The Name of the Game:
Yugoslav Football

The world’s most popular sport played a role in the creation of socialist Yugoslavia, in promoting the ideology of brotherhood and unity, and ultimately in the country’s violent dissolution.

With Nadan Hadžić and Richard Mills.

Listen: Episode #91

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Transcript: Yugoslav Football, Episode #91

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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your referee Peter Korchnak.

Sports are a major way for people to recall their former country’s glory. My Instagram and Facebook feeds are littered with photos of Yugoslav teams and players from this or that golden era of this or that sport.

Actually, it’s mostly basketball and football. The two sports feature prominently in Yugoslavia’s history and memory, for various reasons. There’s the international successes and accomplishments, particularly in basketball. There’s the connection between especially football and the country’s domestic and international politics. And there are alternate history, what-if speculations as to what might have been had the country remained intact.

In this and the next episode, we’ll remember Yugoslavia with two of its most important team sports. It was a coin toss as to which one would go first: we’ll kick off this sports miniseries with football.

But first, let me welcome new members to Remembering Yugoslavia’s side: Thank you, Carly and Chris, for your contributions.

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The world’s most popular sport played a role in the creation of socialist Yugoslavia, in promoting the ideology of brotherhood and unity, and ultimately in the country’s violent dissolution.

RICHARD MILLS: From the very first days of socialists Yugoslavia existence, and in fact, before even officially comes into existence, football is playing a central role in creating the state in giving its territorial dimensions, in enabling the regime to portray a new version of a federalized Yugoslav Republic, which will look very, very different to the kingdom that went before it before the Second World War.

PETER KORCHNAK: Richard Mills is Associate Professor in Modern European History at the University of East Anglia and the author of The Politics of Football in Yugoslavia: Sport, Nationalism and the State, the principal source for this episode.

Yugoslav Football Before 1945

Football dominated the sporting arena in the first Yugoslavia, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, and was the country’s most popular pastime—in Croatia more so than elsewhere. The Yugoslav Football Association was established in Zagreb in 1919; Yugoslavia played its first international match at the 1920 Olympics, losing to Czechoslovakia 7:0.

Four subassociations, in Zagreb, Split, Belgrade, and Ljubljana, managed the game, which was dominated by a handful of what was later called bourgeois clubs located in the main cities. Zagreb teams won eight titles in the period, Belgrade teams seven, and Hajduk Split two.

Already in this period, writes Mills, “for the sporting public, major victories on the football pitch were also victories for their respective nation” and “poor interclub relations marred the interwar game,” marked by chauvinism. Teams in Serbia leaned toward the Serbian-dominated monarchy, while teams in Croatia espoused a Croatian identity, best expressed in the red-and-white checkerboard, the šahovnica, featured in the logos of Hajduk and other teams. What was happening in the political realm found its expression and outlet on and around the pitch.

Bežigrad Stadium (Jože Plečnik, 1935) in Ljubljana. Originally intended as a field for a patriotic/nationalist physical culture youth organization, it was transformed into a football stadium halfway through the construction process. For most of its history, Bežigrad was home to NK (Nogometni Klub) Olimpija, and after independence it also hosted a number of Slovenian national team matches. It closed in 2008. Photo: January 2020.

After Yugoslavia became a dictatorship in 1929, the football association was moved to Belgrade. Croats boycotted the national team and for a time withdrew from the Yugoslav league.

Yugoslavian football came to a halt altogether in 1941 when the country was torn apart for the first time.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia was initially the third largest party in parliament of a country that was 79 percent peasant. Soon the Communist Party was banned and persecuted for the rest of the interwar period. The Party believed sport to be a constituent part of its revolutionary struggle. Given the limited opportunities for expressing and promoting working class solidarity, the communists worked to infiltrate existing football clubs. More importantly, they also established their own workers clubs, including Proleter Zagreb [Proletarian Zagreb], Jug Split [South Split], Velež Mostar, and Radnički Beograd [Workers’ Belgrade]. The party used workers clubs and workers’ clubs associations as instruments for spreading its ideas and to organize. “By the late 1930s, the close relationship between football and communism was increasingly clear to both the public and authorities,” writes Mills.

In World War II, the Independent State of Croatia had its own football league; in German occupied Serbia, only Belgrade area teams kept playing; in other occupied territories, football hung on by a thread, with some play incorporated into the occupying countries’ leagues. Everywhere, Jewish and Roma players were purged.

Most communist footballers joined the Partisans, with particularly workers’ clubs, quote, “providing a reservoir of eager volunteers,” according to Mills. “The game played a revolutionary role from an early stage.”

Already in 1942—

RICHARD MILLS: You had, for example, a Partisans Olympics being held in a temporarily liberated part of Bosnia, where you had football matches taking place.

PETER KORCHNAK: Football “served to maintain morale, boost fitness levels, provide brief respites from the fighting and a much needed sense of normality,” writes Mills.

Matches were held in liberated territories under Yugoslav Army’s control, often just a few kilometers from the front lines and preceded by the anthem, “Hej Slaveni!”

RICHARD MILLS: And then in the spring of 1944, the regime really embraces football as a way to, I guess, market itself, both domestically and internationally. That happens through the reestablishment of a team called Hajduk Split. The team is reformed as the team of the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia. And that team is made up of various talented players from the interwar years.

PETER KORCHNAK: The red, five-pointed star replaced the šahovnica on Hajduk’s shirts. So ironically, perhaps as testimony to the versatility of football as a political tool, quote “a bastion of the bourgeois game”—Hajduk Split had been established in 1911—“came to represent the revolutionary Partisan movement.”

RICHARD MILLS: It plays matches against Allied Teams, Allied Army teams, Air Force teams, Navy teams, initially on the liberated island of Vis, and then from June, across liberated Southern Italy. This really is the moment at which the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, even though it doesn’t have full control of the state, by any means, realizes that the game can play a crucial role for its political ambitions.

PETER KORCHNAK: The high point of Yugoslav football and Hajduk Split during the war comes in September 1944 in Bari, an Italian port city taken a year prior by the British and New Zealand militaries.

RICHARD MILLS: Hajduk, known or advertised on the day as the team of the Yugoslav People’s Army, plays against a Great Britain army representation in a packed stadium in Bari. The Yugoslav tricolor flag with the red five-pointed star of socialism is flown alongside the Union flag. The new national anthem “Hej Sloveni” is played for the first time alongside God Save the King. And this is really a momentous occasion.

PETER KORCHNAK: The Party defined Hajduk as a, quote “herald of the National Liberation Struggle on foreign shores,” and proof that, if the communists can organize all of this in the middle of a major war, they’re a legitimate force supported by the population at large.

RICHARD MILLS: That team then goes on in the latter part of the Second World War, on a major tour of the liberated Mediterranean. It plays matches in Egypt, in Palestine, Malta, in total 65 games in seven different states, and really spreads the word of the new federal Yugoslav project.

PETER KORCHNAK: As the Partisans promoted the game and its successes and sacrifices amongst the populace, football became a revolutionary force, a weapon of resistance and war.

Yugoslavian Football in the Socialist Period

After the war, celebratory matches were held; Hajduk as a unique and decorated military unit and bastion of the revolution toured the liberated country and became a league pillar.

RICHARD MILLS: And then when Yugoslavia actually comes into existence, after the Second World War, you have a regime very keen to reinvent the game in its own image.

Ideologically unacceptable clubs are closed down. So for example, many clubs tainted with collaboration with occupying forces or puppet regimes during the Second World War are closed down. Clubs too closely associated with a narrow ethnic identity are closed as well. And they are replaced by clubs with suitable political names. So we have Proletarian, Red Star, Partisan, Sloboda [Freedom]…

And alongside those we have clubs which had existed before then, and which had been rather small teams, I guess, during the interwar years, but had been closely connected to the workers movement, to left wing politics, many of which had made a major contribution during the National Liberation Struggle in the 1940s. And so some of these clubs actually also rise to the top in socialist Yugoslavia.

I guess the most famous example is probably Velež Mostar, which becomes a major force in the Yugoslav state, which wins the coveted Marshall Tito Cup on several occasions, and really is a bastion of a certain political view, a multi ethnic political outlook on the Yugoslav state.

Fan murals in Mostar. Photos 2019.

The structure of the game, the architecture of the game is also deliberately used by the new regime to reflect the new political and territorial reality. So for example, the Yugoslav Federal League, established in the late 40s is deliberately constructed in a way that guarantees, at least in the first season, participation of teams from every one of the six federal Republics.

PETER KORCHNAK: The new regime also used the new domestic league as a tool of its foreign policy, to claim disputed territories on the border with Italy.

RICHARD MILLS: A team from the newly claimed Istria and the city of Rijeka is parachuted in at the last minute, in fact after the league has already started.

And you also have a team for three seasons, named Ponziana Trieste, from the disputed city of Triest. At the same time, as Ponziana is competing in the Yugoslavia League, you have a team Triestina competing in the Italian Seria A. So football is really being used to fight that territorial dispute and a dispute that Yugoslavia will eventually lose, and Ponziana will disappear from the Yugoslav league tables.

PETER KORCHNAK: As the country went after the split with Stalin, so did Yugoslav football.

RICHARD MILLS: You have a game, which is forced to reinvent itself very, very quickly after 1948. And this really shapes football in the Yugoslav state and pushes it in an entirely different direction to football in the rest of the Eastern Bloc.

You have a game which is forced to hold encounters with teams from the West on a much more regular basis.

A game which is pushed more and more towards open professionalism, something which is adopted in Yugoslavia in the late 1960s.

You have transfers to Western Europe taking place on a fairly regular basis.

Yugoslav clubs are in the vanguard internationally in footballing terms in terms of putting advertising on their their shirts. So for example, Radnički Kragujevac [Workers Kragujevac], where you have the Zastava car plant, is a sponsor of that city’s team and the Zastava name is pasted onto the shirt at a very early stage.

PETER KORCHNAK: In addition, football teams were turned into self-managing organizations.

And the evolution of sports media helped both to popularize sports and turn athletes into celebrities. Major periodicals sported big sports sections and there were specialty sports newspapers and magazines like Sport and Tempo out of Belgrade or Sprint and Sportske Novosti [Sports News] out of Zagreb.

Throughout the socialist period, the Yugoslav regime continued using football for its political purposes, as a tool in promoting brotherhood and unity.

“Football provided the country’s ruling…class with opportunities to interact, celebrate, and commiserate,” writes Mills. “It also stood ready to defend the revolution and the territorial integrity of the state.”

In addition to the federal leagues, there was a separate competition called the Marshal Tito Cup.

RICHARD MILLS: —a trophy supposedly donated by President Tito himself, which is fought for by clubs large and small, across the state throughout the entirety of its existence.

And I guess even the object of the trophy itself is indicative of a unified multiethnic Yugoslavia: the names of the winners are engraved onto the trophy annually. And by the end of the Yugoslav state, you have winners engraved from most of the federal republics.

PETER KORCHNAK: With league and cup games both footballers and fans acquainted themselves with different areas of the country and people there. “In this way,” writes Mills, “the First Federal League and Marshal Tito Cup played an important part in mapping the ‘imagined communities’ of the new federal polity. Along with sports journalism, these competitions helped to create the image of a unified state by bringing geographically dispersed clubs into contact on a regular basis. [S]uch an image was presented to Yugoslav citizens.”

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Let’s hear from one such former citizen of Yugoslavia.

Nadan Hadžić was born in Sarajevo in 1992 just before the siege and shortly after his family fled the siege and moved to London. He worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and has been involved in a personal capacity in various research and other projects dealing with the wars of Yugoslav dissolution.

NADAN HADŽIĆ: Ultimately, I think it’s really important not to forget where you’re from.

PETER KORCHNAK: Part of that remembering, or at least not forgetting, for Hadžić is football.

NADAN HADŽIĆ: Like many kids, I would describe myself as—from ever since I can remember really—being a little bit of a football obsessive. I was a huge football fan growing up. And, I suppose where, where my interest in this particular topic maybe stems from as you know, I feel quite a strong sense of attachment to my Bosnian heritage, to my Bosnian identity. So I was following and supporting that the Bosnian national football team. As a supporter of the Bosnian national team, there were probably more lows than highs ever since 1992, since independence (the national team has only ever qualified for one major tournament in 2014 in Brazil at the World Cup).

As anyone who’s experienced some form of sports fandom may be able to, kind of resonate with— you are sometimes guided by and driven by these quite visceral responses, quite irrational logic and my kind of manifestation of that was watching the Bosnian national team and looking at the players that played for some of the neighboring former Yugoslav republics, and seeing players like Luka Modrić, Jan Oblak, Dušan Vlahović, I mean, I could go on and just kind fantasizing about how house good and how strong that team would be now if the country hadn’t fallen apart.

And I think football is a way of uniting people and sports more generally is a way of uniting people. So yeah, I would sometimes just wonder kind of what what might have been.

PETER KORCHNAK: Hadžić also got involved in the production of a documentary about the last Yugoslav national team. That film is yet to be completed.

NADAN HADŽIĆ: I follow football, religiously. I do, probably, maybe a bit too much. I think maybe, sometimes wonder do I need so much football in my life.

There’s a great quote from a legendary Italian coach called Arrigo Sacchi. And he said, “football is the most important of the least important things in life.”

I do genuinely have an interest in what happens in sports alongside just the actual action itself. And some of these political and social manifestations of things that can sometimes kind of play out through the kind of medium of sport.

I have a few Yugoslav national team tops. And in fact, I recently got a jersey from dejoslavia who I know you’ve had for your show. So he got one of these his tracksuits. I love the design for a start, but I guess it’s also the the association with what that team meant. And, it’s quite a special bit of memorabilia.

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PETER KORCHNAK: On Sunday, May 4th, 1980, Crvena Zvezda Beograd was visiting Hajduk Split for a regular league match at the new Poljud Stadium before a crowd of 50,000. In the 41st minute the match was interrupted with an announcement of Tito’s death.

NADAN HADŽIĆ: The players unite in this act of unison, and many of them are crying and they break into this— the whole stadium essentially breaks into this spontaneous chant, dedicated to Tito.

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You have players from big rival teams huddled together. It did sort of show that sort of unity. And then we all know what happened after Tito’s death, so I think it feels like a very significant moment in this whole story.

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PETER KORCHNAK: The derby, as well as two other league matches that got interrupted on May 4th, was replayed later. The eventual champion Crvena Zvezda won 3:1. The derby was then to be repeated every 4th of May.

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On the flipside, Yugoslav football was beset by issues, too. Professionalism and advertising helped turn football into more of a product and footballers into celebrities. With money came problems.

RICHARD MILLS: The game at the highest level had been tied up in all manner of political scandals, match fixing scandals, and various rather dark affairs throughout the 70s and then particularly into the 1980s.

PETER KORCHNAK: The set up of the football associations system mirrored the country’s federal structure. Infighting within the federal association and amongst republican ones was rampant. “The First League’s structure, with representative clubs from most parts of the country, was perfectly suited for the evolution of pre-existing club rivalries into fierce divisions along national lines,” writes Mills.

The same went for fans.

RICHARD MILLS: We really must look at this game as a double edged sword. From the earliest days, there is tension, ethnic tension, political tension in stadiums across the country. The first time that Red Star Belgrade, the biggest club from Serbia play Dinamo Zagreb, one of the most famous clubs from Croatia, there is unrest and chauvinistic chanting on the terraces. That’s as early as 1946.

But really every time that you have some kind of political instability in Yugoslavia, that is reflected and often exacerbated by events in the stadiums. Just to take a couple of examples: during the Croatian spring in 1970, this movement which becomes a cultural and political movement for greater autonomy in Croatia, you have an incident taking place in Split when a team from Serbia, OFK Belgrade, play against Hajduk. And in the aftermath of that, cars with Belgrade number plates are pushed off the riva into the sea. Newspaper kiosks are damaged and destroyed, and Hajduk fans start to chant, “We will withdraw from the league.” So very definitely a political manifestation in the context of football.

PETER KORCHNAK: Hajduk went on to win the 1971 championship, turning the Croatian Spring in football into Hajduk Spring.

RICHARD MILLS: Similar things happen with the Kosovo unrest in 1981. But then it’s really in the late 80s and early 90s, where, domestically at least, it becomes almost impossible for a match between teams from different republics to pass without some kind of incident.

PETER KORCHNAK: While some teams became associated with ethnonational groups, there were quite a few, including Velež Mostar, where the pro-Yugoslav identity orientation prevailed.

RICHARD MILLS: What you have actually within most clubs is this tension between, on the one hand multiethnic pro-Yugoslav identity, and on the other hand, a club as being representative of a narrower or several narrower identities.

And I guess a club like Hajduk Split is a perfect example of that, where you have a club which has played such a major role in the revolution of the 1940s, which had its red-and-white šahovnica, checked Croatian badge replaced with the red five-pointed star of socialism, and which has fans across the country and really sees itself as, in one sense, an outward manifestation of Yugoslav sporting identity, is also a representative of a region in Dalmatia, it’s representative of the city of Hajduk. And these different identities, at various points can be held alongside one another.

It’s not necessarily a contradiction for long periods in socialists Yugoslavia, to be a proud Dalmatian, a proud Croat, a proud Yugoslav all at the same time. Even in the post-Yugoslav period, now Hajduk is a symbol of the city, it’s a symbol of Dalmatia, especially in distinction to the capital, Zagreb and the north of Croatia. So those competing identities can can be present in in a single club.

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RICHARD MILLS: It is perhaps one of the great ironies of socialist Yugoslavia that it’s remembered by many people for its highly talented footballers and its clubs and also for its national team. But that national team never really won major silverware.

They reached the semifinals of the World Cup in 1962. There is the quarterfinals a couple of times in the 50s and then again in 1990. Had some success in the Olympics, but at a time when the Olympic football had already been devalued to a significant degree.

PETER KORCHNAK: Most successes of Yugoslav football on the international scene came in the early years and indeed at the Olympics. At the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, Yugoslavia got silver, losing to Sweden in the final.

RICHAD MILLS: Perhaps the high point in sporting terms for Tito’s regime comes in 1952 when the Yugoslav national football team participating at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, confronts and defeats the Soviet Union, something which resonates in Yugoslavia, and is seen by the regime as a justification for its separate path, as a means of fighting the Soviet Union in a certain way (also 1952 was the first time that the Soviets participate at the Olympics so it’s a really symbolic occasion).

That is very much a multiethnic Yugoslav team that you have in ‘52. So the striking partnership of the Serb Rajko Mitić and the Croat Stjepan Bobak perhaps embody that multiethnicity most strikingly in that period.

PETER KORCHNAK: Yugoslavia won its second Olympic silver in Helsinki, losing to Hungary and then another in 1956 in Australia where the Soviet Union won its first Olympic gold. Yugoslavia then won gold at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Italy. And finally in 1984, Yugoslavia got bronze in Los Angeles.

Socialist Yugoslavia’s highest placement in the all important World Cup came at number 4, in 1960. And the plavi won silver at the 1960 and 1968 European Championships.

PETER KORCHNAK: The story of Yugoslavia’s national team continues in the extended, overtime episode, with both Mills and Hadžić discussing the team’s successes and failures and whatifs. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate to freekick your way to Overtime.

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Role of Yugoslav Football in the Country’s Dissolution

PETER KORCHNAK: If football played a role in the creation and maintenance of Yugoslavia, it played perhaps an even bigger one in its dissolution.

After Tito’s death and increasingly throughout the 1980s, nationalism took over the pitches and terraces.

RICHARD MILLS: The Federal League, and the Marshall Tito Cup to some extent, were both on the one hand demonstrations of Yugoslav unity. But on the other hand, they did enable certain matches to be seen as confrontations on an ethnic basis.

Throughout much of Yugoslavia existence, the rivalry between the so called Big Four, Red Star and Partizan Belgrade, Dinamo Zagreb, Hajduk Split, were highly charged affairs, increasingly came to be seen as Serb v. Croat affairs as well.

Clubs from Belgrade, Partisan and Red Star, in fact, enjoyed support across the former Yugoslavia. They had Bosnian supporters in considerable numbers, Albanian supporters from Kosovo in considerable numbers as well. But in the late 80s and particularly in the early 1990s, the ultra scene made such multiethnic support bases much more difficult in many cases. You have this, this emergence of a particular type of football supporting, which is, to some extent imported from elsewhere in Europe, in particular borrowing things from Britain, but also from Italy and elsewhere,where you have militant groups of young football supporters, using everything possible to support their own team, but also to belittle other teams and to insult other clubs, other cities, other supporters.

And so rather rapidly, teams that admittedly have always been associated with certain cities or regions, like Red Star Belgrade, become outward bastions of a Serbian national identity for many of their supporters. And so when when you start to hear pro-Serbian, and in some cases Islamophobic chants in the stadium of Red Star, it becomes very difficult for supporters that don’t identify as being Serbs or that don’t identify with Orthodox Christianity to remain associated with those teams.

And so this is a process which unfolds across the former Yugoslavia, which happens earlier in some places and later and others. So in Bosnia, for example, well into 1991 and even 1992 you can still read in the sports press, about multiethnic supporters groups, following proudly multiethnic clubs and and playing down ethnic divisions. But of course, with the wars of the 1990s that becomes a much harder stance to take. And in reality, the vast majority of clubs in Bosnia as well now have more or less narrow ethnic support debaters even though they they admirably I’m talk about not wanting to be seen in that way and being open to all.

PETER KORCHNAK: “By the end of the [1980s], nationalism was rampant in stadiums,” writes Mills. “Large vocal groups of supporters were a potentially valuable resource for organised politics. [M]any supporters saw the dividing lines between certain clubs as hard ethnic borders, resulting in a homogenisation of fan bases.

RICHARD MILLS: And in a climate in Yugoslavia, where you have an economy on its knees, where the various international lenders are demanding their money back, where communism seems to have run out of ideas, it becomes very attractive for football supporters and for large sections of the population to turn to nationalist ideas as an alternative. And this is something which is clearly exploited in the political sphere.

PETER KORCHNAK: “The emergence of large autonomous groups in Yugoslav stadiums changed the nature of football rivalries,” writes Mills. “As youths grappled with the economic crisis and rising unemployment, their frustrations found an outlet on the terraces. Matches were ‘an optimal opportunity for the expression of deep political animosities’, as some supporters viewed opponents not as sporting rivals, but as members of enemy national and political groups.”

RICHARD MILLS: So what you have in football is perhaps an arena where these new ideas can be tested out, where things that perhaps even aren’t acceptable at one point or another in the media, or in broader discourse, are tried out on the terraces. So we start to see chants in favor of particular political figures, against other figures. We start to see the rhetoric around the Second World War, around the Ustashe in Croatia, the Chetniks in Serbia, starting to be resurrected on the terraces.

The Maksimir Riot

PETER KORCHNAK: Things came to a head on May 13th 1990, at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb.

RICHARD MILLS: Once Milošević comes to power in the late 80s, everything accelerates. When we have the first democratic elections in Croatia in the spring of 1990, we have this match which takes place just a couple of weeks after Franjo Tudjman and his nationalist Croatian Democratic Union is elected to office. Milošević has already been in power in Serbia for some years by that point.

In that environment, we have this end-of-season clash between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade, so the biggest, most widely supported clubs in Croatia and Serbia, respectively. And it really becomes an afternoon of fear and afternoon where the media turns to deteriorating relations, particularly between these two nations of Yugoslavia.

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PETER KORCHNAK: Red Star and Dinamo fan groups had been clashing all day throughout the city. At the stadium, the Red Star fans, the Delije, who may or may not have been provoked by Dinamo’s Bad Blue Boys, first started destroying some advertisement hoardings before the two groups attacked each other, using ripped out seats as weapons. The Bad Blue Boys invaded the pitch in order to reach the Delije terrace, in the process overwhelming the police trying to stop them. This occurred just as the two teams were already on the pitch, getting ready to play. Red Star team fled into their locker room. It took another hour for the police, reinforced with water cannons, to subdue the riot.

RICHARD MILLS: This is taking place against the backdrop of a darkening political discourse between a Croatian nationalist party now in office and the sizable Croatian Serb minority in the Republic of Croatia, which is looking increasingly to support from Belgrade. And we see a day of rioting, a day of chauvinist chanting. A couple of hundred people are injured. Some people receive stabbing wounds, or even gunshot wounds. Seventeen trams are destroyed that night and the match itself has never played.

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And perhaps the most striking moment in the Maksimir Riots when the captain of Dinamo Zagreb reacts against a member of the Yugoslav police with this kind of iconic karate kick, which in subsequent years really feeds the myth that this was the first battle of the Yugoslav War. A myth which by now, it doesn’t really matter where that where the reality is, this legend has gained legs of its own due to Boban’s actions.

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PETER KORCHNAK: Zvonimir Boban, who is from that bastion of Croatian nationalism that is Imotski, in Herzegovina, and who was 22 at the time, kind of high jumped and kicked a Yugoslav policeman, Refik Ahmetović, a Bosniak from Tuzla.

According to one story, Boban did that after seeing the cop mistreating a fan, another story has Boban retaliate against the police for manhandling him.

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Either way, the kick really doesn’t look as cool as it’s made out to be. And after the kick, Boban ran away from swarming policemen.

Later that year Boban said he’d gladly represent both Yugoslavia and Croatia and that as long as there is a national selection, he’d be happy to participate. More recently, Boban has been presenting his actions as, among other things, an expression of a desire for freedom from the regime and against injustice taking place at the stadium.

The legend of Maksimir also grew—

RICHARD MILLS: —due to the fact that a figure called Željko Ražnatović, nicknamed Arkan, who was a wanted fugitive in various countries by this point, has stepped in to guide the Red Star supporters group, the Delije, or Heroes, by this stage, or at least within months of the Maksimir Riot taking place, and will eventually use the group as a nucleus around which to form the Serbian Volunteer Guards, which becomes a notorious paramilitary organization in the war in Croatia and in Bosnia.

PETER KORCHNAK: Željko Ražnatović Arkan was a convicted felon and former hitman for the Yugoslav Secret Service, UDBA. At some point he became the leader of the Delije, whose hooligan elements he later transformed into the paramilitary unit nicknamed Tigers. Arkan’s Tigers conducted a campaign of rampage, rape, and murder across eastern Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina during the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution.

RICHARD MILLS: Now lots of these things happen months and months after the Maksimir Riot. There’s another full season of the Yugoslav Football League after the riot takes place, and Red Star and Dinamo play each other again on a fairly regular basis. Zvonimir Boban, initially banned from the Yugoslav national team for his actions on the day, goes on to play for Yugoslavia again.

PETER KORCHNAK: After he served his ban, Boban represented Yugoslavia in four additional matches, with the last one being the 1992 Euro qualifier against the Faroe Islands in Belgrade (a year and three days after the Maksimir events) where he scored his only goal for Yugoslavia.

RICHARD MILLS: So it really is a myth to a significant degree, but it’s nonetheless, a myth where journalists on the day, being broadcast live across the whole of Yugoslavia, are talking about a battle being poor being fought, about being war reporters, about the first violence between Serbs and Croats since the Second World War.

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PETER KORCHNAK: The war in Croatia didn’t start until March 1991, ten months after Maksimir. But anniversaries of the riot prompt a flood of mass and social media posts sensationally describing the events as quote, “the match that started the war.”

NADAN HADŽIĆ: It’s a really interesting moment because it again, it shows how sports really are a reflection of society.

We often hear the sporting authorities come out and say sports should have nothing to do with politics, you know, sport are a place of political neutrality and no kind of messages and slogans should be should be manifested through sporting events. But to pretend that sports can happen within this sort of vacuum and can’t at all be impacted by what’s going on society—I don’t agree with that idea, I think it’s it’s delusional to think that.

So what you saw in the Maksimir riots it’s a time where, you know, tensions are really quite fraught. It does really reflect the wider feeling within the country at the time. To say that Boban’s kick or that that was the day that the war started, I think is quite, overblown, And that’s a bit of a sensationalist take on it.

PETER KORCHNAK: Last year I stayed in the Maksimir neighborhood for a few months, blocks away from the stadium. On the corner of Maksimirska and Svetica streets, a ball’s throw from the stadium, stands the sculpture Disc Thrower, nicknamed Pimpek, made in 1957 by Vanja Radauš. At some point, someone spraypainted Pimpek’s testicles with Dinamo’s color, blue.

Anyway, the riot indeed became a sort of a national myth in Croatia. A memorial plaque outside the Maksimir Stadium honors the fans, quote, “for whom the war started on May 13, 1990, and ended with them laying down their lives on the altar of the Croatian homeland.”

Mills again: “Maksimir…stands as a prominent identity-forming incident for the groups involved, solidifying their national identities and underpinning claims to significant roles in the national struggles of Croatia and Serbia respectively. More importantly though, Maksimir has come to be viewed by many as either part of the founding myth of modern Croatia or as one of the key events which resulted in the destruction of Croatia’s Serbian community. (…) It is an example where a sporting myth contributes to ‘negotiations of grand political and national histories.

The End of Yugoslav Football

Two later matches also became highly symbolic.

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At a friendly against the Netherlands on June 3rd, 1990 also at the Maksimir Stadium, the spectators jeered the Yugoslav anthem, prompting the TV commentator to describe these acts as uncomfortable, ugly and, somewhat delusionally, committed by a minority.

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NADAN HADŽIĆ: And you have this amazing TV footage of Faruk Hadžibegić one of the key players at the time. And as he’s preparing for the team photo, he says, “Tonight, it’s us against 20,000, come on, let’s go.” And I think that’s a really interesting, symbolic moment. For me, perhaps an even more significant moment than the Maksimir riots a few weeks before in Zagreb.

Ivica Osim—

PETER KORCHNAK: —the coach, who presented himself as a Yugoslav and a firm believer in Yugoslavia—

NADAN HADŽIĆ: —goes to sort of sarcastically applaud the fans. And Ivica Osim’s biographer actually says describes that moment as being where, you know, it was clear that Osim was taking Yugoslavia to the World Cup as orphans without a country. And several players in the intervening years have come out to say that was the moment where people kind of really realized that, this is all heading in a bad direction.

PETER KORCHNAK: Another symbolically significant incident took place in September 1990 at the Poljud Stadium, during the match between the hosting Hajduk Split and visiting Partizan Belgrade.

RICHARD MILLS: By that point, we’ve already had serious unrest in Croatia, involving Croatian Serbs and the Croatian security forces. And what we see on that occasion, are the fans of Hajduk Split, the Torcida, moving on to the pitch, interrupting the game, and going to the far end of the stadium opposite where they’re based on the terrace and pulling down the Yugoslav flag and symbolically setting fire to it.

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RICHARD MILLS: This, in my opinion, at least, is a much more explicit use of football to challenge the existence of a multiethnic socialist Yugoslavia. It’s being done by the fans of a club which did so much to bring that state into existence. And the burning of the tricolor at Hajduk is really a bookend, if you like, against which to view the famous match in 1944 in Bari where the Yugoslav tricolor is flying for the first time at a Hajduk match.

And in the context of that 1990 game, the Hajduk fans again chant that they want a Croatian league, that they want to leave Yugoslavia and the wheels really start to come off in footballing terms in that winter of 1990. We’re already starting to see some lower league clubs withdraw from leagues because it’s too dangerous for them to continue to travel, for example. So that’s really a key moment in my opinion.

PETER KORCHNAK: Slobodna Dalmacija commented on the match as quote, “the day Yugoslavia died.”

Croats did get their wish, in the fall of 1990, again at Maksimir.

NADAN HADŽIĆ: A number of politicians saw how they could use the sports as a way of kind of gaining some, you know, getting some political gain. So I think a good example of that is for Franjo Tudjman. He’d actually been the president of Partizan Belgrade in the 1950s. But then he’s elected as the president of Croatia in 1990 in the first multiparty elections.

Then under Tudjman’s initiative, they arrange a friendly against the USA in October of 1990. So this is a few months before Croatia gains independence. And really, it’s a way of, for them to show the world that Croatia is this democratic country, they’re playing against, you know, the leaders of the free world. It’s not recognized by FIFA. The football itself is a bit of an afterthought. It’s a national event, more than a sporting event.

Fundamentally, what it comes down to is that a politician can look at football terrace of 40,000 fans, and they can think to themselves, that’s 40,000 potential votes. So that’s a phenomenon that’s not unique to Yugoslavia; politicians of all stripes, but particularly populist politicians often use sports for their political gain, I think almost nowhere else in the world has it ever been seen so, so vividly as it was in the former Yugoslavia.

PETER KORCHNAK: Yugoslavia’s last appearance at the World Cup was in Italy in 1990. After the national team arrived in Italy, captain Zlatko Vujović, a Croat and a former Hajduk player, told the press, “We came to play for our Yugoslavia.” Plavi made it to the quarterfinals where they lost to Argentina on penalty kicks.

Yugoslavia played its final international match in Amsterdam, on March 25th 1992, losing to the hosts 2:0.

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PETER KORCHNAK: Crvena Zvezda Beograd [Red Star Belgrade] won 19 Yugoslav titles and 12 Marshal Tito Cups; Partizan Beograd 11 titles and 6 cups; Hajduk Split 7 titles and 9 cups; Dinamo Zagreb 4 titles and 7 cups; FK Vojvodina and FK Sarajevo two titles apiece, and Željezničar Sarajevo one title. OFK Belgrade won 4 Tito cups, Velež Mostar and HNK Rijeka 2 cups each, and Borac Banja Luka and FK Vardar one cup apiece.

Red Star also won the European-wide championship and the Intercontinental Cup in 1991.

Whereas quote unquote Serbian football dominated the Yugoslav era, Croatia has been the better side since independence, with 1 World Cup silver and two bronzes.

If you ever get lost in the former Yugoslavia and don’t know what city you’re in—hey, it happens to the best of us—look for football fan murals. Split is littered with Hajduk and Torcida murals; spotting them makes for a fun road trip game as the surrounding areas naturally support the team as well. Crvena Zvezda’s Delije and Partisan’s Grobari [Gravediggers] wage graffiti and mural battles all over Belgrade; in Sarajevo it’s the Željezničar’s Manjaci [Maniacs] versus FK’s Horde zla [Evil Hordes]. Velež Mostar’s Rodjeni [The Born] and Budučnost Podgorica’s Varvari [Barbarians] support their clubs under a red five-pointed star prominent in their team’s symbols.

Budučnost Podgorica fan mural. Photo 2019.

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Hadžić’s local team is Crystal Palace London. In Bosnia whose league he does follow, through his family’s leanings he sorta kinda supports FK Sarajevo, one of that city’s major teams. It’s Sarajevo’s other team, Željezničar [Railway Worker], that has a good story.

NADAN HADŽIĆ: Their home stadium is Grbavica stadium. Grbavica was located on the very front line during the siege of Sarajevo and very early on in the war it was completely burnt down. And, you know, the stands were completely obliterated, a lot of the club’s documentation, trophies, memorabilia, a lot of that just, you know, was lost forever.

And now before every home game, the Željo, Željezničar, play and the fans sing the song which is really a tribute to Grbavica. It’s a really highly emotional and really quite beautiful song about the kind of the hope of returning to Grbavica.

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PETER KORCHNAK: That was Mladen Vojičić Tifa, erstwhile singer for Bjelo Dugme, singing his 1997 song “Grbavica” for and with the fans, the Maniacs, before a home game against Borac Banja Luka in April 2010. The song describes the ruined stadium and what it means to Tifa. By the way, the stadium’s address is at 27 Ivica Osim Boulevard. “And then I gaze at the stadium / and I behold your pride / I’ll lay down my life, but never give up on you / For my life is you,” Tifa sings.

NADAN HADŽIĆ: It’s quite moving to to see that. There’s a sort of collective history there and they’re not forgetting that the club when it was really at its, its its worst, its darkest hours. I think that’s a good example of you know just how important that that kind of legacy is.

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PETER KORCHNAK: As for the future:

NADAN HADŽIĆ: Funnily enough, actually, the Bosnian national team is playing against England in June for the first time ever since independence. So I’ve got tickets to go to that up in Newcastle. So I will be there in my Bosnian football kit football jersey and so, sorry to any English fans, English friends who might be listening to the podcast, but I will I will certainly be rooting for Bosnia that day, even though it’s a friendly.

PETER KORCHNAK: In Overtime aka the extended episode available exclusively to hardcore fans, Mills offers some thoughts on Yugoslavia’s domination in team sports as well as comparisons between football and basketball, the subject of our next episode. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and score your way there, into Overtime.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]

PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: I predicted outcome of the game and and much to the shock of almost everyone that read it is I actually predicted that Yugoslavia would have prevailed in that game.

Our sports coverage will continue with basketball. Why was Yugoslavia so much more successful internationally in basketball rather than the most popular sport? We’ll answer this and other questions with a sports reporter and a superfan.

Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.

[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening—and playing. Find additional information, sources, embeds, links, and the transcript of this episode at Yugoblok.com.

All guests’ opinions expressed are solely their own; unless otherwise noted they do not express, reflect, or represent the views or opinions of any third party, including myself.

Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić.

The track “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons.

I am Peter Korchňak.

Whistle!

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Additional Sources

  • Sobota, Sebastian. Raspad Jugoslavije kroz sportske dogadjaje 1987. – 1991. Diplomski rad. Filozofski fakultet, Sveučilište u Zagrebu: Zagreb, 2017

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