May 13 – The Match That Started a War

AT it’s best, football can act as a uniting force, bringing together communities and helping shape social and political tides. At it’s worst it can expose cultural fault lines, and inescapable ethnic tensions.

Never was this more evident than in 1990 when Dinamo Zagreb met Red Star Belgrade, sparking a mass riot that was symbolically seen as the first act of the Croatian War of Independence.

Matches between the two rivals have always been explosive affairs, but in 1990 Yugoslavia was on the verge of collapse. Two weeks before the clash at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb, Croatia had just undertaken it’s first multi-party elections in almost fifty years, with pro-independence candidate Franjo Tudjman winning, escalating the tensions between Zagreb and Belgrade further.

Both teams had significant ultra followings, with Red Star’s gang, led by the warlord Arkan and named the Delije and Dinamo’s group going by the Anglicised name of Bad Blue Boys. In the war that was to follow a year later, these groups would make up the core of the two armies serving on the front line and both came to the game prepared, with the Croats of Zagreb bringing rocks and their Serbian opponents coming with acid to burn through security fences.

The build-up to the game saw numerous clashes between fans and as the game began the 3,000-strong Delije tried to provoke the home crowd, with chants such as ‘Zagreb is Serbian’ and ‘We’ll kill Tudjman.’ As the BBB began to simmer, the Delije tore up seats, threw them at home fans and began to charge at fans. The Yugoslav police made no attempts to stop them and a mass brawl soon broke out.

The fight spilled out onto the pitch and would rage for seventy minutes. Red Star players immediately returned to the dressing room and were removed from the stadium by helicopter, but many of the ultra-loyal and politicised Dinamo players stayed on the pitch.

The stage was set for the most iconic moment of the day, when Dinamo’s 21-year old captain Zvonimir Boban saw one of his side’s fans being attacked by a police officer and launched a Cantona-esque karate kick at him, knocking the officer down allowing the fan to get away. With an ad-hoc team of BBB bodyguards Boban retreated, becoming a national hero in the process. He would later say of the incident: “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.”

The Yugoslavian FA suspended Boban for 6 months, meaning he would miss the 1990 World Cup, as he was vilified across Serbia. In 1991 he signed for AC Milan, enjoying great success in his nine seasons at the San Siro, during which time he would captain the newly independent Croatian national side to third place in the 1998 World Cup.

The Yugoslavian league would last for one more year, but when fighting and civil war gripped the region Yugoslavian football disintegrated, but not before Red Star Belgrade had a memorable European Cup win in 1991, weeks before the Croatian War of Independence broke out.

A statue of a group of soldiers stands in front of the Maksimir ground, with a plaque reading: ‘To the fans of the club, who started the war with Serbia at this ground on May 13, 1990.” Although it is an exaggeration to claim that this is true, it was certainly a litmus test of political and ethnic feelings in the region at the time and goes to prove that football is more than simply a game for many.

Footage from the riot can be seen below, with Boban’s infamous kick appearing after 6 minutes. Join us tomorrow for some more laid back fare as we look at one of the biggest FA Cup upsets of all-time.

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Greg Burns  on May 13th, 2008

This goes deeper than football. I watched a programme on this the other day and many of the Serbian and Croation hooligans swapped their football shirts for army clobber and picked up guns to fight on the front line. The hatred is fierce still to this day.
There has been talk about unifying the Croatian and Serbian league because the split between them has caused the standard to drop. Remember it wasn’t so long ago that Yugoslavian football was one of the best in Europe.
But to have Serbian and Croation fans travelling to each others stadium would be too dangerous especially coming so soon after the war.
Great piece this week, a good read!

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