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Home|Football News|Soccer in the Balkans|Football War

The Day Yugoslav Soccer Died

Croats celebrate the 15th anniversary of the beginning of the Patriotic War... on the soccer field!

Ozren Podnar reports...

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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 were incensed.

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

Football War 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 reaction began.

Ozren Podnar

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