Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
As my colleague James Montague reports, Friday’s World Cup qualifying match between Croatia and Serbia in Zagreb will be played in a stadium packed with supporters of only the home team. The decision to ban Serb fans from traveling to the Croatian capital for the match was taken with an awareness of the central role nationalist soccer hooligans played in the wars that ripped the former Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s.
That means that the atmosphere in Zagreb’s Maksimir Stadium will be as one-sided as it was in 1999, when the Croatians first hosted Serbia’s best players — who then represented what remained of Yugoslavia at the time, just Serbia and Montenegro. (The Montenegrins later declared independence). Your Lede blogger attended that match in late 1999 and produced a video report on the match, which included footage of a legendary fight between Serbian and Croatian soccer hooligans in that stadium on the eve of the war.
As the Croatian-born journalist Andrej Krickovic explained in 1999, in the tense final year before Yugoslavia dissolved into ethnic-nationalist warfare, “Traditional fights between rival football hooligans acquired a political meaning.” He added:
The climax occurred in Zagreb at the match at Maskmir stadium between Dinamo and Crvena Zvezda Belgrade on 13 May 1990, only days after the Croatian elections. Some 1,500 members of Crvena Zvezda’s fan club, Delije, attended the game. They were led by Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic, who later became commander of the most notorious paramilitary group, the Serbian Volunteer Guard. When Serbian fans began to tear apart the stands, the BBB stormed their end of the stadium. The fight then moved onto the field, with police trying to separate the two groups. A solid hour of battle followed. The mayhem was broadcast live on national television, and order was restored only when riot police were called in. The match was called off.
When the real war broke out, the BBB rushed to the front lines. “The Croatian National Guard didn’t even have its own insignia then, and we put our Dinamo badges on and went off to fight,” recalls a BBB member named Stipe. Behind the western stands of the Maksimir stadium is a monument to those who lost their lives in the war. The epitaph reads: “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.”
Jonathan Wilson of the Guardian explained that when the two nations first met in 1999, Sinisa Mihajlovic, the current coach of the Serbian team who comes from the Croatian city of Vukovar, was on the pitch and at the center of attention.
Serbia, in its present form, has never played Croatia, although Yugoslavia – by then consisting of just Serbia and Montenegro – did play Croatia in qualifying for Euro 2000. The power failed at the first game in Belgrade, a 0-0 draw and when the lights came back on, it became clear that Yugoslav players had surrounded Croatia’s players in the centre circle to protect them. In Zagreb, where a 2-2 draw eliminated Croatia, a huge banner commemorated “Vukovar 91;” Mihajlovic knelt before it and crossed himself, a gesture that was understandable in that he wanted to commemorate the fallen on both sides but one that was also hugely provocative, drawing a torrent of abuse from home fans.
At a news conference ahead of Friday’s kick-off, the Croatian coach Igor Stimac, played down reports of nationalist tension.
Considering that both Croatian and Serbian extremists also visited great violence during those wars of the 1990s on Bosnia’s Muslim population — mainly descended from Slavic converts to Islam during the centuries of rule by the Ottoman Turks — an interesting wrinkle was added by the selection of a Turkish official, Cuneyt Cakir, to referee the match.
Reports from the stadium in Zagreb posted on Twitter just before the match suggested that nationalist feeling was high, at least in the stands.
Fifteen minutes until kick off here at the Maksimir. The atmosphere is electric. Croatian patriotic songs on the loudspeaker.
Serbian anthem whistled, then drowned out by chants of “Vukovar”.