The Beautiful Game’s not always so beautiful

Football, Soccer, Footy, i’diski, Fußball, Futbol, The Beautiful Game or whatever you may call it. There is one that may we may agree on and that is that it is an amazing sport that unites various people from all corners of the globe, especially with the FIFA World Cup starting in a couple of days time. However, there is an ugly side to the sport that is known to be the most popular game on earth, as it has caused millions of people grief. I am not referring to the type of grief that Luis Suarez has caused players and millions of fans and I am also not referring to the disappointment one has to face every year as an Arsenal supporter.

What I am pertaining will leave you horrified, as football does have the incredible power to unite people to help overcome political and social issues, but it can also have a horrendous influence as well. In fact on 13th May in 1990, a football match between two explosive sporting rivals, Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade, sparked the Croatian War of Independence, which lead to the eventual collapse of Yugoslavia.

There were highly-strung tensions between the Serbian and Croatian sides as usual, but this time it reached even greater heights. Two weeks prior to the match, which took place in the Croatian capital of Zagreb at the Maksimir Stadium, Croatia had just undergone their first multi-party elections in almost half a decade. The outcome of the elections saw the pro-independence party gaining the majority of the votes, which just added more fuel to the relationship between the Serbs and the Croats.

An image of the Red Star supporters at the 1990 riot that occurred at the Maksimir Stadium. Image from:
An image of the Red Star supporters at the 1990 riot that occurred at the Maksimir Stadium. 

Both teams had notorious hooligan clans that were feared throughout Europe and that were immensely nationalistic. The Belgrade outfit has a fan club named the Delije or the ‘Heroes’. They were lead by the warlord named Željko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan. He was a career criminal and a commander of paramilitary force (the Serb Volunteer Guard) in the Yugoslav Wars. He was also on Interpol’s most wanted list, due to his crimes that he committed against humanity. The Dinamo Zagreb hooligan group has an English name, the Bad Blue Boys, which was inspired by the 1983 film Bad Boys.

The following year, these barbaric football supporters would make up the majority of their armies in one of the Yugoslav Wars. Both fan clubs prepared themselves for the game, with the Zagrebian supporters bringing stones with them to the game and the Belgradian fans equipping themselves with acid to burn through the security fences, as they sat in the fenced in area for the visiting fans. Even before the match kicked-off, the BBB and the Delije were involved in brawls on the streets, but that was nothing compared to what was to follow those fights.

Of approximate 15 000 supporters that were at the match, 3 000 of were comprised of the Delije. At the beginning of the game, after the BBB threw stones at the Red Star fans, the visiting supporters sang provocative chants such as ‘Zagreb is Serbian’ and ‘We’ll kill Tuđman’ (referring to Franjo Tuđman, the leader of the pro-independence party).

The BBB grew angry, some continued to watch the match and others hurled stones at the opposition until the Delije began to tear up seats, throwing them at the home crowed and charging at them as well. The security and the police did not attempt to intervene and within in minutes a riot broke out, which is possibly one most terrifying occurrences of any mass event.

Disastrous sight: Raging fans force their way onto the field as cops attempt to restrain them. Image from:
Disastrous sight: Raging fans force their way onto the field as cops attempt to restrain them.

The BBB attempted to run onto the field in order to attack their counterparts, but were prevented by the police who used batons and tear gas to try and restrain the situation. Eventually, the struggle became too over bearing, as many supporters pushed on to get onto the field. The Red Star players rushed to the dressing rooms and were evacuated the stadium via helicopter. The fight raged on for more than an hour with some of the Dinamo Zagreb players, who were nationalists, remained on the field.

The captain of Dinamo Zagreb at the time was a 21-year old Zvonimir Boban, who had acted in a manner in an incident that was seen to have caused the war. He saw one of the Zagreb fans being attacked by a police officer. Boban then ran towards the officer and kicked him, momentarily allowing the fan to escape. With the assistance of the BBB acting as bodyguards, he retreated. The kick is seen as a proud moment to some Croats as he became a national hero.

Later, Boban was interviewed and commented on the incident. The politicised footballer said: “Here I was, a public face prepared to risk his life, career and everything that fame could have brought, all because of one ideal cause; the Croatian cause.” Shortly after, Boban had to face a 6-month ban, which was placed onto him by the Yugoslavian football association. This meant that he could not compete in the 1990 World Cup. Eight years later, Boban went on to captain the independent Croatia where they finished third in the World Cup France.


The Birth of a Nation: Zvonimir Boban is captured kicking an officer that saw him become a national hero. Image from:
The Birth of a Nation: Zvonimir Boban is captured kicking an officer that saw him become a national hero. 

Unfortunately, due to these tragic events that lead to the civil war and the demise of the Yugoslavian nation, the FSJ (Football Association of Yugoslavia) had disintegrated. However, Red Star Belgrade managed to win a European Cup in 1991, just a few weeks prior to the official beginning of the Croatian War of Independence.

At the Maksimir Stadium there is a statue of a group of soldiers with a plaque that reads: “To the fans of the club, who started the war with Serbia at this ground on May 13, 1990.” This is unfortunately one of the tragic displays of the power that football has, despite the prior political and ethnic tensions that the supporters carried with them. It just goes with showing that “ The Beautiful Game”, has an ugly side and that the sport is more than just a game to some.



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