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23 Oct 2009

The Dirty Side of Football

Široki Brig cross, courtesy of Quahadi/Wikipedia
Public Domain Public Domain

Cross in downtown Široki Brig, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Ethno-nationalism rears its ugly head and ends in bloodshed over a Bosnian football match; but the political undertones belie something that goes beyond mere hooliganism, Anes Alic writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Anes Alic in Sarajevo for ISN

One dead and as many as 50 others injured, burned police cars and torched shops: This was the result of the violence ahead of two recent football matches in Bosnia and Herzegovina in which the teams never even made it to the field.

But unlike football violence elsewhere, the tragedy cannot be linked exclusively to hooliganism, and painfully illustrates how thin the tolerance is between the country’s three ethnic groups, and how easy that intolerance can escalate into violence.

Following the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, violence during major football matches has occasionally occurred, but the latest incident was the worst of its kind in almost a decade.

Some 500 fans of the Sarajevo football club arrived in the Bosnian Croat-dominated town of Siroki Brijeg ahead of a Bosnian national league match on 4 October.

There are now dozens of contradictory scenarios of what actually happened there: Who started the incident; why the buses carrying Sarajevo fans were separated; why there were almost no police present; and at the end, who shot at the Sarajevo fans, killing 24-year-old Vedran Puljic and wounding five others from Sarajevo.

Even though police said that Puljic was hit by a rock, the coroner’s office said that he had been shot by a gun. Also, police arrested 41-year-old Oliver Knezovic from Siroki Brijeg, born in Sarajevo, suspected for shooting at the Sarajevo fans with a rifle.

On same day, Knezovic ‘escaped’ from custody, and the eight policemen responsible for him were suspended. Forensics tests proved that Puljic and five others had been shot with a handgun, while amateur videos showed police officers and Knezovic armed. Allegedly, Knezovic took the pistol from the police officer and shot at the Sarajevo fans.

On Wednesday, Knezovic fled to Croatia and surrendered to the police there. Since he also has Croatian citizenship, he cannot be deported to Bosnia.

Furthermore, Sarajevo fans claim that the incident was planned by "local politicians," saying that their buses were separated, all the injured were from the first bus, and that the buses were parked in the center of the town instead of at the usual visitors’ entrance to the stadium. The fans also say that  there were only 30 local policemen present, and they did nothing to prevent the violence.

According to local police officials, most of the regional police had earlier been sent to the nearby city of Mostar to prevent possible violence during the match between the rival Zrinjski and Velez clubs scheduled for the same day. Mostar is an ethnically divided city between Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats, with Bosniaks supporting Velez and Croats Zrinjski. Tensions were running high ahead of that match.

Faruk, who asked that his last name not be used, went to Siroki Brijeg for the match. He told ISN Security Watch that there is always potential for rival fans to spar at these matches, but this time, when the Sarajevo fans arrived, they were separated and redirected away from the visitor’s entrance, as if the entire thing was scripted for violence.

Contrarily, Siroki Brijeg residents claim that the Sarajevo fans arrived intentionally to provoke the local fans and police, and that they arrived armed.

Sentiments aroused

The murder of a young man in a violent clash between Sarajevo fans on one side and police, rival football fans and Siroki Brijeg civilians on other side, has heightened tensions in this already fragile country.

Relatively quickly, sentiments surrounding the incident shifted away from the murdered and injured and toward Bosniak-Bosnian Croat animosity.

Bosnian internet forums are abuzz with hate speech lobbed by one ethnic group at another and talk of fresh conflicts. A day after the incident, residents of Siroki Brijeg held ‘peaceful’ protests, carrying posters saying “This is Croatia” and “Next time we’ll be prepared.” Local Bosnian Croat politicians used the incident to stress that Bosnian Croats do not have equal rights in the country and once more brought up the necessity of creating a third ethnic-based entity, one in which Croats are the majority.

On the other side, internet forums in Sarajevo called for a boycott of products from Siroki Brijeg. People from the city also threw rocks at several trucks transporting goods from distributions centers in Siroki Brijeg.

Several days after the incident, the international community organized a football tournament among primary schools from Bosnia and Herzegovina; only the Mostarsko Blato school from Siroki Brijeg failed to show up. The school canceled its arrival after a local minister and a school principal suggested that the children would not be safe in Sarajevo.

This, in particular, is a dangerous example, as Bosnia’s education system is the least reformed sector, with students and teachers at all levels continuing to experience ethnic and religious segregation, intolerance and division.

The bottom line is that if the recent football violence had taken place between fans from the same ethnic group, it would have been labeled hooliganism and a tragic accident. However, since the incident involved two ethnic groups, even though the murdered Puljic was actually a Bosnian Croat, the situation has taken on an ethnic element, reviving long-running tensions.

Hooligans do the dirty work

It is not unusual for the former Yugoslav republics to express ethnic animosity through football, or for nationalist leaders to use football fans for their nationalist goals. Indeed, some observers even argue that the wars in the former Yugoslavia symbolically started following an incident at a football match which took place in Croatia just before the elections and the referendum on Croatia’s independence from Yugoslavia. It was the 1991 Yugoslav cup final between the Serbian team Red Star from Belgrade and the Croatian team Dinamo from Zagreb.

The game was abandoned after riot police attacked Dinamo fans and players, and the entire stadium was set on fire. Player Zvonimir Boban became a Croatian hero with a flying kick that knocked out a policeman, a Bosnian national. Croats see that kick as the symbol of the uprising against 70 years of Serb domination in Yugoslavia. Soon afterward, the whole stadium was on fire. Red Star players were airlifted to Belgrade via helicopter. Shortly afterwards, the war started.

The leader of the visiting Serb fans, who began tearing down the Zagreb stadium, was Zeljko Raznatovic-Arkan. He later became the leader of the infamous Tigers paramilitary unit, which made a name for itself with ethnic cleansing not only in Croatia, but also in Bosnia and later in Kosovo. The bulk of the Tigers were actually Serbian football fans.

Former allies of late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic later explained that he had ordered state intelligence leaders to hire Raznatovic, previously wanted by several European countries for robbery, to lead Red Star fans. Insiders believe that Milosevic understood that controlling one club and its fans could become a tool of mass mobilization. And it worked. 

But this was not Milosevic’s invention. Governments and dictators throughout the world have used similar tactics, including Francisco Franco in Spain and Benito Mussolini in Italy, among others. Football fans are prominent in the nationalist and right-wing groups in Serbia that threatened violence against participants of gay rights marches, against ethnic minorities and government opponents. Football hooligans, it would seem, are willing to do the dirty work for others. 

Recently, the Serbian government cancelled a gay pride parade after football fans, supported by the Serbian Orthodox Church and right-wing parties, announced mass protests. The government said it would not be able to protect the participants.

Over the past decade in Bosnia, there have been rumors that the national league - comprised of Bosniak, Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat teams - would be disbanded. Some Bosnian Serb officials have even suggested withdrawing Bosnian Serb teams from the league altogether. Siroki Brijeg football club officials have threatened such on several occasions, suggesting they might join Croatia’s national football league instead.

However, rather than make the move official, it would seem that hooligans are being used to lay the groundwork in a very dangerous game.


Anes Alic is the co-founder and executive director of ISA Consulting, based in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv.

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Logo International Relations and Security Network (ISN)
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