When the heroes come marching in – Understanding football fan culture and fanaticism in Eastern Europe
Politics and football have always been intertwined in the former Yugoslavia. The prime example of this can be seen in the city of Belgrade, Serbia’s capital. The residents of the city think rather highly of its two main teams – Partizan Belgrade and Red Star Belgrade and the meetings between these two are called ‘Eternal Derby’.
Nor tripped neither, you base football player - The Bard once wrote about football
Football has come a long way since the days when grubby English country folk descended en masse into muddy fields trying to kick a pig’s bladder in matches that pitted entire villages against each other while their social betters scoffed from castles with their noses upturned and indignant. But the passions it aroused in its fans and its detractors remain the same. If the Bard had seen the antics of his countrymen in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s (before the Barclay’s Premier League made everything rather professional, glamorous and….well a tad bit drab) he would have felt that his dim view of football, which he shared with other members of the British nobility and clergy, was well justified.
Those of us born around the time the Berlin Wall came crashing down have probably heard the revolting yet fascinating tales of the British hooligans. With beer swollen guts that threatened to burst out of the tight jerseys of their favoured football team, they wrecked havoc across Europe, spreading terror and panic wherever they went (along with their less prominent but no less lethal Italian and German counterparts). But by the end of the 20th century this was a dying trend. The Bobbies and their colleagues grew wise to their ways. Stadiums, after disasters like Hillsborough and Heysel, were better built and better manned. By the time Eric Cantona went flying into the crowd boot-first, angered by an abusive fan, the English Hooligan were a wary lot, with close circuit cameras and strict laws severely curbing them.
English hooligans however could not match their European counterparts when it came to political and sectarian violence. Not for the lack of trying though. Hooligan firms like the Chelsea Headhunters and the Millwall Bushwackers were infiltrated by the neo-Nazi and Far Right skinhead groups like National Front and Combat 18 from the ‘70s onwards. Aside from a racist section, hooligans however were mostly involved in chest-thumping, foul mouthed tribal support of their clubs. Hollywood does not really give us the whole picture except for the culture associated with hooliganism with a bloodied and battered Elijah Wood in ‘Green Street Hooligans’. No matter how menacing Vinnie Jones (himself an AFC Wimbledon stalwart and most renowned for having grabbed Paul Gascoigne’s …ahem…privates during a match) looks as a Manchester United fan in Eurotrip, he can never match the exploits of the ‘ultras’ that rule the roost in the rest of Europe.
The Indian public is well acquainted with the English skinhead via Bollywood and the racist taunting, intimidation and savage beatings endured by Sohail Khan and co in the film 'I, proud to be Indian' (national pride is restored by the end of the movie with Khan defeating the skinheads in duels of fisticuffs). The plight of Indians east of the erstwhile Iron Curtain however is not very well documented. This is unfortunate, for, as a schoolmate of yours truly who had his teeth knocked out by a particularly patriotic Cossack would testify, to the east of Berlin exist an entirely different species of football fans.
Euro 2012 gave us a glimpse of long standing traditions of young lads with shaven heads with arms stretched and puffed out chests, giving the Nazi salute with nary a thought of propriety, of young lads in Poland and Ukraine beating up expat Indians at football matches, even though the Indians had come to support the same team and were wearing the same jerseys. Racist and sectarian passions have been rampant after the fall of Communist regimes. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the Balkans.
We may forgive, but we never forget - Serbian proverb
Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic and Nemanja Matic. When one thinks of Serbia and sports these are the names that pops up more often than not. But Serbia also evokes the names of Slobodan Milosevic, Radko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. But Milosevic, Mladic and Karadzic are not the only ones that hate Albanians, Croats, Kosovars… well everybody not Serbian living in the Balkans. Everybody not Serbian in turn hate Serbians, Bosnians….well everybody not them in the Balkans. The history of this region is full of bloody, internecine conflict that dates back centuries. This politics of systemic ethnicity and religion based hatred has had a peculiar influence in the football fans of the region.
Politics and football have always been intertwined in the former Yugoslavia. The prime example of this can be seen in the city of Belgrade, Serbia’s capital. The residents of the city think rather highly of its two main teams – Partizan Belgrade and Red Star Belgrade and the meetings between these two are called ‘Eternal Derby’. Football over the decades have taken a back seat in these matches although the quality of the teams were very high in the past, with Red Star Belgrade having won the European Cup (now the UEFA Champion’s League) in 1991 followed by the Intercontinental Cup. Red Star was formed from the remains of SK Jugoslavija, a club Marshall Tito’s government labeled as fascist collaborators because they played matches during World War II under Hitler’s puppet government. The club thus always had a nationalist and anti-communist tilt. Partizan Belgrade on the other hand was named in honour of the Yugoslav communist Partizan resistance fighters that waged a guerilla war against Hitler’s occupying forces. It was formed and managed by officers of the Yugoslav People’s Army which followed the official communist doctrine. Thus the political sectarian fate of these clubs was sealed at their birth itself.
The nationalist, anti-communist Red Star can thus be seen as the ideological successor of the Chetniks. Though at first Chetniks formed a resistance movement against the German occupying forces they later made arrangements with the Nazis, the Croatian fascist Ustashe regime (itself involved in genocidal purges in which almost 700,000 Serbians and other Balkan members of the Serbian Orthodox Church were slaughtered) and the Italians. The Chetniks had much in common with the Ustashe and regularly took part in pogroms against the Partizans, Balkan Muslims (Bosnian, Albanian, Kosovar) and Jews. Readers must bear with this esoteric digression for it is important to get the back stories straight as the political history of Balkans plays a huge role in the attitude of football fans of the region in general and the ultra firms in particular.
(Partizan and Red Star are not the only football clubs whose rivalry has been cemented by political history. The rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona has also partly been shaped by the fact that the dictator Franco patronized Real while Barcelona remained a medium to channelize aspirations of regional autonomy of Catalans. Barcelona was a hotbed of Leftist political action during the Spanish Civil War, and was crushed with relish by Franco’s forces when the Civil War came to a close. Barcelona’s ‘martyr president’ Joseph Sunyol belonged to the political Left and was assassinated by Franco’s troops in 1936. On the other hand, future Real President Santiago Bernabeu was a corporal in Franco’s army that conquered Barcelona. As Sid Lowe points out in his book ‘Fear and loathing in the La Liga’, however, it is not fair to lump Real Madrid and the city of Madrid together as belonging to Franco; Madrid was an important Republican site of resistance to Franco’s fascists. Furthermore, Real’s President at the beginning of the Civil War was Rafael Sanchez Guerra, an ardent Republican who fought against the fascists).
Football in Belgrade thus had long running political undercurrents. Ethnic hyper-nationalist tensions simmered in other Balkan regions too in the multi-ethnic Yugoslav football league and although the Yugoslav authorities tried to clamp down on them these tensions started regularly spilling into the streets with bloody battles between fans of football clubs. On 14 September 1978, the country's first full-scale football riot took place when a train carrying Partizan supporters to a game against Sarajevo was halted by police at Sid in Croatia. The Partizan fans responded by demolishing the train. The violence spread to the town itself and the fans fought running battles with the authorities for many hours.
The Eternal Derby matches are a prime example of the kind of hatred that one cannot possibly associate with sports. The fanatic supporters of Red Star, known as the delije (loosely translated as The Heroes) and the supporters of Partizan, known as the Grobari (The Gravediggers, because of their black striped jerseys) come to the games armed to the teeth with crowbars, knives and other weapons. Because the security in stadiums is tight, they sometimes take their clashes to the city centers and streets. There are certain peculiar features that distinguish these ultras.
The Red Star delije are sub-divided into ultra firms like the Red Devils, Zulu Warriors and the Ultras. The North end of the Red Star Stadium remains their exclusive domain. (The seats at this end have been painted to form the word delije). There are murals too celebrating their fanatic support. The delije unlike the English hooligans are very well organized and even have their own offices, where they discuss battle plans on such sporting topics like the ways by which they can intimidate opposition supporters, the choreography of the violence to be perpetrated against opposition fans etc. When Red Star loses matches the stadiums often bear the brunt of their anger. The delije also regularly smash the team buses on such occasions. Nemanja Vidic, former Manchester United defender, fell prey to irate delijes who smashed up his car when he was serving as the captain of the Red Stars. His crime? He had taken part in a fashion show with the captain of the Partizan team. These ultra firms also have their own magazines.
The Serbian football fans learnt violence from the English and ‘tifo’ choreography from the Italians and formed a lethal cocktail from the two. Their antics stretch from the mildly amusing to the horrific. A fan of the Croatian club Hadjuk Split once had the misfortune of running into an ultra leader. The hooligan leader kidnapped the hapless fan and proceeded to sexually assault him for two days with a broom handle. Their football chants usually consists of lines like 'We hope you die like all those Italians at Heysel'; 'You're going to get your <expletive> head stamped on like a Kosovan'. It is important to note that although Red Star and Partizan fans usually are at each other’s throats, there are certain occasions in which they unite and then the line ‘Welcome to Hellgrade’ acquires special significance. Ethnic enemies like the Croats are a great unifying factor. So is homosexuality. The only Serbian gay pride march ever organized was broken up with violence by a motley crue of these charming fans.
The rising violent ultra scene in Serbia during the late 80’s provided an excellent opportunity to the nationalist leaders. They had seen how successfully Franco and Mussolini (Real Madrid and the Italian national team, respectively) had used football to enhance their political demagoguery. Fanatic footballs fans of big, successful clubs with a massive following can be a great way for displays of primal, chest-thumping power. Thus it was that a certain Željko Ražnatović was employed by Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic to guide the spirit and capacity for unfettered and savage violence of the delije towards more worthwhile and ‘patriotic’ causes. Popularly known as Arkan, he had a blossoming criminal career by the time he was a teenager. He escaped prolonged incarceration in juvenile detention centres by working for the Yugoslav secret police. Later he slipped illegally into Western Europe where he joined other expat Serbian criminals and was engaged in robbery, kidnapping and murder in over 6 countries. As a result of his efforts on behalf of the Serbian mafia he earned a place in the Interpol’s Top 10 Most Wanted List. After staging daring escapes that would put Steve McQueen to shame, he went back to Yugoslavia where he got busy in building a criminal empire with state patronage. After becoming the director of the delije associations Arkan built himself a mansion outside the Red Star Stadium and was busy recruiting volunteers to fight in the Balkan Wars of the 1990’s.
The extent to which football, ethno-nationalist politics and militarism had blended in Yugoslav football became apparent when Red Star went to Croatia for a match against Dinamo Zagreb. The match, held on the 13th of May, 1990 in the Maksimir stadium in the Croatian capital, proved to be the swansong of the Yugoslav football league. It also went down in the pages of history as an example of why sports, like religion should never be mixed with politics. Just weeks before the match, Croatians had voted overwhelmingly in favour of seceding from the Yugoslav SFR. On the day of the match, about 3,000 delije fought with the members of the ‘Bad Blue Boys’ of Zagreb and the local police. The game had to be stopped after just ten minutes had passed and the battle lasted for at least an hour, after which the stadium was set afire. Dinamo Zagreb’s star Zvonimir Boban (he later played for AC Milan) got involved in the fray and kicked a policeman who was trying to stop Croatian ultras from attacking the delije.
Members of both the Red Star delije and the Partizan grobari enthusiastically joined the Serb Volunteer Guard started by Arkan. Known popularly as Arkan’s tiger, these clean shaved death squads roamed all over the Balkans and substituted their usual street fighting with acts of genocide. The football fans took great pride in Arkan’s tigers. There perhaps had never existed a sporting group that had exerted such a staggering amount of political, economic and military clout. It was as if an entire nation was formed composed solely of ethnically pure football fans. This even overcame derby rivalry. During the Eternal Derby match of March 22, 1992, there was an atmosphere of palpable hostility. Armed gangs of both teams were raring to have a go at each other. Suddenly, everything changed. About 20 members of Arkan’s Tigers dressed in full military fatigues made their way into the north delije stand of the Red Star Stadium (known locally as the ‘Marakana’, after the iconic Brazilian stadium). They started holding up captured signposts that read '20 miles to Vukovar'; '10 miles to Vukovar'; 'Welcome to Vukovar'. Vukovar was a Croatian town that Arkan’s Tigers along with the Serbian army had captured. About 300 Croats, wounded in the Battle of Vukovar and then imprisoned in a hospital, were beaten, executed and buried in a mass grave. Similar signs with the names of other towns that had fallen to the Serbian Army were held up. Then Arkan himself emerged from the stands and the stadium erupted in adulation and applause. Football rivalry, and indeed football itself was forgotten as the audience frolicked in paroxysms of patriotic rapture. The players were eyeing Arkan with awe and reverence and did not pay much heed to the game. Even Hitler perhaps could not manufacture such a sense of power during the Berlin Olympics.
After the Balkan wars, the hooligans and their leaders took over the Serbian underworld. The warlords and the gangsters divided up the oil, alcohol and cigarette companies and the resulting windfall. Their foot soldiers were the delije and others like them. Arkan started a political party but did not enjoy much electoral success. His criminal empire on the other hand expanded and activities like smuggling, protection rackets, extortions etc. boomed. Perceived as a defender of Serbs, he exerted a significant amount of interest in Serbian society. Folk songs were composed that exemplified his glory as a perceived war hero. He owned a team FK Oblic which succeeded in the league because opposing teams were warned against playing well against them. One star player of an opposing team was even kidnapped to prevent him from playing against Oblic. While all of this was going on, ordinary Serbian citizens who had no ties with the underworld or were not football fanatics however suffered under the triple whammy of civil war, NATO bombings and the death of the Yugoslav welfare state.
In 1999, Arkan was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for crimes against humanity which included genocide against Muslims in Kosovo. However, before he could serve his punishment he was assassinated by rival political and criminal factions. He was given a full military funeral and thousands attended.
The delije no longer are as politically powerful powerful as they used to be, although their criminal activities continue unabated. Their criminal organizations are structured in a hierarchy with commanders at the top and footsoldiers at the bottom – a relic of the Balkan wars. They also remain the most violent and racist of football fans in the world. There have been instances where they aim loaded guns at opposition fans. The English Under 21 team that visited Serbia got a taste of the Serbian treatment when Serbian hooligans made the infamous ‘monkey gestures’, threw projectiles and chanted racist taunts at non-white members of the team like Danny Rose and Raheem Sterling. Even the Serbian team was involved in a fracas at the end of the match.
The Serbs however do not monopolize football related violence and crime in the Balkans. It is widespread in countries like Macedonia too. Here unlike in Serbia there are often two or more ethnic groups involved so the prospect of ethnic clashes are always present. Hence the supporters of the same football club can be divided into ultra firms based on ethnicity or religion. This adds further fuel to an already combustible situation. The political parties have come to an understanding with these firms and offer them patronage an employment opportunities in exchange for activism during elections and support. Needless to add, they also make for very efficient political thugs. Thus it is that football fans involved in heinous crimes are exonerated very easily because the judiciary is unable to prosecute under pressure.
About the author
Krishanu B. Neog is a Ph.D. student at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He obtained his Master's from the School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. He does have an engineering degree but it is little more than a piece of paper. Krishanu has developed a soft corner for Liverpool FC, having followed them since the ignominious days of Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing to its present state as European Champions.