MYPLACE research team at the Ivo Pilar Institute, Croatia on the social implications of the recent football match between Croatia and Serbia.
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The region of the former Yugoslavia is an especially appropriate example of tragic social processes. Yugoslavia ‘died’ in bloody wars (1991-1999). During the wars 130 000 people died, several hundred thousands were injured and more than one million became refugees. Because of the war crimes, the United Nations formed the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in Den Haag. The Homeland War in Croatia (1991-1995), especially the siege and destruction of the city of Vukovar in 1991 and military operation ‘Storm’ in 1995, play a significant role in the construction of the identity of contemporary Croatian ‘ultras’. Moreover, the ultras movement participates in the production of discourse on social memory, commemorating those events each year within and outside football stadiums.
Not long after the war in Croatia there were various international sports events which included football matches between the national teams and clubs of Croatia and Serbia (at the time Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, that is, Serbia and Montenegro). Only football brought about such a national tension in both countries, which previously had not existed to that extent. First such matches were played in 1997 in the Champions League qualifications between Dinamo (Zagreb) and Partizan (Belgrade) (5-0, 0-1) (www.youtube.com/watch?v=IBa_pX5p-lA). However, the matches Croatia – Yugoslavia (2-2, 0-0) in Belgrade and Zagreb in 1999 for a place in the European Championships 2000 raised the national tension on even higher level (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLa6F0KgwZ0). Visiting fans were banned from attending both matches, but despite this, security was heavy. Nationalist rhetoric, even hate speeches overwhelmed the media and stadiums. The atmosphere on the grandstands was such that it was hardly comparable to the biggest football rivalries in the world, such as those between England and Germany or Argentina and Brazil.
Since last autumn the sports sections of the Croatian media have published hundreds or thousands of features on the match between Croatia and Serbia scheduled for 22 March 2013. Emotions and atmosphere on both sides have been varying in the past few months from bold predictions of who will win to envious respect for the opponent. As the date of the game drew closer, the rhetoric of football players, coaches and sports and political officials became friendlier and served to create a sporting and fair play atmosphere. This is especially true for the Croatian manager Igor Štimac and Serbian Siniša Mihajlović. It was most of all an enormous surprise for all those who were acquainted with the situation on the territory of the former Yugoslavia. The first war conflicts occurring in 1991 started at the end of the last season of the Yugoslavia football championship. The first victims fell in the isolated riots which happened before the summer of 1991, but sports league competitions had somehow, in a very hostile atmosphere come to an end until then. The physical encounter between Štimac and Mihajlović, at the time football players, and their exclusion from the Yugoslav Cup’s finals match (Red Star Belgrade – Hajduk 0-1) is often shown in the media features on the beginning of the final break-up of Yugoslavia in the late spring of 1991 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rn8q9geNOcA). The fight between these two football players in the finals of a football cup eventually reached mythic proportions. Moreover, the relationship of these two teammates of the Yugoslavia national U-21 selection turned into mutual hatred. However, this drastically changed in the middle of 2012 when it became obvious that the pair would meet again on the hot seats during the qualification matches for the World Cup Brazil 2014. The managers of both national teams were on the head of a file of the national team players, coaches, former players and journalists; each one of them giving conciliatory and fair play statements and appealing to fans for a respectful support. (The match announcement on RTS (Belgrade): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihDufFPM_8c)
A few days before the game the UEFA delegation visited Zagreb and they had a meeting with the representatives of the Croatian Football Federation, Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Science, Education and Sports because of a ‘high risk’ game that would be played. It was decided again that the match Croatia – Serbia, as in 1999, would be played without visiting fans. A press conference was held the day before the match in the Government of the Republic of Croatia in which Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanović, president of the Croatian Football Federation Davor Šuker and manager Igor Štimac announced the match that would be played the next day. “It is important that we prove ourselves to be a responsible host. To be a Croat does not mean to be against someone. I am glad that manager Štimac and president Šuker made reasonable and civilized statements. The atmosphere is unhealthy and it is not easy. We must prove that we are a responsible host and a civilized country” Prime Minister Zoran Milanović stressed on that occasion. “Football is connecting, we will do everything we can to prevent any incident from happening. When we played and when we were on the football pitch, we knew what to do and how to do it. As players we wanted our fans to be our 12th player. We hope that the fans will be dignified and make us proud” Davor Šuker declared. On the day of the match the President of the Republic of Croatia Ivo Josipović hosted Davor Šuker, the president of the Croatian Football Federation and Tomislav Karadžić, the president of the Football Association of Serbia, and afterwards they gave a press conference.
“I am sure that the players will be exceedingly excited and enjoy on the pitch. However, I must emphasise that there is no quality event without a good audience. Today is a day of a great challenge, and not only a sports challenge, but also a challenge for the audience. I expect and I am sure that our fans will adjust themselves to the standards we are used to” Josipović said and once more called for easing the tensions. “Violence, vulgarity and insulting the opponents are not welcome on the pitch and our audience will, I’m sure, show that too” the president added and revealed that he would watch the game together with the former Serbian president Boris Tadić; but in his residence, not in the stadium. The president of the Serbian football association Tomislav Karadžić thanked for the hospitality and appraised the current collaboration between the heads of the Croatian and Serbian football excellent. “I would like that there are in all other areas of social life relations and relationships between people who also work and are in charge of serious jobs because that is both an obligation and opportunity for neighbours to live well and cooperate, and each day improve their relations.”
Despite of the conciliatory rhetoric of the heads of political and football institutions, the media heated up the atmosphere by writing about ‘raised tensions’ and numerous meanings of the match. ‘The historic match’ was one of typical headlines. The media played a typical ‘double game’. On the one hand, they were charging the atmosphere with bombastic headlines and on the other calling for respectful fans’ support, implying that ‘we’ are different from ‘others’ and that we need to show ‘that we are civilised, especially now that we are joining the EU’. The thing that could not be found in the media is a story about the relation between the hard core fans, that is, the ultras movement on the one side and official football institutions, including the national team, on the other. The media were reluctant to disclose the facts about the ultras supporters boycotting the matches of the football national team for months, nor was it announced that they would, on this occasion, for the match against Serbia, break the boycott. Some of them marched to the stadium along the streets of Zagreb in ‘corteo’. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i26INtH7vNQ)
The tickets for the match were hard to get because there were much more interested buyers than tickets (the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb has a seating capacity of 35 000), but the ultras got a certain number of tickets anyway, around 400 for each bigger fan group. The members of the ‘Always faithful’, a fan club of the Croatian national team, got the biggest number of tickets, although the majority of their members does not make the core of the famous ultras groups such as Torcida or Bad Blue Boys. At the stadium, ultras supporters were placed on the smallest grandstand ‘South’, which is the furthest from the pitch (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CNgEhJdMEqM). Of course, ultras did not care about the warnings of the political and football elite given to them before the game. Insulting the opponents is a part of a ritual to them, no matter which game is played. Therefore it was expected on this occasion that, since Serbia presented a synonym for a ‘wartime enemy’, they would insist on the slogans that are officially unwelcome and unacceptable. Except in one or two situations, the rest of the stadium did not respond to (and often did not even hear) the chanting coming from the stand South. Aside from one or two chants such as ‘Kill a Serb’, we could appraise most of the fans on the match correct, being within a common framework when it comes to football. Croatian fans sang Croatian songs and cheered for their football players, mostly by shouting the famous chant ‘To battle, to battle for your people’. Establishment has succeeded in its intent – most football fans on the remaining three stands of the Maksimir stadium listened to the advice that dominated the media before the match and the few ultras supporters ended up desolate in their way of expression.
To ensure that everything would be fine, the police was taking away flags and banners with problematic content, arresting before the game fans who sang Ustaša songs, and when a group of ultras supporters tried to hang a banner saying ‘Kill a Serb’ during the second half-time, the police acted fast and used force and batons to take the banner away from them. We can conclude that this match was after all significantly less tense in comparison to the one in 1999. Unlike the match that ended in a tie in 1999, this time Croatia won 2-0 on home soil. It was not the same at the stands either; the difference between the ‘main stream’ supporters, politicians and journalists on the one side and the hard core ultras on the other side was obvious. The first ones used political and media communication to give an impression of being politically correct toward ethnic minorities before joining the EU, and the ultras members showed that they are consistent in their perception of the Serbs as ‘wartime enemies’, in spite of the media and institutions.
Croatian Myplace team