The Ultra Scene in Croatia and Serbia:
Football Hooliganism Balkan Style
Ozren Podnar reports...
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
"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
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.
In 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
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
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)
"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
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.