Anyone who has had the pleasure of savouring ćevapi adorned with ajvar knows that good things come out of the Balkans. But for some time, a problem has been threatening the favourite sport of the southeastern European nations.
Soccer has always been plagued by organized fan violence, but it is in former Yugoslav nations like Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Albania that a bevy of right-wing nationalistic hooligans have been wreaking havoc.
If you’re any of the aforementioned nationalities, you’ll know about the 1990 riot that occurred at Zagreb’s Stadion Maksimir between not just the players of Dinamo Zagreb and Crvena Zvezda, but the thousands of Croatian and Serbian supporters there. Tensions had been rising to a boiling point, with Croatia electing a president favouring independence from the Yugoslavian communist state and the riot — which saw Dinamo’s Zvonomir Boban rise to the defence of a fan and kick a police officer in the chest — marked the turning point that saw Yugoslavia enter into a brutal war.
Being Croatian and a Dinamo Zagreb supporter myself, I’ve heard laudatory talk of Boban’s kick at family gatherings after everyone’s had a few shots of rakija. I never thought anything of it until recently when I’ve begun to grow increasingly disgusted with such nationalism. As I’m sure other Serbians, Bosnians, and Albanians raised in Canada by diaspora parents can attest to, they’ve been conditioned by their family to, if not hate, then dislike their former neighbour.
What happened at the match last week was avoidable and shouldn’t have happened. I had grimaced upon hearing that the two had been drawn in the same group, but having seen the Croatia-Serbia World Cup qualification matches go off without a hitch — with the exception of Josip Šimunić’s cynical clattering of Sulejmani — I was optimistic about the chances of these two nations sharing the same luck. UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, took no chances and allowed no away fans into the match held in Belgdrade. But all that did was create an even more toxic atmosphere in which flares were numerous and laser pointers where shone at Albanian players.
Near the end of the first half, a drone was flown over the field with a flag bearing the Greater Albania insignia. When it dipped towards the players, Serbia’s Stefan Mitrovic pulled down the flag, eager to restart play. He was subsequently rushed by several Albanian players who objected to his actions. From there, both benches erupted, and dozens of hardcore fans took to the field to throw chairs at the Albanian players and get punches in where they could.
One of the fans present on the field was Ivan Bogdanov, a Serbian member of Crvena Zvezda’s hooligan firm, the Deljie. Bogdanov is notorious for leading a massive riot in Serbia’s Euro qualification match against Italy in Genoa, and the question remains as to how such a volatile figure was allowed into the stadium let alone onto the pitch.
While the hooligans and even some of the stadium stewards were assaulting the Albanian players, most of the Serbian players gathered round the Albanians to shield them from the violence, and others like Serbian fullback Aleksander Kolarov voiced their displeasure directly to the fans who were infiltrating the field.
Despite how admirable the Serbian team’s reaction was, it should not have been needed. Allegations against Olif Rama, the Albanian prime minister’s brother, have surfaced, claiming that he controlled the drone. While nothing concrete has been established, whoever flew the drone should be ashamed of themselves. There is a place for political statements, and a soccer pitch is not one of them. The act was a rash one that endangered both sets of players and will ultimately lead to heavy fines being levied against both federations.
It is time for the Balkans to look inwards instead of finger-pointing any longer. While each nation romanticizes their past, all of their histories have been built on a dangerous brand of nationalism that is no longer needed and should be stifled at whatever cost. Although there was a heavy police presence at the match, the hooligans were able to take the field all too easily, which raises questions of corruption that may answer how Bogdanov got into the stadium.
My reaction toward the riot was similar to the one that Serbian midfielder Nemanja Matić had as he lingered on the field after both teams had disappeared down the tunnel — one of disbelief and disappointment at what had just happened. Ethnic tensions will probably always be there, but it’s the responsibility of the more levelheaded members of each Balkan country to take the moral high road and attempt to separate soccer from state feuds.