Football is about passion, about emotions. Every single one of us has been part of that moment where an entire nation holds its breath, when social life stops for ninety minutes so everyone can be witness to that one thing we all understand.
The sport is basically a common language understood by all. Some may say it’s just a game, I say football is about heroes and tribes, loyalty and devotion. To some people, football has become faith, a complete religion. They become ecstatic when they feel the fever of the crowd, and hear the roar of the faithful in the stands.
Now as Illya McLellan stated in his article “Football and War: The Warlike Origins Of The Game,” and I quote:
“Football is a funny old game and there are always moments when you see how it is very similar to the warfare of the old world. Or even the warfare of the new world. For when has earth really ever been at peace? Never.
Football truly is the continuation of an ancient theme. That of war and the commitment of some to be better than others.
We need to fight to stay alive and feel the blood pump through our veins and feel the joy of absolute victory and despair of resounding defeat. Emotion is what defines humanity. So next time you see that team stride out onto the field, remember those who have gone before them, for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
In some cases, events that take place on the football pitch actually sparked a war, taking the theme of Illya’s article a step further. One of these exceptional yet tragic wars was the Croatian War of Independence.
As most Croats will probably tell you, their war against Serbia did not start in 1991, but almost a year prior. May 13th 1990 is the date that is engraved in the collective conscious of the Croatian people.
Football was the catalyst for ethnic tensions that resulted in a full-blown war, as Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade came to Croatia to play Dinamo Zagreb. As most of you know, both countries were part of Yugoslavia at the time, but the Croats were striving for independence.
The Dinamo Zagreb ultras, the “Bad Blue Boys”, made a political statement this day as they stood up against the Serb-controlled police and their foes, the Red Star Belgrade followers. This went beyond football hooliganism, this was a full-blown ethnic and nationalistic war.
At this point, I’d like to inform you about the origins of Balkan hooliganism. Football was a base for people to rebel against communism in Yugoslavia. Most supporters were very nationalist.
At the end of the 1970’s, one of the larger fan-bases in Belgrade, the “Delije”, took the choreography from Italian football and the hooliganism from England and mixed it together to create their own style of football anti-communism.
Hooliganism became a way of showing off their freedom; of resisting the communist regime.
The Delije became a violent bunch, which you deduce simply by looking at their name. Delije is plural of the singular form delija, which is originally a Turkish word that entered the Serbian language during the Ottoman occupation of Serbia.
Nowadays the term generally means brave, strong, or even handsome young man in the modern Serbian language, but in the 19th century it was a colloquial name for a janisary—a member of the elite warrior caste of the Ottoman army, whose ranks were often filled with young men who had been abducted, in their early youth, from their Christian families, converted to Islam and raised as soldiers.
Back to my story…
On this fateful Sunday, league leaders Red Star Belgrade travelled to Zagreb, hoping to secure their league title. About 3,000 Serbian fans travelled along. The Delije were headed by their infamous leader, Arkan.
Arkan, real name Željko Ražnatović, was a notorious Belgrade-based gangster. During the war he became a warlord, leading his own private para-military militia, the Tigers. Most members of these Tigers were also members of the Delije.The Tigers took part in ethnic massacres in Croatia and Bosnia and Arkan was indicted by the International Tribunal for War Crimes in The Hague for these war-crimes.
Once in Zagreb, the Delije and Arkan lived up to their violent reputation. The hours prior to the match saw a number of street skirmishes between the Delije and the home-fans, the Bad Blue Boys.
Once the match started, things went from bad to worse. Both sides tried to provoke the other. The Delije got things started as they tried to provoke the home-crowd by chanting nationalist slogans like “Zagreb is Yugoslav” and “We will kill Tudjman.”
For reference, Vranjo Tudjman was the newly elected pro-independence President of Croatia.
The Zagreb crowd retaliated, reacting in a similar fashion, chanting their own nationalist slogans. Things started getting out of hand however, when Delije members started tearing seats apart and throwing the debris at Croatian spectators.
Generally speaking, this would’ve been the point where the police intervened. In fact, there was a pretty strong contingent of police in riot gear present at the Maksimir stadium. These officers, however, were part of the Serb-controlled Yugoslav police.
This meant that the police stood by and did nothing to prevent the Red Star hooligans from running riot, throwing stones and debris and smashing the fence that separated the Serb and Croat fans.
The indifferent response of the police coupled with the Delije brutality incensed the home crowd and sparked a powerful response from the Dinamo faithful. Heroes and tribes, loyalty and devotion—right?
In their thousands, the Croatian hooligans took on the huge fence separating their North Stand from the ground. The fence collapsed under the combined weight of the ultra’s bodies, exposing the police and the Delije to the wrath of the Croatian Bad Blue Boys.
The home crowd swarmed all over the pitch, assaulting the police officers in an effort to break through their ranks and help their comrades who were being assaulted by the Delije.
The police, meanwhile, tried to force the ultra’s back using armoured vehicles, water cannons, and more reinforcements.
The battle between the two hooligan firms and the police lasted about seventy minutes, with several hundred people sustaining injuries. While the Red Star players retreated to the dressing rooms, some of the Dinamo players remained on the pitch to out their nationalistic feelings.
One of these players, Zvonimir Boban, made a gesture that made him famous with the entire Croatian nation. With a karate-kick, Boban knocked over a policeman who was beating a fallen Croatian ultra with a truncheon, allowing the fan to flee.
Boban himself retreated, protected by a number of Bad Blue Boys, acting as his ad-hoc bodyguards. The picture of his action has been included above the article.
The Yugoslav (read: Serbian-controlled) FA was not amused with Boban’s actions. Already pre-selected for the World Cup in Italy, he was suspended for six months by the FA, and the police filed criminal charges against him. He missed out on the World Cup, where Yugoslavia reached the quarterfinals.
This massive battle did prompt a number of politically inspired changes. First of all, several weeks after this pitched battle, the Croatian Parliament decided to replace most of the non-Croats in its police force.
Secondly, the Yugoslav League would survive for one more year, affected by many minor incidents, before the real fighting started in Croatia and Bosnia and the disintegration of Yugoslavia began.
Many Croats remembered this game as the beginning of their Patriotic War, as the fans' actions and Boban's intervention were a symbol of the resistance against the 70-year long Serbian domination.
When the war started in 1991, many Dinamo fans enlisted in the Croatian Army or police force, while their Serb Delije rivals joined the Serbian forces that besieged Vukovar and Dubrovnik in the bloody autumn of 1991.
The battle that started at Maksimir stadium was set to continue in the trenches with many of the same participants. Four years later, in front of Dinamo’s stadium, a monument was erected to commemorate the fallen Bad Blue Boys.
Boban became a major star in international soccer, wearing AC Milan's shirt for nine seasons and captaining Croatia to the third place at the 1998 World Cup in France.