We first published this series of articles six years ago. Then as now the aim is to develop an understanding of how that nationʼs history and experience contributed to the development of what has become a major problem in its football – one that threatens to tarnish Croatiaʼs experiences on the pitch. On the eve of the opening match of the 2014 World Cup, we think it timely to publish them again. Croatia will be entertained by Luiz Felipe Scolariʼs resurgent Brasilian side in São Paulo on June 12th – the opening match of Brasilʼs second World Cup. We hope Croatiaʼs fans will support their team with gusto while showing respect to their hosts.
by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 8th 2008)
Both Red Star and Dinamo attracted some hardcore supporters who would clash first on the football pitch and then in all out war. Red Star’s hooligan element is known as Delije – it roughly translates as heroes. One of their leaders was the thug Željko Ražnatović – Arkan.
It’s likely that he was at the match that changed the course of Yugoslav history, orchestrating the provocative chanting that incited the riot. It took place on May 13th 1990 at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb.
Football matches between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade were never for the faint-hearted, but this one took a new twist. The Zagreb side felt that referees sided with their opponents. Dinamo fans shared that belief, but thought that the police routinely did so too.
This game already had a highly charged atmosphere as Franjo Tuđman – a veteran of Tito’s partisans – set about securing Croatia’s independence. He had narrowly beaten Ivica Račan in Presidential elections that allowed him to dominate the government in 1990 weeks before the match.
The Delije incited Dinamo fans with chants of ‘Zagreb is Serbian’, and ‘We’ll kill Tuđman’, The Bad Blue Boys struggled to get at them. As usual the police sided with the Delije – not entirely surprising as Ražnatović led a charmed life then. He had an extensive criminal record all over Europe, but had top level police protection in Yugoslavia.
The police attacked Dinamo supporters but could not keep the Bad Blue Boys away from the Delije indefinitely. Once they broke through the police ranks a full scale riot developed. The police used batons, tear gas and other weapons. Eventually reinforcements arrived and ʻorderʼ was restored, but not before several people were injured.
Dinamo’s captain at the time was Zvonimir Boban. Red Star’s players had long since left the pitch. Boban remained, absolutely incensed by what he saw. He karate-kicked a policeman he saw beating a Dinamo fan. Boban later said, “Here I was, a public face, prepared to risk his life, career, everything that fame could have brought, all because of one ideal – one cause – the Croatian cause”.
Boban was suspended for six months by the Yugoslav Football Association, which would not exist for much longer. Criminal charges were also brought against Boban, but he was protected by Bad Blue Boys and joined AC Milan in 1991, distinguishing himself in that great trophy-winning team.
Boban retired prematurely in 2001. The policeman he famously kicked turned out to be a Bosnian Muslim, who publicly forgave him years later.
Boban left the country as it became a battle ground. The violence escalated. The football riot played a part in convincing many Croatians that they would never be treated fairly in Yugoslavia. However, Serbs had a sense of grievance and foreboding of what life in Croatia would be like for them too. In the summer of 1990 Serbs in the region of Krajina rebelled and established their own enclave within Croatian territory.
The Yugoslav army prevented the Croatian police from crushing the Republic of Krajina, which was never recognised by any country. Tuđman demanded self-determination, autonomy and then independence for Croatia, but under no circumstances would he allow the Serbs of Krajina the same thing.
The Yugoslav army – consisting mainly of Serbs – originally kept the peace in the wake of several massacres of Serbs in the region. They joined forces with the Serbs in Krajina, but gradually their actions became more belligerent. The Croatian cities of Vukovar and Dubrovnik came under attack.
It was the last straw for the Croatian government, which severed all ties with Yugoslavia on October 8th 1991. The disintegration of Yugoslavia had begun in earnest. There would be atrocities: ethnic cleansing and terror-based expulsions committed by all sides in this war. Football would not escape the carnage that it had brought to fruition either.