The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group
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More than a game? Again? On the seemingly perpetual football-related violence in the Balkans

Over the past twenty-five years academic scholarship, as well as journalistic accounts of varying degrees of quality, have focused on Balkan football fan cultures almost exclusively in terms of their violent, homophobic and nationalist behavior, their involvement in paramilitary formations that committed war-crimes during the Yugoslav Wars and their interconnection with various mafia-esque structures in the region. One might argue, rightly so. Others may say that such social problems, even if less acute, exist elsewhere in Europe as well and that this particular focus by Western media outlets only perpetuates and exacerbates traditional Balkan stereotypes.

If taking into consideration however, the region’s numerous football fan group’s ‘track record’ over the last few years, this particular focus is no big surprise.  There is, after all, still a wide-spread narrative, both internationally as well as in the region, that it was a particular football game in 1990, that represents the symbolic date when the Yugoslav dissolution began – ‘the day, the war started’. Back on May 13 1990, the game between the ‘eternal’ rivals in the Yugoslav football league, Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade at Zagreb’s Maksimir stadium had to be suspended due to violent clashes between the opposing set of fans, the most brutal ones in Yugoslav sporting history.

Football hooliganism and the physical violence associated with it have thus been a major political and social issue in the region for quite some time. During the late 1980s and the early 1990s especially, Yugoslav sport, and in particular Yugoslav club football proved to be a mobilising tool for nationalist ideology, as it rapidly deteriorated into an ideologically and physically contested terrain, with supporters increasingly demonstrating a strong sense of national allegiance and promoting violence against others on an ethnic and national basis. As Vedran Džihić once wrote, Yugoslav sport at that time mirrored the Yugoslav state-weakness, the transformation of spectators to soldiers, the mobilisation of national agendas and ultimately the break-up of the country.

Yesterday however, for once it was not exclusively the spectator’s behavior during the tensely awaited UEFA European Championship qualification game between Serbia and Albania that will get the spotlight of European sports newspaper front pages. Whilst the crowd at Partizan Belgrade’s stadium did greet the Albanian national team with a more or less well known repertoire of chauvinist and racist chants, posters, flares, etc., the game had to be abandoned due to another peculiar incident which was then followed by short a physical altercation between the opposing set of players and an intrusion by spectators from the stands. During the closing minutes of the still goalless first-half, spectators witnessed a new form of ‘banter’ that definitely surpassed the ‘usual’ forms of ritualized symbolic and non-physical expressions of opposition in its ingenuity. At one point a small remote-controlled helicopter-drone flew into the stadium just above the players heads. Attached to it was a flag, upon which there was a picture of so-called ‘Greater Albania’ including all the parts of the Balkans where ethnic Albanians live, the portraits of two political and military leaders as well as the sub-title ‘autochthonous’. The crowd in the stadium reacted furiously, but things really boiled over when the Serbian player Stefan Mitrović managed to grab the flying device and bring it to ground. He was immediately confronted by onrushing Albanian players, who tried to retain their national flag, resulting in a brawl. Moments later the heavy presence of police paid off, when riots police quickly moved in to contain dozens of spectators – one of them being Ivan Bogdanov. Bogdanov, the leader of the Red Star Belgrade fan group Delije, who was sentenced to more than three years in jail after convicted for leading the hooligan group responsible for the abandonment of the game Italy vs. Serbia in 2010 – who had invaded the pitch from the stands and secured the retreat of the players into the tunnels. After the game had been suspended for over 30 minutes with Serbian spectators (by mutual consent there were no tickets made available for travelling Albanian fans) engaging in fight with riot police, UEFA confirmed that the match had been abandoned. According to the Serbian media reports it had been the Albanian Prime Minister’s brother himself who had control over the flying device and who was questioned on the suspicion of being the main culprit.

The incident, who ever may be responsible for it, illustrates two things however. First of all it demonstrated, that despite the continuous improvement of relations, the social and political contract between Serbia and its Southern neighbours (Kosovo and Albania) remains fragile –  if not amongst the political elites, then among the ‘common people – with thousands of people in Pristina celebrating the outcome of the incident, whilst the Serbian media spoke almost in unison of an outrageous provocation. Furthermore, it again exposed the inability or unwillingness of the Serbian police to fully control organised football hooliganism in their stadia, only underlining the bigger question for politicians of how to deal with football hooliganism as a whole. After years of politics fluctuating between a laissez-faire approachand actual ‘courting’, the problem has reached a level where many regional political elites see their only way out as being a strict ‘Thatcher-esque’ zero-consequence law-and-order approach. The problem is however, more complex and cannot be resolved through sheer policing and criminalisation of football fans and football-related violence, but has to be understood as a socially endemic phenomenon that needs to be treated as such.

The increased politisation of everyday life through politics ‘from above’ is often accompanied by a politisation of sport ‘from below’ through athletes and spectators. Particularly in such a politically loaded game as the Serbia vs. Albania, it was to be expected that the atmosphere within stadia would emulate popular political discourse with mobilizing expressions of nationalist sentiments articulated in one way or another. As was seen a few months back during the two encounters between the national football teams of Croatia and Serbia, a particular national charge is ascribed to these games, which, with the passing of time, seems to be increasingly ephemeral however.  We can only hope that this process happens for yesterday’s game as well.

Dario Brentin

Dario Brentin is a PhD-candidate at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at University College London working on the topic of sport and national identity in post-socialist Croatia. He obtained his Mag. Phil. in Political Science and Eastern European History at the University of Vienna and is currently a University Assistant at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz. He has just very recently co-edited a special issue of the journal Südosteuropa entitled Football and Society.
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