The Name of the Game: War
“The truth is: for alarmingly large chunks of an average day, I am a moron,” Nick Hornby says at the beginning his novel Fever Pitch (1992), which has been widely acclaimed as the best soccer book ever written. And truly, this novel—slim but packed with self-mockery—is an ideal primer for anyone who wishes to enter the mind of the soccer fanatic, to discover what drives him to see the stadium as a church, enter it with a religious reverence, and experience an emotional high watching twenty-two men play what in the end is a simple game.
Were Hornby not English and a fan of Arsenal London—if he was, say, from Bosnia-Herzegovina and had spent his youth at a stadium in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar,Banja Luka, Široki Brijeg, Trebinje, or Zenica—he may not have become quite such literary sensation. He would probably have been equally talented, and it is not impossible that his literary debut would have been about soccer. But he would have given it a more somber title.
We have said that the first book of our imaginary Hornby would be mainly about soccer, so let’s forget about any metaphor linked to the country’s recent history scorched by the Serbian blitzkrieg and divided by the mutual hatred of its inhabitants. It is true that soccer stadiums were used as starting points for mass deportations in the campaign of ethnic cleansing, and that—especially in eastern Bosnia on the border with Serbia—they were collection points for people whose remains were later exhumed from mass graves. As it turned out, the mass stadium brawl between Serbian fans of Red Star Belgrade and the Croatian fans of Dinamo Zagreb in the last season of the joint soccer league of socialist Yugoslavia was a foretaste of the brutal war that followed and was to turn what had been the most open noncapitalist society into a testing ground in the search for ultimate evil.
But we can put all of that aside now: the novel would be a fan’s tale, free of historical reminiscences, told in the here and now and inspired by the soccer season in a country in which the war finished ten years ago; in which fans travel from entity to entity within Bosnia-Herzegovina (from the Muslim-Croat Federation to Republika Srpska and vice versa); which has its own national eleven made up of players of all three ethnic groups, where professional soccer players choose their clubs based on the money offered, not the city they are from or the ethnicity of the majority of the fans; where on weekends men and occasionally women go to soccer stadiums like anywhere else in the world; and where every club not only has ordinary fans but also an organized group of rooters made up of the youngest and most aggressive supporters. The book’s ominous title—Fever Pitch—only slightly exaggerated, would set the context and show what was going on around the game at its core.
The language of hatred has a use-by date and it has virtually expired in public communication in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Realpolitik has won the day in a country where hegemonic fantasies were presented as political concepts in the early 1990s and provoked a brutal war—there is no longer any significant political party in Bosnia-Herzegovina that does not now accept the country as reality, and the differences between Serbian, Muslim, and Croatian parties are to do more with the internal organization of the country. Thirteen years ago this country was divided by front lines, but now anyone who wants to can travel within Bosnia-Herzegovina, and all citizens have identical documents and earn the same currency (if they are lucky enough to have a job). In short, at a phenomenological level, the political trend is diametrically opposed to when Yugoslavia fell apart and the Balkan wars began.
This country is not well known despite its two Nobel Prize winners (Ivo Andrić and Vladimir Prelog), the director of the most highly acclaimed film in the history of the seventh art (Danis Tanović, No Man’s Land), one of the most significant modern artists (Braco Dimitrijević), and the architectural jewels from the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. A few more know it, if we are lucky, through Bayern Munich’s
star Hasan Salihamidžić or, more likely, the consequences of war crimes. Bosnia-Herzegovina is still not a happy country. It suffers from all the afflictions of postwar and transition societies, but at least it is at peace. Or is that the naive belief of those who have not left it?
It would be interesting, if possible, to find someone in Oslo, for example, who knows nothing about Bosnia-Herzegovina, acquaint him afresh with the basics of its recent history, explain to him how three peoples continue to live here who differ significantly only in terms of religion (Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox), and then demand from him that he pass judgment on Bosnia after attending matches of its Premier League. That is a clumsy competition with a total of sixteen clubs and an average of just a few thousand spectators per match. It is highly probable that our Norwegian would predict straight out Bosnia-Herzegovina’s future to be even gloomier than its past!
Well, let’s try and put ourselves in his position. Here we are in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, at a match between the home club Borac (Fighter) and the Sarajevo club Željezničar (Railwayman). The fans in the grandstands are mainly locals, attired like soccer fans in most countries of Europe: scarves, caps, flags, the works. Down on the pitch we see the host team Borac from Republika Srpska’s most open city—its administrative, political, and cultural center—and their opponents, the visitors from Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with its largely Muslim population. About a decade has passed since Serbs from Banja Luka marched and took up positions around Sarajevo, when Željeznicˇar’s stadium was on the front line. The Vultures, as the organized Borac fans call themselves, have hung a banner on the stadium fence with the words “Knife, Wire, Srebrenica,” which rhymes in Serbian and is a clear allusion—and acceptance of—one of the greatest crimes since World War Two in which around 8,000 Muslims were murdered, as well as a message telling the visitors what their fate ought to be. Behind the banner young men with T-shirts sporting the two most wanted Serbian war criminals—Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić—sing songs glorifying the Chetnik movement from World War Two and voice the desire for a Greater Serbia and the end of Bosnia.1
Now we go to Stolac, a town in Herzegovina whose Muslim inhabitants were forced to flee in 1993 at the beginning of the clash between the two former allies in the war—the government Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Croatian Defense Council (HVO). Stolac does not have a team in the Premier League, but it lies on the road from Mostar to Trebinje—there the home side Leotar played against the ethnic Croatian team Zrinjski. Today’s Zrinjski, incidentally, was formed after the HVO—a military organization set up by the largest Croat nationalist party in Bosnia-Herzegovina and supported financially by neighboring Croatia and its then president, Franjo Tuđman—“cleansed” West Mostar of non-Croatian inhabitants. In the 1990s Zrinjski moved to the Stadion pod Bijelim brijegom (White Hill Stadium), evicting the home club of many years standing, Velež. Its procommunist past made it undesirable in the postcommunist era. Anyway, Zrinjski is travelling back from Trebinje accompanied by a large group of fans with Croatian flags. They decide to stop for a break in Stolac, whose populations (Croats, and Muslims who returned after the war) live by the unwritten code of peaceful intolerance. “This is Croatia!” shout the Ultras from Mostar, breaking store windows. Within minutes the streets of the town resemble a battlefield—stones fly, cars burn, smashed glass is everywhere, injured people are rushed to hospital. If the young men with the bloodied heads were not wearing the colors of their soccer team, the scene would be reminiscent of the years when Croatian politicians, the Croatian government in Zagreb,and the ethnic Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina aimed to split off a section of the new Bosnian state and attach it to Croatia.
Let’s stay a little longer in Herzegovina, the part of the country blessed with an almost ideal climate. The national youth teams of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are playing a “friendly” at the stadium in Široki Brijeg—a small town with a low five-figure population but apparently the largest number of Mercedes Benz cars per capita in the whole country—where there was no ethnic cleansing because Croats are dominant and the front line was so far away that no other forces were able to enter it. Anyway, as the rules require, first the national anthem of the visitors is played: the solemn Croatian song “Lijepa naša” ( Our Beautiful Homeland) is sung in unison by the whole stadium. Then comes the anthem of Bosnia-Herzegovina—and is drowned out by a deafening salvo of whistling, here at a stadium in Herzegovina! The game begins and the visiting team receives fanatical support from the grandstands. Only a staged interruption of the match due to an alleged power failure at the stadium averts the familiar unpleasant outcome where the Bosnian team physically receives a beating. Ironically, the Bosnian team includes some ethnic Croats who were born in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Here we are, finally, in Sarajevo, a city of fantastic architecture and fabulous food, nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains where, in 1984, the best organized Winter Olympic Games up to that date were held—according to Huan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the International Olympic Committee at the time. Twenty years and several months later, at the site of the opening ceremony, the first official match is now being played between the national soccer teams of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia-Montenegro—two countries that until ten years ago were at war; the former has now taken the latter to the International Court of Justice, accusing it of war crimes, demanding recognition of the military aggression and the payment of reparations. Two hours before kick-off the east, west, and north grandstands are full of Bosnia-Herzegovina fans, some of them organized under the name BH Fanaticos. They deck the stadium’s fences with flags (the national and military flag of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Turkish flag to boot2), banners of their home towns Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica, and others; there is even one with the name Banja Luka, with which war refugees, Bosniaks formerly from that city, who now live somewhere in the European Union, make a statement. About a hundred minutes later, special police forces escort the fans of Serbia and Montenegro into the south grandstand. To a salvo of whistling they display their gear, including a large Serbian flag and the name Banja Luka in Cyrillic.
Of the several hundred Serbian fans at this maximum-risk match, the majority has not come from Serbia but are ethnic Serbs from the area around Sarajevo; many of them probably looked down at this stadium as members of Serbian forces during the siege of Sarajevo and are now shouting out the names of RadovanKaradžić and Ratko Mladić! Although they know they can hardly be heard amidst the deafening noise of the BH Fanaticos—the organized group of fans of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s national team—they scream out Serbian nationalist songs and or the rhythmical “Srbija i Crna Gora”; they do not care that the team of their Bosnian homeland also includes ethnic Serbs, like Vladan Grujić from—believe it or not—Banja Luka. It is only thanks to the police that only one fan is taken to hospital after this match with a cut to his head. A few years previously furious Sarajlis, as the inhabitants of Sarajevo are called, had awaited supporters of the opposing team behind barricades throughout the city and—revolted by the defeat of their team and even more so by taunts of the visitors—prepared a fiery reception to demonstrate their techniques of abuse.
Sarajevo, after all, is the biggest city in Bosnia and was once a “European Jerusalem” and the geographical heart of Yugoslavia, so it’s only right to stay on a little. We are at Koševo stadium at the final of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Cup to be played between the home side Sarajevo and Široki Brijeg. The same national anthem is played that was drowned out by whistling at Široki Brijeg: the Sarajevo fans, those who several months earlier cheered for Bosnia-Herzegovina, now sing a song in honor of Alija Izetbegovic´, the first president of Bosnia-Herzegovina and, as the new divisions would have it, national leader of the Bosnian Muslims. They yell abuse at the visitors, ethnic Croatian players: “Crush the Ustashe!”3 The painful ninety minutes end with cries of “Allah is great!” alternating with “This is Bosnia!” Just look at our observer! Can you see the confusion in his eyes? Perhaps he needs things explaining to him simply. We could try.
Organized fan culture has a folklore of its own, an obligatory part of which is insulting the opponents in any way possible. Abuse is an end in itself and usually there is nothing more to it. Now, to round things off, we take a short trip to Zenica, once an industrial center, today one of the poorest cities in a country that war and the “reform” of state capital have devastated. On the one side are the local fans, mainly Muslims, and on the other side the fans from Sarajevo, also Muslims. To the disgust of nonorganized fans, the visitors are showered with abuse, even including derision about the Markale marketplace massacre during the bombardment of Sarajevo, one of the worst atrocities against civilians. Do the Zenica and Sarajevo fans hate each other for ethnic reasons? No, because that’s not possible. They are fanatical fans and hate just for the sake of it. Their abuse is nothing but the desire to cause the opponent pain, at least verbally. Is that simple enough?
Fan clubs are also mass movements with different structures and as such reflect their members’ attitudes, which are often formed in a different, peace-loving environment. If that is so, is the conclusion that ethnic hatred is carried over from war and takes root in the family and the education system? Is it spread via the media and then feeds on people’s own frustrations, with the stadium serving as a testing ground for its articulation? A little complicated?
Let’s try and find an easy answer. We will acquaint our observer with the leaders of fan clubs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, those who at every match conduct a mass choir of several thousand voices and are abhorred by spectators who just go to the stadium because they like to watch soccer. Let’s accept that he won’t find out whether or not they enjoy political support from nationalist parties, whether soccer clubs fund the orgies of hate in the grandstands, why they are only happy for a few minutes when a player of the “wrong” ethnic group scores a goal for their team, and then go on and try to kill—with words—the players of the “wrong ethnic group” in the opposing team. Let him hear what journalists from the Sarajevo magazine Start heard: grandstand warriors explained to them that today’s Bosnia-Herzegovina was only a marriage of political convenience, that they (the organized groups of fans) voiced what political leaders painstakingly hid in their programs for fear of sanctions, and that the stadium was the only place where they were able to openly say what they think.
Perhaps he will gain a little optimism in the end. As one of the chronic denizens of the stadium would say: we were at war until recently, so, while it lasts, it’s good that we’ve moved from deeds to words. And to be sure, if it were different—if deeds had replaced words—the very first round of the Premier League would have seen no penalty areas, touchlines, or corner flags, but graveyards between the grandstands.
1 From 1945 until the appearance of Slobodan Milošević the Serbs were ashamed of the Chetniks, a criminal force that during World War Two was under Nazi command and committed massive crimes against Croats and Muslims. In the 1990s new Serbian nationalism put the Chetniks back on the right side of history— Serbian forces now bore their insignias in the Balkan wars and exceeded them in brutality.
2 In the chaos of political definitionlessness the Muslims chose an option that borders on the schizophrenic. Those who say that the unity of Bosnia-Herzegovina is dear to their hearts will raise a Turkish flag at the stadium, seeing secular Turkey as a link to the Ottoman Empire, which brought Islam to Bosnia- Herzegovina. They complain that Bosnian Serbs and Croats see Serbia and Croatia as their homelands! These same Muslims do not think that shouting out the slogans “This is Bosnia!” and “Allah is great!” could be interpreted as a desire for a Muslim-dominated Bosnia and marginalization of the others.
3 For forty-five years the majority of Croats saw the Ustaša, the army of the puppet Independent State of Croatia in World War Two, as the incarnation of evil, a force that ran concentration camps, carried out mass deportations and murders in a state based on race laws. The “leaden times” changed this, and their role. In Mostar, incidentally, home of the Zrinjski fans, there is a street named after Mile Budak, the architect of the race laws!
Taken from: Katrin Klingan und Ines Kappert (eds.), Leap into the City: Chisinau, Sofia, Pristina, Sarajevo, Warschau, Zagreb, Ljubljana, DuMont 2006. Reprint by kind permission of the author.