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Jakub Olkiewicz  30 września 2019

Football lined with war. A history of games that will help you understand the Balkans

Jakub Olkiewicz  30 września 2019
przeczytanie zajmie 12 min

Refreshments after one of the games of the Croatian national team during the 2018 World Cup. When images from such meetings reach the media, they usually focus on popular music and a few most entertaining players, dancing merrily to uncomplicated lyrics about love. The Croats, however? They stand on the tables and roar „My Domovina”, a patriotic song filled with longing for one’s homeland. You can tell by the way they move, by their faces, you can hear it in their voices. Croatia is not just a team for them, whose colours they wear while running around for another 90 minutes. To them, Croatia is still an entity to fight for. And this fight is as natural for them as the knowledge of kola, a regional dance.

The Balkans are another world – this I heard over and over again from everyone who visited this region of the world and saw the football games played there. There the fans of stadium events will find a unique combination of bitter stubbornness and obstinacy, so familiar to Polish stadiums, and melody and emotions of Latinos, Greeks or Italians. The key to understanding the Balkans seems to be the recent 1990s tragedy. The tragedy that affected all parties to the conflict, from the Albanian inhabitants of Kosovo to the Belgrade kids hiding from NATO bombings.


In the propaganda-based political struggle, sport, and football in particular is one of the most fearsome weapons in the entire arsenal. Politicians know this, club activists know this, supporters know this. A strong sense of identity with a group, ingrained local patriotism, and emotions, often fueled by the songs of fanatics. There is a reason why one of the first moves of the Russians arranging Crimea in their way, were attempts to join the football clubs there to the Russian league, of course with Russian names and Russian players.

Building identity through sport, but also awakening specific moods in society by means of football is the 101 that has been thoroughly studied by Albanians establishing their clubs e.g. in Northern Macedonia, by Hungarians caring for their clubs in Slovakia or the advocates of autonomy strongly supporting clubs from their small homelands and caring for the right political climate in the stands. Therefore, what is happening and has been happening in the Balkans for almost thirty years is hardly surprising.

The symbolic beginning? Probably the match between Dinamo Zagreb and Crvena Zvezda Belgrade, which took place on May 13, 1990.

Croatia had been in ecstasy after the recent elections won by the nationalist and autonomy-expanding Croatian Democratic Union. The wind of change has proven strong enough to spread the fighting mood to almost all nations united under Yugoslavia. And then, in the league, one of the major Serbian clubs, with Serbian nationalists in the stands, had to go on a trip to one of the major Croatian clubs, with its Croatian nationalists in the stands.

All it takes is a single spark.

Serbs entered the region’s capital with more than a single spark; they came shouting „Zagreb is Serbian”. There was also no shortage of „greetings” for Franjo Tudman, the new president of Croatia, and other songs that would bring the worst out of the hosts. The rivals replied in kind – attacks by Dinamo fans on the Crvena’s supporters group took place virtually all day, from the Serbs’ arrival in Zagreb until the moment when the match was interrupted. The interruption happened after an assault by the hosts on the guest sectors. Of course, they didn’t need an invitation to join in the fun, so the brawl moved to the pitch.

Was this where the spirit of the Croatian national team had formed, which would win bronze at the World Championships eight years later? This is a far-fetched theory, but certainly one of the team’s heroes appeared at that time. When the police had intervened, one of the police officers was extremely brutal about handling a Dinamo fan present on the pitch of the Maksimir stadium. Then he was jump-kicked by… Zvonimir Boban, Dinamo player and later a World Cup medalist.

– There I was – me, a celebrity, willing to risk my life, career and everything that could give me fame, just for the sake of ideals. For the sake of Croatia – Zvonimir Boban recalled years later on CNN, as quoted in one of the articles at weszlo.com. – Back then we were wondering – where is the police? Where are they? The Serbs are wrecking our stadium and they are just standing by, watching! – he would also report in the document „Last Yugoslavian Football Team”.

The Croats had their version of events. The Serbs were deliberately being treated more gently, the forces representing the state were aggressive towards Croats trying to go for independence. Of course, the guests from Belgrade claimed the contrary – that it was their small group that had been attacked, and Boban stood up for an ordinary hooligan.

Regardless of who we consider being the perpetrators and who the culprits of the hustle at the Dinamo stadium, one thing is certain: it was an event that had started a new era of ties between football and politics in the Balkans. The two have always been connected, but for the first time, they were practically at a forefront of the first battle in the armed conflict to come.

SERBIA – ALBANIA (October 2014)

Although the UEFA is striving to avoid such situations in every way possible, Serbia drew Albania in the qualifying games for Euro 2016. An oversight? Insufficient knowledge about the tense relationships in this part of the world? States with ongoing territorial disputes are usually separated in the draw – and so Gibraltar cannot play against Spain, Ukraine against Russia and Armenia against Azerbaijan.

Serbia, however, got Albania and it was known from the beginning that this game would not be among the quietest. All possible precautions were taken – supporters from Albania were not allowed to the game, the hosts were checked in detail, the stadium was writhing with orderlies, and large-format flags were banned.

But these are the Balkans. Nothing is impossible.

It was clear that the issue of Kosovo, which is claimed by both nations, would be raised in all media, not just football-related ones. The Albanians would highlight the independence of this territory in all ways, while the Serbs would chant in every match: Kosovo is Serbian.

It seemed, however, that stadium restrictions would make the game itself more civil. Perhaps the players, many of whom have or had relatives in Kosovo, will play a bit harder; perhaps there will be a little more foul play, but what else could happen? What happened over the Belgrade stadium could not have been anticipated by the UEFA, the Serbian federation or anyone from the football community.

During the game, a drone flew over the pitch, with a hanging flag depicting the contours of Greater Albania – that is, with a nationalist vision of borders, where Albania stretches from Greece to areas belonging not even so much to independent Kosovo, but also to Serbia’s current territory. The reaction of local fans, but also players of the Serbian national team, was not surprising – a blend of wrath, fury and powerlessness. Stefan Mitrović from the host team was the first to break the flag away from the drone but immediately lost it to the Albanian footballers who began defending the flag. The fans immediately took to the pitch, started a regular fight with the players – although one must admit that the Albanian players also did not refrain from throwing punches in a series of struggles.

The guest players eventually went to the dressing room, covered by their Serbian colleagues and refused to go back out on the pitch. At first, it seemed they would be punished for it – order at the Belgrade stadium was restored quite quickly, and in theory there were no contraindications to continue playing. In the first instance, UEFA decided to punish both sides – the Albanians, for leaving the field, with a forfeit. But the Serbs – with subtracting three points. The result would be that neither team would receive any points for this game in the score table.

Both parties appealed against the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, but only Albania’s complaint was upheld. The result? Serbia loses three points in the table, Albania gains three points – for the forfeit in Belgrade.

The Albanians won promotion to Euro 2016, thanks to the victory in court, among other things. How big propaganda gains does a performance of a small country’s national team at the European Championships give? It’s hard to tell, but the fact that even players from the Albanian team got photographs with the drone pilot from the Belgrade stadium speaks volumes.


Do you want to learn about the balance of power, the sympathies and animosities in former Yugoslavia? Check out with whom the individual countries’ football teams played their first games.

The tradition of playing such games, focused on building a specific identity, probably dates back to the 1930s. In particular European countries, there existed teams which represented national minorities living within a given country operating without any obstacles – just to mention the teams playing in the Polish league. Even then, the Germans treated their 1st FC Katowice as a way to consolidate the ethnic group around the project, not fully concealing the nationalist views of its supporters.

The years went by, but the method did not change, which was best demonstrated by the Balkans in the nineties. Even before Croatia formally proclaimed independence, even before Kosovo could ever dream of winning full autonomy, the „friendly” countries would send their sports teams to highlight the independence of the newly created entities from Yugoslavia. And so already in 1993, Kosovo officially played a friendly game – and, surprisingly, the rival turned out to be Albania. The match was played in Tirana; back then it was not yet possible to organize such show in Pristina, but the Albanians have already made the first step. Kosovo lost 1:3 but appeared in the minds of people from this part of the world as an entity separate from both Yugoslavia and Albania.

Sparring games with Albania also accompanied other important moments in the region’s history. After a friendly match in 1993, Kosovo also hosted Albanians in 2002, following the end of the war and in February 2010, when it began to intensify its efforts to achieve full independence. The friendly games were repeated in 2015 and 2018, just to be sure. Out of seventeen friendly games in the history of Kosovo’s football team, five were played against Albanians.

Likewise, Albania approached Bosnia and Herzegovina nobly, with whom it played two games in 1995 and 1996, first hosting Bosnians in Tirana and then visiting them in Zenica. They did miss the match with Croatia, though. An even more prominent team had been invited to Zagreb – the United States’s team. Have the relations on the Belgrade-Washington, Belgrade-Zagreb and Zagreb-Washington interface influenced the choice of Croatia’s capital for the next US sparring? And all that in 1990, when Zagreb was preparing to become a capital of an independent state? According to a Croatian newspaper Jutarnji List – the local business environment was key there, but does that change the undertone of the meeting?

The new jerseys of the Croatian team in white and red checkerboard were officially presented during the game, referring to the country’s coat of arms. In the stands, 30,000 fans applauded the Croats. Just a few months prior, when the national team of Yugoslavia played at the very same stadium, local fans cheered on the Dutch, earlier booing at the national anthem.


No matter which corner of the Balkans you look into – you will hear a lot of similar stories. Shkëndija Tetovo, an Albanian minority club in Northern Macedonia, explicitly refers to the idea of Greater Albania, which of course raises the rage of fans from Skopje. Żrinjski Mostar, in turn, is a Croatian club in Bosnia and Herzegovina – it even has the famous checkerboard in its coat of arms, and fans during the national team breaks are cheering for Luka Modrić and his buddies, and not the Bosnian, Edin Džeko. In another part of Bosnia, there is Borac Banja Luka – a Serbian club, which refers to the neighbouring country both in its coat of arms and in the stands.

Clubs are one piece of history, the players themselves – another. The specific fate of the people in this region means that even a player born and raised in Luxembourg may emphasize his attachment to his homeland at every step. The most interesting case? It may be Xerdan Shaqiri, a star of the Swiss national team, who even had the flags of Kosovo and Albania sewn on his football boots, next to the traditional Helvetic cross, of course.

Shaqiri, who comes from an Albanian refugee family from Kosovo, feels a bond with both of his „new-old” homelands. Admittedly, he did not use his right to change teams in favour of Kosovo, but he does show his attachment to Kosovo at every step. For instance, after the 2018 World Cup match, when after striking a goal in the Switzerland-Serbia game, he presented an eagle gesture with his hands – which was considered a provocation similar to the famous drone. Shaqiri and Xhaka, another Swiss of Albanian descent, were fined at the time, but they were also even faced being excluded from further World Cup games.

Why did they do that at all? Well, there are simply no indifferent people there.

Hadn’t survived a Belgrade bombing yourself? Probably one of your friends has. Don’t remember the Serbs’ deeds in Bosnia and Herzegovina? Perhaps your mother remembers. The war, or rather dozens of wars and smaller conflicts, is still too fresh and too instant a memory to not affect fans and players alike. Politicians, who are interested in fueling this type of conflict rather than quenching it, will continue to play that card for their agenda for a long time. The football players? They will continue to jump on the tables and sing patriotic songs.

And although all these stories are lined with pain, brutality and blood, it is difficult not to fall in love with the Balkans as they are.

The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland. This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.