the world by getting the 3rd spot in the FIFA World Cup. It was Croatia’s first world cup after the end of the conflict.  Interestingly enough, Robert Prosinecki was there in the Red Star squad. He was a player who spent few years with Dinamo Zagreb’s youth team and played for senior team in 80s and also in late 90s.He played for Yugoslavia in 1990 world cup. Later he represented Croatian national team for 8 years and played in 1996 Euro,  1998 and 2002 World Cup.

Just a few days after that Maksimir incident, Tudjman held the first parliament meeting and his party started removing non-Croats from the higher chairs of different services. Changes were made in Zagreb police and charges against Boban were ignored. As per the rule of the league, Red Star  was declared  the winners with a 3-0 score. For die-hard Croats, and many BBB ultras who would fight later in ‘Domovinski rat’ or Homeland war of Croatia, that kick of Zvonimir Boban worked as a symbol of protest, a strong reaction against the Serb controlled institutions. Just outside the Maksimir stadium, BBB erected a monument of a group of soldiers to commemorate those who died in the Homeland War against Serbia. The following words are  engraved on the stone: “To all Dynamo fans for whom the war began on May 13 1990 at Maksimir stadium and ended in giving their lives for homeland Croatia!”-BBB Zagreb, May 13, 1994.

Caption: Remembering the sacrifice (
Remembering the sacrifice (

In 2010, ex-Dynamo players of 1982 and 1990 played a match at Makshimir to  honor that 13th May, 1990 event. Incidentally Bad Blue Boys boycotted that match to protest against tough action by police force which happened two weeks before this match in a Dinamo Zagreb-Hajduk Split derby.

But there is a twist in the story. A small section of people in Croatia and other nations of that  region do not buy the incident, rather it’s repercussions. For them ‘Boban started the Homeland war from Maksimir’ is a myth. In recent times, journalists and political analysts have started to deconstruct the ‘myth’ associated with that 13th May incident. To them the more symbolic match which commemorated the split and war of Yugoslavia was held six months later. In August, Serbian minority in Krajina of the Croatian Republic, backed by JNA, revolted against Croatian Govt. JNA stopped the Croatian police from taking any action on this matter. It triggered a situation which had  the potential to start a war. On 25th September 1990, Hajduk Split and Partizan Belgrade played a league match in Split which was around 26 km away from that area where that revolt had taken place. Hajduk is a club which was adored by Tito like a Partisan club as Split was once a stronghold of Communists Partizan soldiers during WWII. But in early 90s, Hazduk fans were more dedicated to the Croatian Cause. In independent Croatia, they are basically representing the area just under Rab to Dubrovonik, what is known as Dalmatian region.

Torcida Ultras
Torcida Ultras []

However, on that September day of 1990, Hajduk fans’ minds had nothing but Croatian nationalism. During the match Torcida Split invaded the pitch and started burning a Yugoslavian national flag. Torcida Split is the ultra group of Hajduk Split. It was founded in 1950. The name was inspired by the Brazilian fan organizations known as Torcida Organizada. Since mid 80s, Torcida members started appearing often in the matches between Croatian and Serbian clubs to show their Croatian solidarity.

In the armed conflict of 90s, they also took up arms like BBB members. When Torcida Split ultras had invaded the pitch, Partizan Belgrade players ran towards dressing room out of fear. Then Torcida ultras started chanting “Croatia independent state” and hoisted the–check-board Croatian flag. Spectators from the gallery also joined in chanting. This act was not directed at away supporters as they were not present there as per the new rule. It was directed towards the Yugoslav state, the establishment and towards Serbian hegemony. This incident was not as popular as the Maksimir incident but considering the then political situation, it can easily be taken as a prelude to the  war. Perhaps it is more relevant than the Maksimir incident. As per socio-political analysts, the Croatian media used that Maksimir incident to fuel Croatian nationalism in fragile Yugoslavia and they continued that even years after that incident to show Croatian pride, superiority and heroism of the Croats. Once Boban said in an interview, “I remember that day with pride. Our reaction was a human reaction to the injustice that had lasted too long….I am proud of that day and all of us who were part of that story.”

Croatian militia ((
Croatian militia ((

Boban played a match for the Yugoslav Youth Team against Russia on the very day Croatia played its first international match (unofficial) against USA in September. The armed conflict started between Croats and Serbs on 31st March 1991 in Croatia’s Plitvice with the ‘Plitvice Bloody Easter’ incident. Boban even played an international match for Yugoslavia few weeks after the start of the war and scored a goal. This deconstruction process was basically encouraged by Boban’s reluctance to attend Maksimir incident anniversary. Serbian media avoid discussing the Maksimir incident as internationally they are blamed much more than the Croats for this incident and for them it was nothing but a defeat as the incident became popular as a loud successful protest against Serbian hegemony. For most of the Croats, Boban continues to remain a hero for his heroic action on that day.

* * * * * *

2nd March 1992,Revengeful Enemies became bloodthirsty allies!

Vukovar is a Croatian city near the Serbian border. It is closer to Belgrade than Zagreb. In early 90s, Vukovar experienced a severe battle that decimated this city which was earlier famous for its architectural beauty. In mid-1991, fighting between Serbs and Croats was severe; JNA and Serbian paramilitaries launched a ruthless attack on Vukovar in August. Citizens of Vukovar fought very hard to defend their city and it was under siege for 87 days. The continuous shelling, firing and bombing caused such  carnage; Vukovar’s destruction was compared to the toll that Stalingrad paid during the Second World War. After capturing the city, Serbian paramilitaries started systematic ‘clean-ups’ of the city. They gang-raped Croats women, killed plenty of people in cold blood . The town was under the control of the Serbian government of republic of Croatia until 1995. During which time ethnic cleansing, forceful eviction of Croats from the city and many ghastly activities on Croats continued inside the city. After 1995, UN started protecting the city under one agreement and in 1998, Vukovar returned to Croatia. Citizens of Vukovar have always been complaining with pain and anger that Tudjman did not help Vukovar properly by sending enough arms, ammunition and soldiers. They also complain that Tudjman had failed to rescue the people of Vukovar, especially the children. Tudjman has always been being criticized that he sacrificed Vukovar to gain military advantage in other parts of Croatia and to draw the attention of international community by showing the carnage and death toll in Vukovar.

Destroyed Vukovar City,under the close monitoring of Chetniks, Croats were leaving the city amidst ruins and dead bodies,Franco Tudjman in Vukovar, 1997(all are from [Left to Right]31-34-12
Destroyed Vukovar City,under the close monitoring of Chetniks, Croats are leaving the city amidst ruins and dead bodies, Franco Tudjman in Vukovar, 1997(all are from [Left to Right]


Around 4000 paramilitaries of Serbian Volunteer Guard took part in the fight of Vukovar. Arkan was the leader of this paramilitary group which was popularly known as ‘Arkan’s Tigers’ or just ‘Tigers’. When the city was captured, Arkan and his paramilitaries started their activities of killing, raping, looting. He himself killed people there in cold blood. This football fanatic Serb was indicted by International Criminal Tribunal of Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in Hague for war crimes in Vukovar. He was indicted majorly for Vukovar Hospital massacre. In that incident, patients, a few workers and citizens were taken out of the hospital and were brought to a remote area named Ovcara. They were first severely beaten and then shot by paramilitaries of Arkan’s Tigers. 200 people were killed and dozens went missing in that incident. Their lifeless bodies were thrown into trenches and were buried in a mass grave. Many of the paramilitaries of Tigers were Delije ultras. Arkan used that ultra fan group to recruit ethnically loyal, dangerous, hot-headed Serbs for Tiger. They were even trained for combat in football stadiums. Everything was funded by Milosevic’s Belgrade.

Photo-session of Arkan and his Tigers(,Serbian tanks entering Vukovar after capturing the city(,Mass grave of the victims of Vukovar Hospital Massacre in Ovcara ( [Left to Right]
Photo-session of Arkan and his Tigers(,Serbian tanks entering Vukovar after capturing the city(,Mass grave of the victims of Vukovar Hospital Massacre in Ovcara ( [Left to Right]


In Belgrade, the story was different. It was far away from the frontlines and neither the Croats nor the Bosniaks had much fire power to attack the heartland of Serbia. So in a rather ‘peaceful’ Belgrade, two long time enemies met on March 1992 to play a league match in the Marakana.The stadium took its nickname from the famous Rio De Janeiro arena of the same name. This Red Star Belgrade stadium was built in the late 50s after demolishing an older one. European Cup and European Championship finals were held here. During the early 90s, its capacity was almost hundred thousand and the north stand of the stadium was for Delije ultras (north stand of the renovated stadium is still Delije’s stand.)

Marcana stadium of Belgrade
Marcana stadium of Belgrade

On 2nd March 1992, Red star Belgrade with players like Vladimir Jugovic, Darko Pancev, Dejan Savisevic and its city rival Partizan Belgrade met in a league match. Red Star-Partizan match is popularly known as the Belgrade derby or the Serbian Eternal derby. Though outside this region, people identify this by just Eternal Derby. It  is still considered as one of the fiercest and most violent derbies in the world. Partizan Belgrade, backed by Yugoslavia National Army (JNA) were considered by Red Star supporters as a symbol of Communist dictatorship. Though Red Star was basically backed by Belgrade Police and to some extent JNA too but it was always found that they were closer to the Serbian nationalists or people who had a grudge against Communist authority. Just like the Delije of Red Star Belgrade, Partizan Belgrade has a strong, unified, ferocious ultra group Grobari or Grave–diggers. Like Delije, Grobari work as an umbrella of many ultra groups or sub groups like Alcatraz, Vandal Boys etc. After Red Star, Partizan had won highest no of Yugoslavian first division titles. They were the second best football team in former Yugoslavia. In 1991, Red Star won the European Cup as well as the Yugoslav  First League title in the 1990-91 season; Partizan got the third spot.

Delije ultras on street(, Grobari ultras on street(, Grobari ultras on stand( [Left to Right]13-16-17
Delije ultras on street(, Grobari ultras on street(, Grobari ultras on stand( [Left to Right]


So when they faced each other on that day, there was no lack of intensity and vengefulness in the city amongst the supporters. Hours before the match, supporters of both the clubs fought against each other outside the stadium, which is more or less a standard practice before a Belgrade derby. Play started normally, supporters of Delije and Grobari had started chanting and singing much before the first whistle was blown. Usually they hurl words full of hatred at each other. People were enjoying the derby but suddenly a different activity started in the north stand of the Maracana, disrupting the normalcy. Members of the paramilitary group Tiger, carrying road signs, went to the upper tier of the stadium and started displaying them to the people of the stadium one by one. ‘20 miles to Vukovar’ was written on the first one. Vukovar, the city which the Serbs turned to pile of rubbles a few months  back. All the supporters of both the teams started screaming and cheering in glory. As if they were just watching the forward march of JNA and Paramilitaries to Vukovar. With that cheering more road signs were shown. ’10 miles to Vukovar’ came after that. And when the ‘Welcome to Vukovar’ was shown, crowd erupted like hundreds of guns were shelled simultaneously. Then the paramilitaries started showing different boards with the name of different Croatian towns and cities which were captured by Serbian paramilitaries with the help of JNA. To add some grandeur to the occasion, Arkan came outside the box and stood in front of the supporters. He was greeted with an orgasmic cry and victorious cheer similar to the cry and cheers of Romans which they used to show for their triumphant Caesar. Arkan acknowledged that supportive scream. The match was going on. But people were hardly noticing it. They were charmed by the vicious atmosphere of ethnic superiority and hatred. Even the players were glancing towards the stand to watch this strange activity.

What was the significance of that day? The battle of Vukovar was finished almost four months before the matchday. Since then, activities of Tiger paramilitaries in Serb controlled Vukovar had been a shame for humanity. They were accused of genocide and raping dozens of women. People of Belgrade were not unaware of that, but when the beautiful game was going on, that ghastly display of a month-old victory worked as a bridge between those two fierce rivals. At that time the sense of Serbian superiority, symbolised by the dangerous Arkan and Serbs’ control over Vukovar brought Delije and Grobari together. On another ‘normal’ Belgrade derby day, they could spend the entire match snarling at each other. One or two could avoid the security to go closer to other fans’ stand to challenge them. Instead, those violent fans, motivated by ethnic nationalism, started celebrating their ‘achievement’ which was made possible by their hero Arkan. The match ended in a goalless draw. Perhaps it gave both the supporters equal pleasure on an eventful day which history will never forget and perhaps will never forgive.

Arkan and his proud paramilitaries(,Ethnic cleansing: Croats are leaving Vukovar, most of them are women, children and older men.(, Vukovar water tower is still carrying the scars of the conflict( [Left to Right]
Arkan and his proud paramilitaries(,Ethnic cleansing: Croats are leaving Vukovar, most of them are women, children and older men.(, Vukovar water tower is still carrying the scars of the conflict( [Left to Right]


There is a contrast in the life, history and culture of this part of the Balkan region, once what was broadly known as Yugoslavia. This is the place where old historical beautiful cities, serene mountains, beautiful coast of Adriatic  Sea were turned to warzone and used as battlefronts time and again. This is the place where the atrocities of Nazi collaborators horrified even Nazis. This is a place in the Eastern Block where the communist ruler Tito refused to be a puppet of Stalin and remained Anti-Stalinist and an important leader of the world in post WWII era. Such a contrast was shown in the football grounds in the 1990s like never before. It served as a stage to showcase wonderful, exciting football and world-class footballers. It also served them a stage to orchestrate their ethnicity driven dogma. Among Serbs, Croats and  Bosnians, some were more powerful than others. And the  savagery of the powerful ones was more visible.   They got more time and space to do the evil things. But deep in their heart, all of them were same revengeful, same devilish and same merciless.  Their acts brought humanity to shame. Their barbarism reminded people of mediaeval age. They turned football stadiums into battlefronts, usurping the romance that is associated with the ’beautiful game’. They even raped women of different ethnicities not for pleasure, but to make them ‘impure’. Sense of nationalism made them cold blooded killers. Football was one of those instruments which  were used to play this hellish tune. Exploitation of football took place like never before in the history of the game. Hatred, anger, inhumanity, ugly (it is valiant to them) side of nationalism took center stage, replacing the beautiful game on those two significant days. More than a decade after that civil war, wounds are still visible. Now Football ultras are adding different dimensions in football hooliganism in the existing fragmented nations of erstwhile Socialist Yugoslavia .

Ultras are fighting in the stadium (, ultras are fighting in the street (,not a very uncommon sight in the football stadiums of this region( [Left to Right]
Ultras are fighting in the stadium (, ultras are fighting in the street (,not a very uncommon sight in the football stadiums of this region( [Left to Right]


The colours of banners and flairs are a real treat to watch. But old vocabularies, associated with ethnicity and race are still in vogue . With ugly and ghastly images and letters on the banners, they make others know about their racial and ethnic superiority. And above all, the pus of neo-Nazism and other hate-mongering extreme right-wing ideologues are coming out through banners, gestures and chants in the football stands carrying a nauseating odour of racism and hatred. Perhaps that Maksimir incident of 1990 and Marakana incident of 1992 unknowingly gave a kind of legitimacy to this ever expanding, misguided, violent and wrongly glorified tradition of  football hooliganism.

More colours, more flairs, more fearsome(, Vukovar cemetery for the victims of the conflict(
More colours, more flairs, more fearsome(, Vukovar cemetery for the victims of the conflict(


Article sources:

  1. Croatia Week
  4. Sports in society: culture, commerce, media, politics
  8. Mr. Dario Brentin
  10. The Telegraph
  11. Mr. Ivan Dordjevic

A Symphonic Eleven

“Freedom! Football is freedom!”….Bob Marley

From Colombian pop-star to famous bassist of British metal band, Italian opera legend to Jamaican reggae icon, all love football. Here, Arghya Lahiri will give you eleven such symphonic names that are famous for their musical exploits but  are also connected through another love, rather passion, football.

Robert Plant

Great vocalist and key member of the legendary British rock group Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant has been a fan of Wolverhampton Wanderers or Wolves football club for last 61 years. In the 70s, he was offered the position of the director at Wolves but he refused that offer as he did not feel ‘comfortable’. In the early 80s, he was also linked with a takeover of the club. In 2009, he was named as the vice-president of the club.

symphonic plant
Sources –,

Few months after Jody Craddock (played for wolves for ten seasons) announced his retirement in 2013, Robert Plant bid and paid 900 pounds for a chance to play in the testimonial match. The match was held in 2014 between veterans of Sunderland (Craddock played six seasons there) and Wolverhampton. Craddock’s  youngest son was a patient at Birmingham Children’s Hospital for leukemia at that time and the proceeds were donated towards his treatment. On the cover of Plant’s 1988 album Now and Zen, there was a wolf motif which is very similar to the badge of the club.


This famous pop singer was not a football fan in her childhood. Her association with FIFA, especially for her 2010 world cup theme song ‘waka waka’ where she collaborated with Freshlyground, attracted her to the game. Her subsequent relationship with FC Barcelona’s Spanish star Gerard Pique brought her closer to the beautiful game.

shakira symphonic
Sources –,

She is often found in the stadium watching FC Barcelona matches with her child. A bamboo version of her song ‘Hips Don’t Lie’, collaborated with Wyclef Jean, was the official theme of FIFA World Cup 2006. She also performed in the kick-off and closing ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Again in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, she performed at the closing ceremony.


Grammy and Oscar winner young British singer Adele is a Tottenham Hotspur fan from her childhood. Even after becoming a celebrated singer, she was spotted watching matches of Tottenham Hotspur. Tottenham Hotspur club sent her a number 8 jersey with her name printed over it and signed by then no 8 jersey holder Scott Parker after Adele won eight Grammy Awards.

adele symphonic
Sources –,

Luciano Pavarotti

The great Opera singer ‘Il Maestro’ Pavarotti became a popular name around the world when he performed as a member of the group Three Tenors in the concert of the 1990 FIFA World Cup. His rendition of Nessun Dorma which was used as BBC’s theme song of World Cup, became very popular. Three Tenors later performed in three consecutive concerts celebrating the football World Cup, 1994 USA, 1998 France (Three Tenors sang ‘you will never walk alone’) and 2002 Japan and South Korea.

pavarotti symphonic
Sources –,

Pavarotti wanted to be a footballer like many Italians and used to play as a goalkeeper in his home town Modena. But afterwards he took up the career of an opera singer.  All through his life, he was a die-hard Juventus supporter. Juventus fans and club authorities paid homage to the great singer by displaying club flags at his funeral.

Sir Elton John

Famous British musician Elton John’s love for the game and his favourite club is an extraordinary story. He started supporting Watford from early childhood and it completed a full circle when Watford named a stand in the Vicarage Road stadium after his name in 2014. He became the Chairman of the club in 1976, poured a lot of money, appointed Graham Taylor as the manager and helped promote the club from Fourth to First Division in just seven years. He sold Watford in 1987 and purchased it again in 1997. Later he resigned from this chair but remained president. In 2005 and 2010, Sir Elton held concerts at Vicarage ground to help fund the club.

elton symphonic
Sources –,

And in 2008, he resigned as a president but he remains a die-hard Watford fan till date. In late 70s, Sir Elton was also the part owner of Los Angeles Aztecs of North American Soccer League.

Steve Harris

Bassist, lyricist and founder member of the British Metal band Iron Maiden, Steve Harris is not just a fan of football or West Ham United, he could even have ended up playing for them. At the age of 14, when he used to play for Melbourn Sports and Bearmont Youth, he was scouted by the famous West Ham scout Wally St. Pier.  The enigmatic, whimsical psychology of an artist probably overpowered the footballing instincts. He was not very fond of the disciplined, regimental life of a footballer.

steve symphonic
Sources –,

His love for the game was indelible.  He  can still vividly remember old matches of West Ham or England. His favourite match was against Sunderland which the Hammers won by 8-0 with Geoff Hurst scoring 6 goals. He often takes part in different friendly or charity football matches across Europe for different teams (like Iron Maiden FC, Old England etc.). Even his bass guitar is adorned with the West Ham club emblem.

Julio Iglesias

Now here comes a man who has a sound playing background. So far Julio has released songs in fourteen languages. Eight times he has been nominated for Grammy, winning it in 1988 in the Best Latin Pop Performance category for his album Un Hombre Solo. Keeping aside his musical brilliance which is world famous; not everyone is aware of the fact that he was a professional footballer who used to play for Real Madrid Castilla (the B team of Real Madrid) as a goalkeeper. He had shared the campus with players like Ramon Grosso and Manuel Velzquez.  Julio always had a dream to play at the Bernabeu but a car accident at the age of 20  severely damaged his lower spine and finished his football career prematurely. Unfortunate indeed; but then probably we would not have got the composer Julio. Such is the irony of life, where something unfortunate often leads to something else that is special!

julio symphonic
Sources –,

During his treatment his closest nurse Eladio gave him a guitar and it changed the direction of his life. Julio Follows Spanish football regularly. Few years ago he said in an interview that he wanted to see Messi in Real Madrid. And about goalkeepers his view is quite philosophical. Once he said “The goalkeepers have the characters especially one who is able to stand again and again without joy, nobody next to share it.

Bob Marley

This iconic  figure, whose name is synonymous with the musical genre reggae, was a huge fan of football. He wanted to play football everywhere – inside recording studios, backstage, during sound-check. Often, when there wasn’t anyone around to play with, he played alone. Everywhere he toured, he asked others to play with him, be it professional footballers or journalists, fellow musicians of the band Wailers or the band’s manager.

bob marley symphonic
Sources –,

He appointed famous Jamaican footballer Alan Cole as his tour manager. Bob was a fan of Pele and Brazilian club Santos. Once he said “If you want to get to know me, you will have to play football against me and the Wailers.

Dmitri Shostakovich

This famous composer of the 20th century classical music was behind fifteen symphonies, six concertos, one piano quintet, two piano trios, two string octets, three ballets, 35 film scores. He was tagged as an ‘enemy of the people’ during Stalin regime. Outlined by Film director Aleksandr Ivanovsky, Shostakovich wrote a ballet named Zolotoy Vek (The Golden Age or The Age of Gold). The story was about a Soviet football team, the symbol of vibrant USSR and its philosophy, who travelled to a bourgeois town of a capitalist country Faschland to take part in an industrial exhibition.

Shostakovich symphonic,

You won’t find many ballets where few main characters belonged to a football team. It was not a strange case as his another love was football and this great musician was a qualified football referee too. He was a supporter of the club Zenit Leningrad (now St. Petersburg ) and often was in the stadium to support them. Quite a few times football matches were mentioned in his personal letters to relatives and friends. One of his famous quotes was “football is the ballet of the masses”.

“Football is the ballet of the masses” – Shostakovich

Sir Mick Jagger

The Rolling Stones frontman Mick’s association with football is a hilarious story. He has become a cursed figure to the supporters of different teams. In the 1998 World Cup, he was in St. Etiene stadium to watch that now (in)famous Argentina-England match and supported England. England lost that match in a penalty shoot-out. In 2010 he supported USA against Ghana and was present in the stadium. Again USA lost the game. Then he supported Brazil against Netherlands and he was present at the England-Germany match. Everywhere the end result was same. In 2014, he predicted Italy’s win against Uruguay when he was in Rome. He was wrong again. He was with his Brazilian wife at the Germany-Brazil semifinal match. Well, you know what happened that day.

jagger symphonic
Source –

The whole Jagger family supports Arsenal and Jagger himself attends Arsenal matches whenever he gets time.

Rod Stewart

Rod is a supporter of Scotland national team and Celtic F.C., but this London born Scottish singer also has a weakness for Manchester United as they had few Scotts in the 70s.He got a chance in the junior team of Brentford F.C. when he was a teenager but left very quickly as he could not sustain the hard life of a junior player. He tries not to miss any Scotland match and  also passionately watches the Scottish Premier League.

symphonic Rod
Sources –,

Such was his passion for the Scotland national team,  once he invaded the Wembley football pitch with other Scottish supporters in 1977 after Scotland defeated England 1-0, celebrating with no gay abandon. Even in 2012, he was seen crying tears of joy like a child in the gallery after Barcelona was beaten by Celtic in a group stage match of Champions League. In his shows, Rod often kicks an autographed football into the crowd from the stage.

Now let’s give this team a formation. My favourite formation is 4-3-3. So I want my symphonic eleven to look like this.


If you like to field this team with a different formation, please share yours with us.

Featured image source – Rolling Stone

When shelling worked as the final whistle: Three love stories

Around the world, thousands of children are directly affected by different armed conflicts. They don’t go to school, learn how to take cover from shelling, spend months lying on hospital beds but they don’t stop playing football. With three stories, Arghya Lahiri explains the beautiful bond between children and football, their sacrifice, and questions our indifference.

And it’s true we are immune

When fact is fiction and TV reality

And today the millions cry

          We eat and drink while tomorrow they die……

Sunday Bloody Sunday, U2

Grown-ups can destroy everything, can’t stop us from playing football [ Image Source (from left) –,, Unknown]

Few months ago, the dead body of the Syrian refugee child Aylan Kurdi, lying on a sea beach in Turkey, created a huge uproar worldwide. Social networking sites were flooded with emotional and angry statements. Do we remember him anymore? In every armed conflict all over the world, children have always suffered the most. Such conflicts take away their innocence, shatter their dreams, make them orphans, force them away from schools, keep them hungry and often kill them. How much trouble did we face when we were kids and enjoyed playing football? Generally we, the grown-ups, enjoy football staying in the comfort zone of our home or local pubs. We visit stadiums to watch football. When we do so, do we take cover from incoming artilleries? We don’t put our life in any risk while we enjoy football. How much does football really matter in our life? It affects our mood, that’s fine, but for how long? A defeat in a weekend may be overshadowed by a win against our rival club in the next weekend. Do we face the question of life and death when we play football? Do we play chess with death when we ‘enjoy’ football? I will share with you a few incidents. One may call these incidents ‘stories’, they are tragic love stories and protagonists are mainly children playing football with friends or brothers or perhaps they were playing chess with death, unknowingly. Every love story doesn’t need a Romeo and a Juliet.

Bosnia, 1993

It was the second year of the armed conflict between Bosniaks and Serbs. On 12th April, 1993, Bosnian Serbs told United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that they would attack Bosnian town Srebrenica if Bosniaks don’t surrender. There was a school in Srebrenica which was full of Bosniak refugees. On 12th April, football matches were held in the football field adjacent to that school as there was not much shelling in the recent past. They were not aware of the latest political situation. Lots of children were there to play and enjoy. They were playing a match and suddenly a rocket was fired from a hill. After the first rocket was fired, people started running around, bodies of children were lying in pools of blood. Horrified mothers were taking their children and running to a safer place. Then six more rockets were fired and bodies of children and their mothers were left strewn around. There was a body of a headless mother holding her headless children. On that day, around 60-70 children were killed and more than a 100 injured. Just a second before the shelling started, they were enjoying football.

from left.  1. Sead bekric is brought to hospital after shelling 2. Memorial to commemorate the Srebrenica massacre [Image Source (from left) –, FloUKkingdom]

One of the survivors of Srebrenica child massacre Sead Bekric who was then fourteen years old testified before the court of International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. He lost his eyes in that incident. His father was killed during the war and sister was gang-raped. Eighteen years after the incident, he said in an interview to the Associated Press “Years have passed by. We have lost our loved ones and they will never return to us…I was fourteen years old, but mentally, I was a 20-year-old.I had learned to run from gunfire, I learned to survive. And when I came here (USA), all those things were in me

Chechnya, 1999

As the second Russia-Chechnya war was at its peak in late 1999, Russians were shelling and attacking different parts of Chechnya mercilessly. Thousands of refugees, majority of whom were women and children, were fleeing to Ingushetia. They carried the news of an incident which happened a few days back and thus it came to be known to the rest of the world. Novy Sharoy is a village which is just 10km away from Chechnya-Ingushetia border. On 24th October morning, 21 village boys, aged between nine to eighteen, were playing football. Suddenly a Russian tank fired a shell targeting them. The village was already cleared of rebels. So there was no apparent reason for firing. That explosion hit every boy playing there. Seven of them were killed instantly. Others were injured heavily. Later, few of them lost their hands or legs permanently. And all this happened because they were playing football in a sensitive area in the time of an armed conflict.

Chechen children playing football in refugee camp [Image Source –]

Just few days after the incidents, 13-year-old Yusuf Magomedov, lying in the hospital with his two injured legs, stated with pain “All I remember is one minute we were running around, playing with a ball. The next I lost consciousness. Then I woke up. I looked to the front and  behind me. Everyone was lying around. There was blood everywhere. I was crying and crying. Seven of my friends died. It was a picture of horror.

Palestine, 2014

Tension between Israel and Palestine is ever-present. But sometime it increases and in those times death toll rises like hell. July 2014 was such a time. 17th July was a sunny day. In the afternoon, seven cousins of Bakr family of fishermen, aged between nine to eleven, decided to play football on the beach of the Gaza City port area. Elders of the family asked them not to go there as the situation was very tense. However their enthusiasm to play football was so high that they just ran towards the beach ignoring their elders. While they were playing, a projectile was fired from an Israeli navy vessel and it exploded near a makeshift house, a little away from those children. They were unhurt but terrified and started running for shelter. Those children were running towards Al-Deira hotel where international journalists were staying to cover that conflict. When they were not far away from hotel, another shell exploded and it was so close to them that the journalists who were observing and screaming from the hotel understood that the target could be those children. One died at the spot. Six others were injured and taken to hospital. In the hospital, three more children died.

1. Running to dodge, not a player but incoming shells 2. You know what it means 3. Dead or alive? [Image Source (from left) – 24 Media Production,, The Huffington Post]

And again, innocent children paid the price for their love and passion for football when masters of war had different passions. Al-Deira hotel’s waiter Mohammad Fares told journalists “We often see boys playing on the beach, this is quite common. Suddenly there was an explosion and I could see a group of them fall…”. 11-year-old Mohammad Bakr was one of the four children who died there. His mother cried in agony “Why did he go to the beach and play- for them to take him away from me?” Really, why did they?

I have finished the stories. Perhaps you are sad now because you love children, you love football and you don’t like bloodshed. I think I am trying to find glory out of all this, unfortunately. These children were not playing football for a big match or a trophy. I am wrong. Every match was so big for them that they could not care about anything else. In Bosnia, in Chechnya, in Palestine, it was those little angels that made the game more beautiful with their lives. They were not just casualties. They were martyrs, innocent football martyrs. Every day in the world, hundreds of children play football in the streets, parks, small grounds, parking lots, backyards, in areas where shelling, gun shots, drone attacks, car bomb explosions, sniper fire are part of everyday life. They play wearing jerseys, often the cheaper ones, of their favourite footballers or teams and die wearing that. FIFA doesn’t remember them. Corporates can’t sell them. We don’t care about them. And yet they are the most sacred and innocent part of this beautiful game.

Before forgetting us, give us a god damn football and we will keep playing [ Image Source (from left) – ,, The Guardian, ]


Feature Photo: Richard Wainwright / Act for Peace

FC Terek Grozny: War, football, hatred and controversy in North Caucasus

Armed conflict has always been a part of Eastern Europe since the collapse of communism. This has affected human lives and football. Chechnya’s football club, FC Terek Grozny, is no exception. Arghya Lahiri takes a look at the rise of this club from devastation, and discusses the controversial Kadyrov family who made that possible and revived Terek amidst the chaos and destruction happening around the club.

Terek and the Chechen War

What do you think about if we take the following names: Chechnya, Caucasus, Grozny? You may think about fearsome warriors, beautiful mountains, and oil fields. Or you may think about the deadly conflict between Chechnya and Moscow that devastated Grozny (its capital) and other parts of Chechnya. If you are aware about current incidents then you may remember that the Tsarnaev brothers (the duo behind the Boston Marathon bombing), were from a Chechen family. However, we can bet that the name of FC Terek Grozny will probably never come to your mind.

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Terek was established in 1946 as FC Dinamo Grozny. The contribution of Chechens in the early part of the club’s history is highly debatable as almost the entire Chechen population was driven out of Chechnya into Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and other surrounding areas. This was because Chechens were accused of collaborating with Nazis during Germany’s Soviet campaign in WWII. As a result, important positions and jobs in Grozny were usually taken by ethnic Russians. The Chechens started coming back to Chechnya since 1957 during the de-Stalinization era of Krushchev. In 1948, this club’s name was changed to Neftyanik, and, in 1958, it was renamed Terek after a Chechen river. In Russian “Terek” stands for“fearsome” or “terrible”. During the Soviet era, Terek participated regularly in Russian Federation and Soviet All-Union competitions. Things started changing after the collapse of Soviet Union in early 90s. Like certain other republics, Chechnya also wanted its independence. However Russian president Boris Yeltsin considered Chechnya to be an integral part of Russia (because he wanted to retain control over the Northern Caucasian oilfields). In 1994, the first Chechen war broke out between Chechen separatists (under Chechen president, Dzhokhar Dudayev) and Moscow.As a result, Grozny became a war zone. Terek had to be disbanded. For two years, Russian military suffered heavy losses, and in 1996 the war ended with a peace treaty. The Chechens took control of the region (Chechen Republic of Ichkeria). However, the winners had suffered huge losses too. In 1997, FC Terek was resurrected for a while before the Second Chechnya War broke out in 1999. Different Mujahidin groups from different parts of the Islamic world helped the Chechens. Compared to the first war, this one turned out to be much more devastating for Chechnya.More than 50,000 people were killed. The war officially ended in 2000 and Moscow took control of the region. (However, it is to be noted that army operation continued in this area till 2002, and Russia pulled out most of its army only after a ceasefire was called in 2009) During these six years Grozny was bombed in such a way that in 2003 the United Nations called Grozny the most destroyed city on earth. Terek’s stadium was also in poor condition after the bombing campaign. Later, the Russians put a tank regiment in the stadium. Soldiers used the wood of the stadium terrace to light fires. There were numerous craters on the football pitch. During the Chechen conflict, many Terek players left the country and joined different Eastern European clubs. A few players even joined separatist forces to fight the Russians. Others just tried to save themselves and their families from shelling and “clean-up” operations undertaken by Russians. Some players fled to villages in the mountains.However, in the later part of the conflict, even remote villages were not spared and were bombed heavily. During the years between two wars, Chechnya became a place of criminal activities, gang wars, smuggling and Islamic hardliners (who tried imposing the Shariat law on Chechen people). Grozny and other parts of Chechnya often saw armed conflicts between the Russian Army and separatist wings till 2009. Car explosions and shootouts were considered normal. People who were trying to play and practice football had to face many obstacles and life-threatening situations quite often.

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Rebuilding Terek

In 2001, Terek was revived after a long time. However, war-torn Grozny did not have the proper infrastructure for a football club. So Terek had to set up their base in Kislovodsk, Stavropol Krai, around 250 Km away from the Chechnya border. However, local authorities refused to let them play league matches as they were afraid of Chechen supporters. So, Terek had to play their home matches in Cherkessk—100 Km from Kislovodsk.Between 2002 and 2007, Terek played at the small Beshtau Stadium in Lermontov and the Central Stadium in Pyatigorsk. In 2008, they got the permission from Russian FA to play in Grozny. The old Soviet-era Dinamo Stadium was reconstructed with 10,100 seats and artificial turf in just two months.It was named after Sultan Bilimkhanov, who was deputy speaker of the Chechen Parliament and was killed in a car accident in 2006.

To build the team, the club authority reassembled players who had left the country during the war(s) and were living in places like Israel and Ukraine. They also got players from Grozny and other places in Chechnya. Some of these players had fought for the Chechens during the conflict. They were either mentally weak or wanted revenge. Many of them had seen their near ones die and their houses blown up in front of their eyes. Most of these players were in their 30s.

During this early rebuilding phase, the person who helped Terek most was Akhmat Kadyrov. A fan of Terek since his childhood, Akhmat was a Chechen separatist in the first Chechen war. However, before the start of the second Chechen war, he had changed sides when he became critical of the extreme nature of Wahhabism and turned a Moscow loyalist. When Russia got their authority back after the second Chechen war, Akhmat was rewarded by Moscow. He became the president of the Chechen Republic of Russia and helped Kremlin run their policies in Chechnya. He became the president of the club and, with the help of sports minister Khaidar Alkhanov, funded Terek. With the help of Moscow, Chechnya’s government donated 1 million pounds and some property assets to the club. Other wealthy Chechens like Bulat Chagaev, who became the vice-president of the club later, also made significant investments in Terek. Rebuilding Terek became a symbol of rebuilding Chechnya and its capital Grozny.

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After the death of Akhmat in 2004, his son Ramzan Kadyrov became the president of Chechnya and FC Terek Grozny. Like his father, he was also a loyalist of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Ramzan invested a lot in this rebuilding process. He started bringing more foreign players from premier teams like CSKA Sofia and Dinamo Bucharest, and investing millions of rubles in the club.Cameroonian footballer Guy Stephane Essame, who played for Terek Grozny from 2008 to 2012, founded FC Lotus-Terek Yaoundé which is a feeder team of FC Terek Grozny. In 2011, Ramzan finished building a 30,000-seater stadium in compliance with UEFA standards in Grozny for Terek, which cost around 280 million dollars. He named it after his father Akhmat. Three months before the opening of Akhmat Arena, he brought an all-star Brazilian team comprising Romario, Dunga, and Bebeto to play an exhibition match. Ramzan himself played in that match. His team lost the match 4-6. On the day the stadium was inaugurated on 11May 2011, another match was held, where Diego Maradona, Luis Figo, Fabian Barthez, Robbie Fowler,Steve McManaman, Christian Vieri, Rinat Dasaev, and Alessandro Costacurta played for an all-star team. They played against a team named Kavkaz. Ramzan was part of the latter, and scored a hat-trick (some say he was allowed to score the hat-trick). In January 2011, he appointed former Dutch international player Ruud Gulit as manager of FC Terek Grozny. However, after six months, he was sacked allegedly due to his “party lifestyle”. Official statement, though, cited the reason as a run of poor results. In 2012, Terek organized their first international football tournament, where Ukrainian club Metalist Kharkiv defeated Romanian club Rapid Bucharest in the final.

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Success of Terek

In 2001, when they were rebuilt, Terek got the chance to play in the Second League of South Zone in 2001. They finished fifth from the top that season. In 2002, Terek won the zonal tournament. In 2003, they got a chance to play in the Russian first Division. Unfortunately, a draw in the final round match against Kuban pushed them down to fourth spot. However, in 2004, Terek topped the First Division and found their place in the Russian Premier League. This was a historic season for Terek as they went on to set quite a few records.

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Terek secured the top spot with seven rounds to go before the end of the season. They also became the first team ever to get 100 points during a season. Their victorious run amounted to 21 undefeated games. They also won the 2003–04 Russian Cup, defeating FC Krylya Sovetov Samara in the final held at Lokomotiv Stadium, Moscow. Andrei Fedkov scored the only goal during injury time. Thus, Terek became the first team in Russia to win this tournament from the first division and the first Russia cup winner that was not from either Moscow or St. Petersburg. This win gave them a spot in the qualifying stage of 2004–05 UEFA Cup. An injury-afflicted Terek fought well against the Polish club, Lech Poznan, during the first qualifying match held at the Moscow Dynamo Stadium.They missed a penalty, and a goal was disallowed. However, in the 91st minute,Dmitry Khomukha scored an important goal from a terrific solo run and  pass of Musa Mazaev. In their away match at Municipal Stadium Poznan, they defended very well, and Terek’s Andrei Fedkov scored the only goal of the match at the 82nd minute.The result of the first leg match was 1–1 in the first round against Swiss club FC Basel at Moscow.But at Basel’s St. Jacob Park,Terek lost by 2–0 and their wonderful journey in the European tournament ended. Their first Russian Premier League campaign in 2005 was not a memorable one and Terek were relegated as most of their players lacked any experience of playing in the top division. In 2007, they got the second spot in the First Division League and returned to the Russian Premier League. Since 2008, however, they have been playing in the Russian Premier League and have never been relegated. So far their best performance in the league has been in the 2012–13 season when they finished in the eighth spot. It is a testimony to their success that two of their players—Oleg Ivanov and Igor Lebedenko—were selected for the Russian national team, and another, Magomed Mitrishev, was handed his Russian U21 debut. In September 2012, Terek won the Republic of Turkey Cup by defeating Sevaspor 4–2. Incidentally, this match happened to be the first international game for the Grozny team that was played in the Akhmat Arena.

Russian Premier League Table 2015-2016 Season - Updated till 02-Jan 2016
Russian Premier League Table 2015-2016 Season – Updated till 02-Jan 2016 [Source – ESPN]

Controversy, a partner of Terek

After rising from the ashes, FC Terek Grozny have always been surrounded by controversy. In other parts of Russia, outside Chechnya, Chechens are still known as “bandits”. And since Russia’s loss in the first Chechen campaign, ethnic or Slavic Russians have started hating Chechens more than ever before. An influx of Chechen refugees in Russian towns and terrorist activities by Chechens in Russian cities have increased this hatred. Now they are no more than “smugglers”, “terrorists”, and “kidnappers” to the Russian people. As a result, these Chechen clubs and their supporters have always faced hostile situations when they play away matches. Extreme Right wing and Neo Nazi supporters often give Nazi salutes in these matches. A large number of club supporters from small to major Russian clubs like CSKA Moscow, Rubin Kazan and Zenit St. Pietersberg have refused to attend the home matches of Chechen clubs. In a match against FC Terek Grozny in Petrovsky Stadium in St.Petersburg, Zenit supporters once burnt a Chechen flag. Supporters of Moscow-based clubs have shouted slogans supporting Russia and taunting the North Caucasians. In turn, Caucasian fans have sometimes angered the ethnic Russians by chanting separatist slogans. When Terek got the chance to play in their own city Grozny, many clubs and players were reluctant to play there due to security reasons. Outside Grozny, other home matches generally do not have more than 50% audience attendance.

Another controversy that has surrounded Terek since their rebirth is about their godfathers, the Kadyrov family. Many hardliner Chechens were angry when Akhmet Kadyrov changed sides before the second Chechen war. As a result of this, he was killed in a bomb explosion at Dinamo Stadium in Grozny in 2004. Ramzan Kadyrov is also a controversial figure.

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Most Chechen people are extremely religious Muslims. Kadyrov encourages them to impose Shariat Law in Chechnya as much as possible with his iron fist and the Special Police. His private army, Kadyrovtsy, has been accused of being involved in a recent Ukrainian armed conflict. The way he spent money on Terek in a poor Caucasus region (where other developments were more needed) was heavily criticized. In 2011, he resigned from his position as Terek’s President to avoid any accusation of mixing politics with football from UEFA. However, Ramzan still holds the position of Honorary President of Terek and he hardly misses any home match. When Terek got the chance to play in Grozny, it was rumoured that Putin had put pressure on Russian FA to allow them to play there. Ramzan is also allegedly involved in the disappearance and murder of many social activists, human rights activists, and politicians. The Human Rights Watchand Amnesty International have accused him in many such cases.

The game is still beautiful

Ramzan said once that the Chechen people needed both “the bread and spectacles” to live a happy life. While war, destruction, gang wars, and other notorious activities made Grozny a hell, Akhmat and Ramzan gave them a reason to be happy and proud with a football team of their own. Many people, after losing everything in their life in those years, find happiness in a football match of FC Terek Grozny, and when Terek wins, that happiness defeats every adversities of life. That is what football is all about—conquering every pain and struggle of life through the beautiful game. Here football and FC Terek Grozny are symbols of a journey to a wonderful future leaving behind a horrific past. They stand for the hopes and dreams of millions.

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