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Home|Football News|Soccer in the Balkans|Hooligans



The Ultra Scene in Croatia and Serbia: Football Hooliganism Balkan Style

Ozren Podnar reports...

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Before 1991 Croat fans used to clash with Serb fans. The unified Yugoslav league gone, the Croats happily fight Croats, the Serbs fight Serbs, and any occasion will do.

Last February the peaceful Bosnian-Croat town of Siroki brijeg staged an international tournament which featured the Croat giants Dinamo and Hajduk, both strongly supported in the ethnic Croat region. Hajduk and Dinamo predictably met in the finals but the game was also predictably abandoned in the 35th minute when a knife landed near a Dinamo player.

Previously a shower of less dangerous objects like stones, bricks and bottles was thrown and fans clashed both before and after the game. The unprepared police had to fire in the air in order to control the crowd, 24 arrests were made, 35 people were hospitalized, among them five police, one of them seriously. The mayor of Siroki brijeg Miljenko Jelic said that "these clubs and their fans are not welcome any more in this city or region."

What the Bosnians experienced once in their lives happens three or four times per year in neighbouring Croatia, whenever Dinamo and Hajduk meet in the League or the Cup and club officials are becoming desperate.

"This is another grave defeat for Croatian soccer. We are sinking ever deeper. The clubs cannot cope alone, the hooligans are a problem for the whole society," lamented the Dinamo's president Mirko Barisic, adding sarcastically: "Maybe the fans should be mobilized and sent to Iraq as the Croatian contingent. There could be a good place to fight."

Gravediggers, Tough Guys, Bad Blue Boys and Torcida. If the names do not sound familiar, you are lucky. It means you do not live in any of the republics of the former Yugoslavia or in the European cities that hosted the clubs these picturesque groups support.

Gravediggers of Partizan Belgrade, Tough Guys of Red Star Belgrade have been among the worst football hooligans in Europe since Margaret Thatcher attempted to stamp out hooliganism in Britain towards the end of the eighties in the wake of the Heysel and Hillsbrough disasters.

Only the very fortunate mediocrity of the aforementioned clubs and their modest presence in European competitions have prevented serious harm from befalling on the continent.

Before the break-up of the old Yugoslav multi-ethnic federation in the 1991/92 season, the hooligans rooting for the four major Yugoslav clubs regularly clashed among themselves and the police.

As the eighties were nearing their end and the policies of Serb hard-liner Slobodan Milosevic were inflaming nationalist and religious passions in the country, the clashes took on an increasingly ethnic line. Serbian fans of Partizan and Red Star ceased fighting each other in a remarkable display of patriotic zeal and only fought the Croatian fans of Dinamo and Hajduk, who also buried the hatchet for a while.

HooligansIn 1991, the incidents escalated to the point of mortal danger. Hundreds of Hajduk ultras stormed the pitch during the second half of an Hajduk-Partizan game and headed for the Serb players, who saved their necks by sprinting into the dressing rooms under the relative protection of the police. The famous Predrag Mijatovic even took a hit from a rampant local fan before reaching the dressing room corridors.

In May of the same year hundreds of Dinamo fans battled then Serb-controlled riot police in Zagreb while Red Star followers were tearing apart the southern stand of Maksimir stadium. That was the occasion when Zvonimir Boban defended a brave Bad Blue Boy from a policeman with a kung-fu kick Eric Cantona would not have been ashamed of.

A few months afterwards, thousands of BBB and Torcida members volunteered for the fledgling Croatian army fighting the Serb forces full of Tough Guys and Gravediggers.

"The Serbo-Croat war was a follow up to the Yugoslav football league by military means." ironized the press after the war.

When Croatia won independence from Serbia, football hooligans in both countries were desperate: the mythical clashes were now impossible. The agonizing search for an enemy came to an end when all parties realized they could stil revive the old pre-war rivalries which had existed within each nation: Dinamo fans could go back to beating up their Hajduk rivals (and vice versa) while Red Star followers had to look no further than across the street for their old archrivals of Partizan.

Partizan's Gravediggers (originally Grobari) and Red Star's Tough Guys (Delije) staged some amazing scenes even when the war was still raging. Those unlucky enough to have been mobilized for the war fought a pitched battle during a Belgrade derby in 1993, so intense that at least one hundred fighters were hospitalized, whereas one Partizan fan wielded a pole used for pole-vaulting and actually hit a few people with it. Similar incidents have occured on a dozen occasions since then, and a Gravediggers' web-site runs a proud chronology of their "feats, classified in the "eighties", "nineties" and "2000" sections.

The documented events, presented through press cuttings, include "Partizan fans stone Red Star museum ... a few trophies end on the floor"; "Partizan fans ambush and storm a bus carrying Red Star supporters ... wooden bats, metal sticks and stones were used ... 85 arrested and 27 hospitalized"; "Heavy police presence failed to stop incidents - 24 arrested and 11 seriously injured"; "Partizan fans attack Red Star skipper Lalatovic"; "Red Star fan killed by a missile launched from Partizan section"; "A hundred arrests and 19 injured"; "Partizan followers tore seats and threw them at police"; "Riot police had to use tear gas, rubber bullets and cavalry to restrain Partizan ultras."

In case you wondered, all these headlines refer to separate incidents perpetrated by Partizan's Gravediggers (so named because of the prevalence of black on the team's black and white striped shirts) since 1997.

"We are no faggots dressed in silk; we are supporters and hooligans and we deserve the name of Gravediggers. Let pretty boys and male models carry pretty names," to quote the website of one influential Gravedigger, snubbing the rival Tough Guys, who are in fact no less terrifying on their day.

But, their former leader Arkan, an indicted war criminal, was assasinated four years ago and the Gravediggers' leader Zare is not only alive, but boasts having raped Parangal, Hajduk's Torcida leader, a "feat" which earned him a lifelong admiration among his followers.

In Croatia, the modern era of hooliganism only started in late nineties, but the fans were warming up abroad. The Bad Blue Boys (the name is in English) ran riot in Auxerre in 1994 during a Cup Winners' Cup game injuring several policemen and earning Dinamo a one year ban from European competitions.

They returned in style and in 1997 smashed dozens of vehicles and shops in downtown Zurich on the occasion of a UEFA Cup match. Their moment of truth arrived in 2000 when hundreds of them stormed the centre of Milan and waged a bloody war on the Italian police, resulting in over 50 arrests and about 50 injured on both sides. Hajduk ultras spared their efforts abroad until last year when dozens of them were arrested in Rome before the Roma-Hajduk game, but they were very active at home.

Apart from regularly combating Dinamo fans anywhere they met, they also caused three major incidents, staging massive pitch invasions during the games against Sibenik in the League and during two consecutive Cup finals against Dinamo, in 2000 and 2001.

The 2000 final was the saddest of all, because thousands of local hooligans knocked down the metal fence and pelted the police with a hail of rocks and bottles, apparently trying to make their way accross the field to attack the visiting fans in another section of Poljud stadium. The police used tear gas and water cannons to force the evacuation of the whole North stand containing the most fervent followers.

Fourty-seven policemen sustained injuries, one hundred arrests were made and the Federation closed the stadium for four games. Still, the following year's Cup final saw a carbon copy of the incidents! The absence of any coherent legislation designed to curb fan unrest is usually blamed for the situation, but the problem is far from being limited to sports venues.

Late last year Hajduk fans near Split ambushed a car with Zagreb plates that had strayed from the police-escorted column of Dinamo fans, smashing the car windows with clubs and throwing a torch inside with an apparent intent to burn a passenger alive. A worker in a near-by gas station extinguished the flames, and several Hajduk fans were later arrested and one was charged with attempted murder. The press and the club officials have been calling for the state to take a tougher stance against football-related violence, including speedier trials and harsher prison sentences, but so far the hooligans have been acting unchecked.

In the meantime, new misfortune looms as Dinamo fans are already announcing that they will try and avenge last winter's burning incident when Hajduk arrives in Zagreb in spring.

Ozren Podnar


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