Much of the language of football is derived from warfare: an ‘aerial bombardment’ in the last few minutes, a quick burst of goals being described as a ‘blitz’, or bringing the ‘big guns’ or ‘cavalry’ on from the bench.
Very rarely though do the two worlds overlap. Football tries its best to steer clear of external politics, while war has more prevalent worries than a mere game.
However, while these examples made some minor waves in the international arena, there is one recent example that led to revolution, and the dissolution of an entire country. And it’s much closer to home.
The Balkans has been a melting pot of cultures for all of human history, a place where all manner of Christians and Muslims have lived for hundreds of years.
Once part of the sprawling Ottoman Empire, on its collapse following World War One it split into several new countries: one of which would become Yugoslavia. The politics of this split and reformation are incredibly complex, but when the dust settled in 1918 the Yugoslavia we would recognise was in place.
The country was effectively a combination of six smaller regions, each given some degree of autonomy: Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Croatia and Serbia. It is the latter two regions we shall be concentrating on.
As the Cold War creaked towards a peaceful resolution all around them, certain regions of Yugoslavia – that had remained staunchly non-aligned during the ‘conflict’ – began to be swept with nationalist fervour.
Football became a proxy for this nationalistic sentiment. The Yugoslav league was filled with teams that were subtly or overtly linked with political organisations.
On May 13, 1990, this all came to a violent climax, sparking the dissolution of the entire country.
On that day, two of Yugoslavia’s best teams were to meet in Zagreb. Dinamo, the home side, were heavily linked with the government of the Socialist Republic of Croatia, and so were effectively the team of the Croat nationalists. They were regarded as representing Croatian national identity during the Yugoslav years.
Their opponents were Crvena Zvezda, from Belgrade. Crvena had close ties with the nationalist government of Serbia, led by Slobodan Milošević – who preferred Yugoslavia to form closer relations internally for the benefit of a united country.
The match was to be played just a few weeks after the first post-Communist elections in Croatia, with Franjo Tuđman becoming President. He had strong views on Croat independence – and also happened to be an outspoken fan of Dinamo.
Both clubs had fearsome fan groups, both just as interested in politics as politicians were interested in their clubs. Dinamo’s were known as the Bad Blue Boys, or BBB. They would regularly abuse Milošević and his supporters during matches, while openly supporting Tuđman and his HDZ party.
Crvena also had a significant supporter’s group, known as Delije. They shared the Serbian desire for a united, Serbian-centred Yugoslav state, to the detriment of the other regions. With these political overtones, the game was always going to attract controversy.
The trouble began on the way to the ground – the Delije began to vandalise Zagreb on their way to Maksimir stadium, with the BBB blaming Serbian sympathisers in the security forces for failing to stop them.
Soon, violence erupted in the stadium. The Delije continued their vandalism on their seats, so the BBB rushed Maksimir’s away end.
Before too long, the 1,500 Crvena fans were embroiled in a bitter scrap with their Croatian equivalent on the pitch. The game was abandoned while police attempted to regain control.
However, it was too late for some. The players were still on the pitch with fighting breaking out all around them. One unlikely participant was a 22-year old Zvonimir Boban.
Boban spotted a policeman attacking one of the Dinamo fans, and immediately intervened. He took a running kick at the police officer, with some of the BBB coming to his aid as bodyguards.
The incident made a hero of Boban in Croatia, propelling him into the poster boy of the nationalist movement. It also earned him a six-month ban from the Yugoslav national team.
On the other side, a more notorious figure was leading the fighting. The Delije were led that day by Željko Ražnatović – better known as Arkan. A career criminal, he became infamous as the leader of the paramilitary group ‘Arkan’s Tigers’ during the Yugoslav wars.
Eventually, the chaos subsided – but only after the police brought in tear gas and water cannons. The entire battle had been broadcast live on national television, with 60 people wounded. The consequences would prove to be far wider than just hooliganism.
Within a year, the entire country collapsed into civil war. Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, and almost a decade of conflict began. The BBB were some of the first soldiers to sign up to the Croatian side, enforcing the overlap between football and politics in the region.
Croatia gained their independence in 1998, when the country was finally clear of fighting. Boban returned to play for the Croatian team, where he captained them to third place in that year’s World Cup in France.
He was lauded as a nationalist hero thanks to his actions that day – as were the rest of the Dinamo fans. If anyone was in doubt where the Croat struggle for independence began, look no further than the west stand of Maksimir.
Behind the stadium is a monument to those who lost their lives in the Yugoslav Wars. It’s epitaph leaves no doubt where the nationalist struggle began:
“To all Dinamo fans: for whom the war started at Maksimir stadium on 13 May 1990 and ended by them laying their lives on the altar of the Croatian homeland”