To many, it was the event that sparked the Croatian War of Independence. Wednesday marked 25 years since the infamous Maksimir riot between fans of Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade, but football in the former Yugoslav republics still has a long way to go before it can truly claim to have moved on.
With Yugoslavia’s demise imminent, it should have been little surprise that the derby would become yet another stage in the theatre of Balkan ethnic tension.
Swathes of Red Star hooligans – the ‘Delije’, or ‘Heroes’ – and Dinamo’s ‘Bad Blue Boys’ would go on to join paramilitary units in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Željko Ražnatović, or ‘Arkan’, a prominent member of the Delije on that day, would go on to lead one of the most notorious gangs, the Tigers.
Perhaps more significantly, Arkan, despite being linked to numerous war crimes, was also permitted ownership of FK Obilić, whom he guided from obscurity to league glory in 1998. That raised serious questions with UEFA, but to this day, football’s governing bodies are not free from the ongoing issues in the Balkans.
War criminals are no longer in charge of Serbia’s leading clubs, but support for them remains. Banners of Radovan Karadžić have been displayed at Partizan Belgrade matches at least as recently as 2008, while an inflammatory ‘Greater Albania’ flag was hung from a drone during a match between Albania and Serbia, referring to both countries’ claims on Kosovo.
The fact that the latter incident took place only last year is a worrying sign for those concerned with progress in the relevant countries. George Orwell once said that sport is essentially nothing more than “war minus the shooting”, and the violence sparked by this episode is an indication of the strength of the feelings that persist in the region.
The tragedy for football is that it has become almost irreversibly intertwined with politics. Serbia have played numerous games behind closed doors in recent years, primarily all because there is too much at stake. Unfortunately, there is little that either FIFA or UEFA can do about that.
What do you think FIFA or UEFA could do to deter such high levels of hooliganism in Eastern Europe? Leave your thoughts in the comment box below!