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

Forgotten Trinkets – The Prisoners of War

In the third episode of this series, Subhodip Basu follows the fortunes of the war-ravaged Yugoslav national team through the late 80s and 90s

The Prisoners of War: Yugoslavia 1990-98

Yugoslavia, a consistent underperformer in major tournaments, gave glimpses of turning over a new leaf in the late 80s. First, its youth team won the FIFA World Youth Championship (now known as U-20 World Cup) in 1987. Then it had a moderately successful Italia ’90 followed by a virtual romp through the qualifying stage of Euro 1992. In the interim, Red Star Belgrade took the 1991 European Champions Cup. Then, sadly, came a very bloody civil war, leading to a ban by UEFA. The team disintegrated, but the players continued to glitter for their clubs across Europe. In this edition we look at the travails of the team that “never wanted to be”. Ironically, the protagonists in this story, perhaps would be least bothered by their lack of success as a team, as by the end of the millennium, war had driven the fissures too deep.

Youthful Surprise

Youth FIFA World Cup Champion 1987, Chile

The nucleus of this potentially great team germinated during the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championship in Chile. This, despite missing as many as five first teamers including captain Aleksander Đorđević due to suspension and injuries, and keeping Siniša Mihajlović, Vladimir Jugović and Alen Bokšić at home. They did have a blond playmaker called Robert Prosinečki, who was to become the player of the tournament, and he was ably supported by Igor Štimac, Robert Jarni, Zvonimir Boban, Davor Šuker and Predrag Mijatović. They started with a 4-2 win over hosts Chile, before brushing aside Australia and Togo 4-0 and 4-1, respectively. Trouble followed as Red Star Belgrade suddenly woke up to ask for Prosinečki for a UEFA Cup tie. The players protested vehemently and FIFA President João Havelange intervened. Prosinečki duly obliged by curling a free-kick to eliminate Brazil in the quarters. They went on to beat both East and West Germany in the semi-final and final, respectively. In the latter match, they missed both Prosinečki and Mijatović through suspension but an inspired Boban gave them a lead and they finally won in penalties, no mean task, against West Germany. They gave all indications of a team-in-waiting as they demolished all known shortcomings of their predecessors by eliminating bigger teams, sticking together (as in the Prosinečki case), making light of missing players and, most importantly, keeping their nerve.

Balkan, Balkan, Burning Bright

To be fair, good parts often do not make a good football team. The players rarely played together and even when they did, due to all the war and violence, they (especially the Croats and Bosnians) could be scarcely expected to be motivated for giving their best. However, each was a star in their respective clubs. Like all great teams there was quality in almost all positions (save in goal, where Tomislav Ivković, Ivica Kralj and Dražen Ladić could at best be termed ‘goodish’).

Yugoslavia Team in World Cup 1990

However, any glimpse of mediocrity ended right there. In the early 90s, they had a pair of Serbian full-backs in the free-scoring Mirsad Baljić on left and the less adventurous Dragoljub Brnović on right. Later in the decade, they were superceded by an even more talented Croat pair of Robert Jarni and Igor Štimac. Jarni was world class. The original kingpin at sweeper was the Bosnian Faruk Hadžibegić, and anyone who watched their 1990 quarter-final with Argentina would stand testimony to how elegantly he rendered both Diego Maradona and Claudio Caniggia ineffective. Moreover, skilful additions just kept emerging in Slaven Bilić, Miroslav Đukić, Zvonimir Soldo, Robert Kovač and (occasionally) Siniša Mihajlović. The last, being the most consistent dead-ball shooter in his time.

The original kingpin at sweeper was the Bosnian Faruk Hadžibegić, and anyone who watched their 1990 quarter-final with Argentina would stand testimony to how elegantly he rendered both Diego Maradona and Claudio Caniggia ineffective.

Things kept getting better in midfield, where they could comfortably field up to two world class combinations at any time. As holding midfielders, they had Serbian Vladimir Jugović and Slovenian Srečko Katanec, stars for scudetto winning Juventus and Sampdoria, respectively. They were followed by younger Croats, Mario Stanić of Parma and Aljoša Asanović.  Attacking flair came from superstars Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinečki and above all Dragan “Piksi” Stojković. Piksi was unlucky to leave Red Star just before their golden run as well as miss the Marseille’s 1993 triumph due to injury (he also missed his international peak due to the UEFA ban). By 1998, Dejan Stanković was taking baby steps into stardom, and he is still setting and scoring stunning goals for Inter.

Most importantly, the Slavs were strong upfront where they have been often weak. Traditionally, their best attackers were either converted wingers like Dragan Džajić or inside forwards like Rajko Mitić. The 90s were an exception, which reinforces the belief that this team was a definite world beater. Their cornucopia of talent included brilliant “holes”, such as Montenegrin Dejan Savićević and Slovenian Zlatko Zahović, as well as penalty box monsters like Macedonian Darko Pančev and Serbian Predrag Mijatović. Last but not the least was the Croat pair of Davor Šuker and Alen Bokšić. All except Zahović, won at least one Champions League. Add the ageing but still clever Safet Sušić and a fast improving Bosnian, Hasan Salihamidžić on the wings and you have an attack that could succeed against all kinds of defence under all conditions.

Killing Fields

Clubs in former Yugoslavia, irrespective of their geography, had always been a symbol of anti-communist resistance. The Gravediggers of Partizan Belgrade, the Red Star ultras called Delije and Dynamo Zagreb’s Bad Blue Boys were all treated by Marshal Josip Tito as virtual underground movements. Clubs like Hajduk of Split embodied Dalmatia like Barcelona does for Catalonia. As perestroika began to sweep East Europe, these fan groups, emboldened by the events, began to turn more nationalistic. It was inevitable that they shall play a role in the war years.

Scenes from Zagreb, May 13, 1990

The first big incident took place in Zagreb, Croatia, when Red Star met Dynamo on May 13, 1990, the last league game of the Yugoslavian league. Thousands of the Delije and the Bad Blue Boys fought both each other and the local police. The game of course was abandoned after 10 minutes, but not before Zagreb’s best player, Boban, kicked a policeman who was trying to prevent Croatian hooligans from attacking Red Star fans. The policeman, a Bosnian Muslim, ironically said later that he understood Boban’s act. Boban, now a Croat war poster boy, boldly declared later, in a documentary film The Last Yugoslavian Football TeamI would die for Croatia.” Needless to remind the readers, he conveniently avoided doing so during the war, being mostly entrenched instead at the San Siro.

Boban vs riot police, Zagreb

At the same time, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević was attempting to organize the apparently uncontrolled hooliganism to more useful ends and in due course enlisted Željko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan. During a derby with Partizan in 1992, Arkan’s group dressed in full uniform, took up positions in the north stand and started holding up signals such as ‘20 miles to Vukovar‘ and ‘Welcome to Vukovar‘ (Vukovar being a Croatian town that had apparently fallen to the Serbian army). Both sets of supporters were now united in hatred of a common enemy – the Croats. From this point, the ultras assumed control of football and the criminal underworld in the war-torn state. Arkan, who would eventually be assassinated in 2000, ran everything from ticket sales to foreign travel and intimidation of match officials. His recruited ‘Tigers’ fought the patriotic war, first in Croatia and later, in Kosovo.

Fire Sale

The hope that football will flourish when peace is restored, was to be a false mirage. Now, the attack came from the west. From the mid-90s, almost all the international players from Yugoslavia, Croatia and Bosnia were playing abroad. In the 1996 Euro squad of Croatia, only keeper Ladić, defender Dario Šimić and half-back Asanovićwere from home clubs. Similarly for Yugoslavia in 1998, keeper Kralj and a still 19-year-old Stanković were the only players from domestic clubs in the regular eleven. Things only went steadily downhill from 1998.

Terrace attendance was no longer sufficient to fund clubs and television audience were glued to the more glamorous leagues where the best Balkans played. Hence, clubs in both Serbia and Croatia were short of funds, forcing them to sell off their best players thus rendering their domestic football with less skill and competitiveness. This vicious cycle, continues to affect all East European clubs even now, and the Balkan nations, due to war and violence were its biggest casualties. It’s worth reflecting on how this has affected East European national teams. Since 1990, in 12 major competitions (World Cup and Euro) they have managed zero wins, 1 final and four semi-finals. In a similar 12 events between 1966-88 it was 1 win, three finals and 7 semis.  The Slavs have been worst hit of all.

Serbian parliamentarian Zeljko Tomic, a committed Gravedigger, likes to relate the story of Mateja Kežman’s sale from Partizan to PSV Eindhoven. Partizan was supposed to receive new floodlights from Philips, the PSV owners. The lights, however, went missing en route, in all likelihood, being pocketed by an intermediary at the club’s expense.

Lost Legacy

There are countless talented teams which did not perform to their potential, but hardly anywhere did politics play such a cruel and uncontrollable role. Not just that, subsequent war and globalization of the football economy has virtually ruled out a revival. However, the stimulus to rate this team high is not based on emotions. Neither is it based on sheer talent, which admittedly they had in abundance.

They had a temperament to match, with most players being versatile enough to be successful for multiple clubs and multiple leagues. Majority were impact players for their clubs rather than being just a support player. Katanec, Jugović, Mihajlović, the Rossoneri trio of Savićević, Boban and Pančev were all very successful in Italy.  Bokšićand Stojković were part of Marseille’s superstar team while Real Madrid had Jarni, Mijatović and Šuker at various times. Let’s not forget a very old Stanković in Inter’s golden run almost a decade later. The combined transfer fee of their top 15 players in the 90s was in excess of €100m, a number almost similar to the top 15 of either Brazil, France or Germany who all won tournaments in that decade. Moreover, to hone this talent they could call on anyone amongst Bora Milutinović, Vujadin Boškov and Radomir Antić, three of the best in this decade.

World Cup 1998 : Croatia Team (l) and Yugoslavia Team (r)

Additionally, there was pride and team spirit in abundance, a key element in any successful team. With less than 50% of the original player pool, Croatia did make it to a World Cup semi-final with ageing and downhill players. The rest, playing for Yugoslavia, also had a decent run in 1998 World Cup and even in Euro 2000 with players who were even older! Yugoslavia once came back from three goals down in Euro 2000 while Croatia blanked old nemesis Germany by three goals in 1998. Years of responsibility in foreign clubs had made them hard-nosed professionals. They could be clever, even cynical when they needed to be (remember the Bilić dive to oust Laurent Blanc?). These players were made of sterner stuff!

Many political thinkers feel that both Brazil and Argentina were on the verge of civil war in the 60s and late 70s/ early 80s, respectively and football success worked as a great national glue as well as a legitimate diversion. If only Piksi had not missed the spot kick against Argentina, and the Slavs went on to make the finals in 1990 World Cup, perhaps a combined Balkan team would have lined up in 1992 Euro. Perhaps a football crazy population would have understood the power of unity and the futility of conflict. For now, we can only muse as we watch Luca Modrić wave delicate patterns at the Bernabéu.

Luca Modrić joins Real Madrid

Vintage Vignettes – How the Danes made it to Euro 1992

In a new series, Vintage Vignettes, we trace the antecedents of an event from the past. This special Euro season, we trace back when the Danish Dynamites were called at the last moment to play the Euros, only to win it all.

Denmark’s first appearance in FIFA World Cup was in 1986. However the Danish squad of the decade (1980-1990) was being christened as the ‘Danish Dynamite’ during their Euro 1984 campaign. In both the competitions, they lost out to Spain but they had put on pretty strong performances. Preben Elkjær and Michael Laudrup emerged as one of the most exciting striking pairs of their time. The 1988 Euro was a disaster for them; they were in a difficult group and lost all their matches to Spain, Germany and Italy. Further, the team failed to qualify for the 1988 Olympics and 1990 World Cup. The manager of the national team, Sepp Piontek, decided to step down and his assistant Richard Nielsen took over.

Denmark with 1992 Euro Championship

This is just the backdrop of the (sur)real story of Denmark’s finest hour in international football. Denmark started the Euro 1992 qualifiers with a 4-1 home win against Faroe Islands. The following game at Northern Ireland ended in a 1-1 draw. But the worst came next when Yugoslavia beat them 2-0 at home. Things got out of hands when the Laudrup brothers decided not to play for the national team following a tiff with the manager on his defensive tactics. Jan Mølby and Jan Heintze were sacked by Nielsen on disciplinary grounds. With the manager under tremendous pressure, the team bounced back by winning all of the remaining games. However they finished second in their group behind Yugoslavia and failed to qualify for the finals.

How the team finally got a call to go to Sweden to play in Euro 1992 and ended up winning it is the stuff fairytales are made of.  Because Denmark was not in the finals, quite a few teams were playing their last friendly games with them before reaching Sweden. It was May 31st, 1992, only 10 days before the Euro was to commence, the Danish team was in Brondby, training for a game they had against the Commonwealth of Independent States. They were having lunch after the morning training sessions when they heard the rumour that Yugoslavia were expelled by UEFA due to international sanctions imposed due to the Yugoslav wars. But after they came back from their second training session, the rumour got confirmed and Denmark entered Euro 1992 as they had finished second in the qualifying group.

Brian Laudrup came back to play a major role

In the finals, Denmark was still defensive but thanks to Brian Laudrup’s decision to come back and play for the national side gave them enough creative sparks to get past England, France, Netherlands and Germany and be crowned as the champions of Europe.