The Day Yugoslav Soccer Died
Croats celebrate the 15th anniversary of the beginning of the
Patriotic War... on the soccer field!
Ozren Podnar reports...
For many Croats, the war of independence from Serbia did not start
in June of 1991 as most history books will tell you. The "real"
date was May 13th of 1990, when Dinamo Zagreb ultras, the Bad Blue
Boys (their original name is in English) stood up against the Serb-controlled
police and their foes, Red Star Belgrade followers, that were tearing
Dinamo's stadium apart. That was also the day Zvonimir
Boban became a legend for a kick without a ball.
On that Sunday afternoon Red Star traveled to Zagreb
with a long-disputed League title already in their hands and some
3000 Serb fans came too, headed by their leader Arkan. Arkan, real
name Zeljko Raznjatovic, was a notorious gangster, later to become
a Serb warlord in the Balkans conflict and was indicted by the International
Tribunal for War Crimes in the Hague before being assassinated in
Belgrade in early 2000.
In Zagreb, Arkan and his comrades were at the peak of their power.
The hours leading up to the game saw numerous street skirmishes
between home and visiting fans, but the real trouble took place
at Maksimir Stadium. Initially the Serb ultras, Delije (Tough Guys),
tried to provoke the crowd by shouting nationalist slogans like
"Zagreb is Serbian" and "We'll kill Tudjman"
- the newly elected pro-independence President of Croatia.
Zagreb fans at first reacted with similar slogans, but when Delije
started tearing plastic seats and throwing them (along with a few
stones) at the spectators on the terrace above them, the home fans
There was a strong contingent of the Serb-controlled Yugoslav
police in riot gear facing the North stand where Dinamo's faithful
were situated, but not a single officer tried to stop Red Star hooligans
from running riot at the opposite end. There was no intervention
even when Delije smashed the fence dividing them from the peaceful
local fans on the South stand, and attacked them with knives.
Delije savagery coupled with police indifference proved too much
for the passionate Croatian ultras. In their thousands they took
on the huge fence separating the North stand from the ground and
under the weight of many bodies the fence gave, exposing the police
- and the Serb fans - to the Croatian wrath.
There followed one of the biggest field invasions in the history
of soccer. Thousands of Dinamo fans assaulted several hundred riot
police and many broke through their ranks on the way to the South
stand, where the "Serb invaders" were desecrating the
"sacred soil" of the Maksimir Stadium. The police were
in turmoil, but very soon reinforcements arrived with more men,
armored vehicles and water pumps.
Boban Becomes A Hero
The pitched battle lasted for 70 minutes with hundreds of injured
on all sides. While Red Star players promptly retreated to the dressing
rooms, some Dinamo players stayed on the pitch and Zvonimir
Boban made that famous gesture seeing a fallen Bad Blue Boy
being thrashed with a truncheon by a policeman.
With a kung-fu kick later emulated by Eric Cantona, Boban knocked
the officer from his feet, allowing the fan to get up and flee,
and then himself retreated surrounded by his ad-hoc bodyguards -
the Bad Blue Boys.
Even though the policeman on the receiving end of Boban's boot
turned out to be a Bosnian Muslim rather than a Serb (many years
later he would publicly forgive Boban, saying that he completely
understood his action), the 21-year-old player immediately became
a hero for all Croats and a villain in Serbia.
Already pre-selected for the World Cup in Italy, Boban was suspended
for six months by the Yugoslav (Serb-dominated) FA, and the police
filed criminal charges against him.
These were the times of the wind of change and two weeks after
the event the newly elected Croatian Parliament replaced most of
the non-Croats in the police. Boban was never prosecuted, but he
did serve a good part of his suspension and missed out on the World
Cup, where Yugoslavia reached the quarterfinals.
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.
"The game that was never played will be remembered, at least
by the soccer fans, as the beginning of the Patriotic War, and almost
all of the contemporaries will declare it the key in understanding
the Croatian cause," wrote Zagreb daily Vecernji list
marking the 15th anniversary of the event. It must be, the historians
claim, that the Croats saw in the fans' actions and Boban's intervention
a symbol of the resistance against the 70-year long Serbian domination.
The Battle Continues. In The Trenches
Many Dinamo fans enlisted in the Croatian Army or police, while
their Serb rivals joined Serb forces that besieged Vukovar and Dubrovnik
in the bloody autumn of 1991. The battle that started at Maksimir
was 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 the Bad Blue Boys who fell in the Patriotic War, and May 13th
is commemorated every year by the survivors.
Boban, of course, 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.
The Serbs claim that the Croatian side had planned the incidents
and that the fence on the North stand was deliberately weakened
the night before to facilitate the pitch invasion by the home fans.
"Our analyses showed that there were incidents in the pipeline.
On the eve of the match we learned that the Croatian political leaders
would not show as announced. That was a sufficient sign for us,"
said Petar Djukic, the then Croatian minister of the police, ousted
soon after the May 13th.
Still, the fact remains that the visiting fans initiated the trouble
and that the local ultras waited for half an hour before their violent