When soccer divides people
11 September 2008

The problem is that soccer often alleviates the chronic evils of countries. It annuls ethnic divisions, or if there are none, it thwarts the rifts caused by politics. Examples? There are hundreds. The most recent one involves Spain winning the European Championship. This victory achieved by the red furies united the many “Spains” in the country, the multiple microcosms demanding autonomy and asking Madrid – some more loudly (Basque countries and Catalonia), some more quietly (Galicia, Canaries and Andalusia) to readjust relations between the centre and the peripheral areas. The victory at Euro 2008, also achieved thanks to the amazing performance by Catalan Xavi, voted the best player in the Championship, did at least for a while put aside the usual controversies between the comunidades and the government. And the many ‘Spains’ became one.

Soccer also momentarily set aside the conflict between the country’s two souls, spreading widespread patriotic feelings, also in Turkey, which in July and August was experiencing a very delicate political moment, with the republicans ready to outlaw the moderate-Islamic AKP currently governing the country. “At last we will make it to Vienna”. This was what the press in this Anatolian country, whether right or left-wing, republican or Islamic, often wrote during the European Championships, relying on the fact that soccer would succeed where the sultans had failed and they would take the Austrian capital. Fatih Terim’s team did not succeed, but it came close. And for a few days the Turks simply felt Turkish and nothing more, not “secular Turks” or “Islamic Turks”. There are other stories and anecdotes, for instance Germany, where the “Ossis” and the “Wessis”, who due to complex reunification, the remnants of the past, the Wall and all the rest, at times violently oppose each other, were reunited around the national soccer team to the extent that at the 2006 World Championships and at the recent European event, the Captain was Michael Ballack, born and bred in Eastern Germany.

The Bosnian case

The same script applies to all European countries and to those in the rest of the world. It applies to Belgium, which during the Eighties had a team that was the craze in Europe and all over the world, and seemed to be a proud nation. Unlike today when it appear to be on the point of imploding because of the divisions between the Flemish and the Walloons. Or the Ivory Coast, shaken by a devastating civil war, but always ready to be reconciled when supporting the national soccer team, captained by Chelsea forward striker Didier Drogba. As previously mentioned this script applies to all the countries in the world. All except Bosnia. In this Balkan country, devastated by the 1992-1995 war and still divided along the front’s old lines, soccer causes even greater divisions. The Serbs, barricaded in the Srpska Republic – one of the two federal regions – support the Serbia team. They feel Serbian, not Bosnian. And they consider Belgrade, and not Muslim Sarajevo, scornfully renamed “Europe’s Teheran”, their real capital.

It is sufficient to quote a statement made a couple of weeks ago to the weekly newspaper Dani by the Serb-Bosnian Prime Minister Milorad Dodik to understand how the Serbs in Bosnia feel about soccer. “Unfortunately I cannot bring myself to support the Bosnia-Herzegovina soccer team, except when it plays against Turkey” said Dodik. Why Turkey? It is a legacy issue. The fact is that in the conscience of the Serb nation, the century-old battle against the Ottoman Empire that enslaved Serbia for five centuries is so deeply-rooted that Turkey, even now that it is no longer the beating heart of the sultans’ old empire, is often seen from a retroactive and anachronistic perspective.

On the banks of the Neretva

Turkey, that’s right. The Serbs are not the only ones who hate the crescent moon country. At the recent European Championships, for the quarterfinals between Croatia and Turkey, played in Mostar, “the Berlin of Herzegovina”, one thousand police officers in anti-riot gear were deployed to avoid possible clashes between the Croatians supporting Modric, Corluka, Olic, Klasnic, Niko and Robert Kovac’s team, and the Muslims supporting Turkey. Precautions turned out to be a waste of time; there was a huge punch up and about forty uncontrollable hooligans ended up in jail. Both barricaded in their respective districts – the Croatians to the West and the Muslims to the East – Mostar’s two ethnic groups coexist with difficulty in this city marked by the war. During the early stages of the conflict, when the Serbs laid siege to Mostar, Croatians and Muslims joined forces. Once the Serbs were defeated the Croatians suddenly attacked the Muslims and expelled them from the western part of the city obliging them to move to the east.

Over ten years after the war ended, the two banks of the Neretva, the emerald green river that runs through the town of Mostar, are two totally separate words and their reciprocal grudges are far more significant than simple intolerance and few have found the courage to return to live in the homes they occupied on the other side of the river before the war. Soccer faithfully mirrors the situation in Mostar, southern capital of the Muslim-Croatian Federation (the other part of Bosnia-Herzegovina). And now and again there is a clash, has happened for the Croatia-Turkey match and also two years ago, at the end of a match between Croatia and Brazil, played during the German World Championships and won by the Brazilians. The Croatians from Mostar vented their rage over this defeat by attacking the eastern part of the city. The Muslims, supporting Brazil to oppose Croatia, reacted, and due to the slow reaction of police forces there were furious clashes that left twenty wounded on the ground.  But this is not all. Every year the atmosphere becomes very tense when the derby is played between Zrinjski and Velez, the city’s Croatian and Muslim teams. The Croatian supporters exalt General Ante Gotovina, accused of war crimes by the UN Tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia, praise the Croatian nation and tease the Muslims. The Muslims rediscover the myths of Titoism and use extremely tough slogans against their hated ‘cousins’.

One could say that all this is normal when there is a derby involved. But as far as Bosnia is concerned this only applies to a certain extent. Real Madrid and Barcelona supporters may insult one another during a Spanish derby, but when the national team plays, with only a few exceptions among the Barcelona supporters, they all support the red furies. Bruges supporters (a Flemish team) and those of Standard Liege (Walloon) insult one another loudly, but then they join forces to support Belgium. Nothing different could possibly happen, also because the Flemish, similar in language and culture to the Dutch, detest them and consider them “feminine”.

The end of Yugoslavia

The list of the disunions that become unions is a long one. But Bosnia is not part of it. The Serbs support the national team only when it plays against Turkey (although this is not entirely true, seeing that in the qualifying rounds for Euro 2008, when Bosnia beat Turkey 3-2, Dodik did not say a word). Zrinjski supporters cheer for Croatia, Velez supporters cheer for Bosnia-Herzegovina. The fact remains that Bosnia is supported only by the Muslims, the country’s ethnic majority and who, to a certain extent, feel that they are considered the “betrayal” of the Serbs and the Croatians (inclined to support other national teams), and the only legitimate supporters of their country’s team. This however is a team in which Serbs, Croatians and Muslims all play together. It seems that no one remembers this. In Bosnia and in the Balkans, soccer is part of the curtain that fifteen years after the disintegration of Yugoslavia divides the countries in this region. It is no coincidence that many remember the famous match played in 1990 between Dynamo Zagreb and Red Star, during which a violent fight took place between supporters (with a young Zvonimir Boban quick to beat up a Yugoslav police officer), as the event that preceded the death in 1991 of the homeland of the Slavs of the South.

Translation by Francesca Simmons