Sport is also war

The whole of Yugoslavia was once proud of Slovenia’s skiers, Croatia’s basketball players, Bosnia’s handball legends, Serbia’s footballers, Montenegro’s water polo players and Kosovo’s world-class boxers. In sports halls and football stadiums, for many years sport provided a gauge for measuring of the mood of the nation. But in the 1990s this was suddenly a thing of the past. The gauge was broken.

By Beqë Cufaj

26 years on, I don’t remember exactly where I was on 13 May 1990. What I do know is that I was a student during that spring and I was feeling very excited about starting a new chapter of my life in a new world that was filled with joy, but also with sadness, and the fear that the political situation in Kosovo and Yugoslavia as a whole had fundamentally and ominously changed.

By the end of the Second World War, Kosovo had not only suffered the worst destruction but was also the least developed region in the new state of Yugoslavia. The latter was made up of six republics: Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Slovenia, and the two autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina. It was home to 22 million people, with Albanians being the largest minority. Numbering around 3 million, they lived in Kosovo in southern Serbia and also in parts of Macedonia and Montenegro.

The Albanians differed from their neighbours and fellow citizens in that they did not speak a Slavic language. So whereas Slovenians had few problems understanding Macedonians, and the difference between the Croat and Serb languages is similar to the difference between the German spoken by Bavarians and Berliners, the Albanians in the socialist state of Yugoslavia did not feel that they were automatically integrated into the new multi-ethnic state. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Albanians had the country’s highest illiteracy rate – 97% of this mostly rural population could neither read nor write – and had a fundamentally hostile attitude towards the Slavs, a feeling that was reciprocated. Many Albanians had converted to Islam during the centuries of Ottoman rule in order to preserve their national identity and language. This all meant that the circumstances were hardly ideal for a peaceful coexistence with the Slavs.

On top of this, almost half of all Albanians were living outside Albania. The king collaborated with Mussolini’s fascists and the German forces during the Second World War. When the war ended, he was forced out and the country joined the ranks of communist states.

A history of separation

The history of separation began, and its effects were felt not only by Albanians and their neighbours, but by the whole of Europe eight years ago, when the world’s newest state, Kosovo, announced its independence.

The Albanians in former Yugoslavia were largely uneducated and lived in a very patriarchal society. Some were Muslims, some were Catholics, and their rituals were very different from those of their Slavic, Orthodox neighbours. Yugoslavia’s communists, with Marshal Tito at their head, diagnosed their malaise as illiteracy, a problem that had to be tackled with the utmost urgency. A campaign was launched to ‘educate the Albanians’, motivated by communist ideologies and a dangerous upsurge of nationalism and separatism. Hundreds and then thousands of Albanians were admitted to colleges and universities in the former Yugoslavia. From Ljubljana to Zagreb, Sarajevo and particularly Belgrade, skilled workers were trained with a view to returning them to the Kosovan capital of Pristina once they had qualified as teachers, doctors, army officers, writers, or sports trainers, so that they could pass on their education to the masses. This was a sign of their strong interest in accepting coexistence with the Slavs as long as they were accorded certain rights. They were awaited by a communist government that was aiming to build a country and integrate them into its multi-ethnic body.

Educating ethnic Albanians at top universities led to something that few people ever expected in the wake of the Second World War. In the early 1970s a university was established in Pristina, which offered a range of basic subjects and opened its doors to thousands of Albanian students. Now they no longer had to travel to other parts of the country in order to get an education. But this all came to an end when Slobodan Milosevic withdrew the province’s autonomy.

After my military service in the Yugoslavian army – at the time the fourth largest in Europe – I returned to Kosovo and my hometown of Pristina, where suddenly everything had changed. The new Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic had revoked Kosovo’s autonomy. Other republics such as Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia had introduced new multi-party systems without any undue upheaval. In each federal state, communists turned into socialists or social democrats, and the remaining parties consisted of groups with strong nationalistic tendencies who added the suffix ‘democratic’. In other words, they were preparing for the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the independence of the republics. It all began with the expansionism of Belgrade and the leader of the Serbian communists, Slobodan Milosevic. Unlike the others, they had discovered a simple formula with a terrible resonance – the combination of nationalism and socialism.

Traumatised and shocked, Albanians soon found themselves being barred from state institutions, universities, bureaucracy, the health system, schools and sports arenas. Huge battles broke out about the 'national' and 'ethnic' supremacy of the three largest groups, the Serbs, Croats and Slovenians. Multi-ethnic Yugoslavia was made up of eight federal republics that were presented to the world as one nation in every area, from sport to foreign policy.

Libertarian autocracy

The fact that this succeeded was down to the libertarian autocrat Josip Broz Tito. He held together this model of socialism for 40 years, albeit with an iron fist, and at the same time achieved the impressive feat of keeping his distance from the Soviets and the Chinese. He invented the concept of communal and industrial 'self-management', which combined an external touch of socialism with an internal hint of capitalism and provided the formula for the 'third way'. In this way it drew certain elements from America and others from the Soviet Union. Until the 1980s this policy meant that Yugoslavia had a stronger economy than countries like Greece and Portugal.

But by 1990 the country had left behind the paradise of the Tito era, the Cold War was over, and the strong economic ties that Yugoslavia had built with competitors in both East and West were now crumbling. Economic difficulties led to competition for resources, and to envy and petty jealousies between the main groups. The tremors could now be felt throughout the multi-ethnic state. Socialists were transformed into 'Serbs' with a dash of 'socialist’ and a big dose of 'national'.

The Croats and Slovenians experienced similar changes. In Serbia the communist apparatchik Milosevic gained broad support. He was seen as the right man to lead the whole nation in the name of Serbia. With terrible speed he used his powers to instigate something that no one believed possible: new wars. Fratricidal, civil wars in their own country.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, this happened in many other countries of former Eastern Europe. In Washington, London, Paris and Bonn it was assumed that nonaligned Yugoslavia would find the transition much easier than other countries in Eastern Europe. This proved to be a bitter mistake, and a naive one.

What was known as the great Yugoslavian nation began to devour itself from the inside. And this was clearly reflected in and around sport. The whole of Yugoslavia was once proud of Slovenia’s skiers, Croatia’s basketball players, Bosnia’s handball legends, Serbia’s footballers, Montenegro’s water polo players and Kosovo’s world-class boxers. But now it was clear that Slovenians played for Slovenia, and Serbs played football for Serbia – not for Yugoslavia. Until the end of the 1980s, sporting champions all proudly and visibly bore the flag of Yugoslavia. They were hailed as heroes in their own republics and were respected athletes throughout the country. But all this gradually stopped when nationalism began to spread its tentacles.

A mini global power

From 1945 to 1990 Yugoslavia’s athletes were world-famous, a kind of mini global power at international sporting competitions. Sport was an intrinsic element of the lives of all young people. In the country’s interior, it was an essential part of everyday life, and weekends were all about football. There had long been a National Football League that included teams from different parts of the country – but now old rivalries and enmities were once again rearing their ugly heads. Sport made it very obvious that old animosities between Croats and Serbs or Albanians and Serbs were intensifying.

These enmities were leftovers from the First and Second World Wars. Tito’s regime swept unresolved conflicts and unsolved crimes under the carpet for the sake of maintaining social harmony, but after his death they returned to the people of former Yugoslavia, and now they were no longer shrouded in the ideology of fraternity and unity (Bratsvo i Jedinstvo). In sports halls and football stadiums, for many years sport had provided a gauge for measuring the mood of the nation. But now this was a thing of the past. The gauge was broken.

While Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgarians, Romanians and other nations were finding ways of setting up multi-party systems in a relatively peaceful manner, a new wind was sweeping through Yugoslavia’s new parties – and it was to turn into a hurricane. This was becoming clearer with every day that passed. We could read it in the political reports in the newspapers, and in the evenings we watched it on TV in our living rooms – the emotional and national fracturing of the Yugoslavian state had become normalised madness. Sports arenas became the place to unleash political frustrations and ambitions, and the former communist cadres took full advantage of this. Just like in the Cold War, these dramatic conflicts began with signs and moods – until the point where everything got out of hand and the real battle, the hot war, began.

It all started in a stadium

Unbelievably, the battle began on 13 May 1990 in a football stadium. But first let’s remember the events of exactly 10 years earlier. On 4 May 1980, just after 3pm, it was announced that Josip Broz Tito had passed away. In the Croatian coastal town of Split, the 22 footballers of opposing teams hugged each other, sat on the pitch and cried. The match was between Croatia’s famous Hajduk team and Serbia’s historic Crvena Zvezda club, Red Star Belgrade.

Ten years later, on 13 May 1990, a match was being played in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, between two great rivals: Serbia’s Red Star and Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb. The game escalated and went down in history as one of the events that marked and symbolized the beginning of the end for Tito’s Yugoslavia. Serbian and Croatian fans went on a rampage, leaving 79 police officers and 59 spectators injured. It was a miracle that no one died among the dozens of people who were injured, some critically.

The game was supposed to be played in the Maksimir stadium on that Sunday afternoon. But it never happened. Before the match started the BBB (Bad Blue Boys) fans of Dinamo and the Delije (Heroes) fans of Zvezda began fighting. The police were outnumbered and totally unprepared. They intervened but either could not (the Serbian version) or did not want (the Croatian version) to separate the fans. Instead they were drawn into the fighting. As the police officers were mainly Serbs, Croatian politicians used the events surrounding this match as an excuse for carrying out ethnic 'cleansings' within the police force.

The situation escalated 40 minutes before the game, when the players were warming up on the pitch. Thousands of right-wing BBB fans stormed the pitch and ran towards the south stand, which was already full of Delije fans and adorned with Serbian symbols. The Red Star players, led by captain Dragan 'Piksi' Stojkovic, fled back to their changing room. A few Dinamo players stayed on the pitch. Zvonimir Boban, a Croatian player, became something of a hero when he kung-fu kicked a policeman and then made himself scarce. The crowd roared 'Boban-e, Bobane!' – the 'e' at the end of his name is the vocative case in Serbo-Croat. For Croatian nationalists this kick became a symbol of their resistance to the hated Belgrade regime. A little irony of history is that the police officer attacked by Boban was a Croat.

For many footballers and citizens, the 13th of May was the spark that lit the flame. For days afterwards, the events in the Maksimir stadium dominated the conversation in newspapers, pubs, offices and factories. Opinions were starkly divided – the Croats laid all the blame on the Serbian fans, while the Serbs claimed the Bad Blue Boys were solely responsible. And above all they saw the events of 13 May 1990 not only as the harbinger of what was to follow, but actually as the start of the war.

This view was echoed by Croatian author Hrvoje Prnjak, also an active member of the BBB, when he wrote: '13 May 1990 stays in our memories as the culmination of many years of tension, which just one year later triggered the real war.' In the real, hot war that followed, football fans could be found on the front line. They were some of the first volunteers who signed up to 'defend' their country and their people. And they often headed for the front armed with the flags and symbols of their clubs.

Along with the BBB fan group and Torcida from Hajduk Split on the Croatian side, they were predominantly from Delije on the Serbian side. The leader of the Delije fans was Zeljko Raznatovic, who later became the irregular soldier and notorious Mafia boss known as Arkan. He gathered Red Star’s various fan groups into one unit. When war broke out, many of the Delije fans joined 'Arkan’s Tigers', who spread fear during the Yugoslavian civil war of 1991-1995. Arkan, a pastry chef turned career criminal and murderer, was assassinated at a luxury hotel in Belgrade in January 2000. His assassins were sentenced to a total of 120 years in prison, but the background to this killing has never been fully explained.

Despite the furore unleashed by the events of 13 May 1990, they were not really a surprise. In Yugoslavia, it was clear that football fans were not just interested in the game when they flocked to the stadiums. In the late 1980s, when political and ethnic animosities were escalating, the behaviour of many dyed-in-the-wool fans became increasingly nationalistic and whole groups of fans turned into ethnic nationalist movements. The stadiums became their political stage, a place for proclaiming their political and nationalistic propaganda.

Everything that was taboo and forbidden in other areas of society, such as singing national anthems and wearing nationalist symbols, was openly flaunted by fans in the sports arenas. This symbolic communication was characterised by a deep hatred. Sporting rivals were now considered to be members of a hostile political, national and religious group.

In Belgrade, Croatian athletes were mocked with crude banners calling them 'Ustashas', Croatian fascist collaborators during the Second World War; and in Zagreb and Split Serbian fans were bombarded with insults such as 'Cigani!' (gypsies) or 'Ubij Srbina!' (Kill the Serbs). And today, little has changed.

In the wake of the mass riots of May 1990 football clubs from Croatia, Slovenia and Kosovo immediately withdrew from the national leagues. They said this was in protest against 'Serbian rule'. 'Yugoslavia' with Serbia at its head was no longer a country. The capitulation of the multi-ethnic state in the Zagreb football stadium marked the beginning of the end for Yugoslavia. The whole world knows what happened next. This huge European drama in the midst of the euphoria triggered by the fall of the Berlin Wall had many acts and many ups and downs.

The dramatic collapse of Yugoslavia was accompanied by a sense of optimism as people looked forward to a bright and peaceful future. And the images of war that shocked Europe were accompanied by dancing Eastern Europeans as they celebrated their liberation from the Soviet Union. In Europe people thought that the horrors of 1941 and 1945 could never be repeated. This meant that they were totally unprepared for the smaller-scale but comparable horrors that dominated the 1990s in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, involving mass graves, the murder of children and old people, the genocide at Srebrenica, hordes of refugees and aeroplanes bombing bridges and houses.

The destruction of a multi-ethnic state in Europe happened in plain sight – in a country that triggered happy memories for many people in Germany, France, Britain, the USA and Austria. They had visited its beautiful coast as tourists, admired Yugoslavia’s top athletes, and heads of government had welcomed the country’s autocratic father, Josip Broz Tito. 10 years of brutal war destroyed a country that Europeans felt they knew.

After the end of the war in Kosovo in 1999, new nations emerged as components detached from the former whole. They were societies that had been through terrible suffering, that were inwardly traumatised and now facing an uncertain future.

And now, after all this, the fans in the stadiums no longer have to draw on resentments from the Second World War when they want to insult their neighbours. Now they can look to more recent conflicts. The end of the wars that broke up the country marked the end of direct violence, but also marked the beginning of a deep-rooted social transition with a very nationalistic flavour.

'Knife, Wire, Srebrenica'

On 12 October 2005 the teams from Serbia-Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina met at the Red Star stadium in Belgrade to contest a key qualifying match for the World Cup in Germany. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina had been over for 10 years. But Serbian hooligans replayed it in the stadium and on the streets of Belgrade in a mini war against the Bosnian fans. 11 people were injured. With gestures and words they threatened the victims of the Bosnian war with a continuation of the brutality. It culminated with Serbian hooligans rolling out a huge banner with the words 'Knife, Wire, Srebrenica', a deliberate insult to the victims of the worst massacre of the Yugoslavian war in 1995.

As if using data from a seismograph, the events in football allow the last 25 years of the former Yugoslavia’s history to be reconstructed, including the collapse of its government and society.

The same applies to the events of 10 October 2014 in Belgrade. During a qualifier for the European Championships in Belgrade, Serbian and Albanian players began brawling. The British referee abandoned the game just before half-time. In the 42nd minute a drone flew over the stadium carrying a flag depicting the outline of a – fictitious – Greater Albania. According to the Serbian media, the man behind it was the brother of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who himself is in favour of reconciliation. His brother set off the drone from the VIP box.

Serbian player Stefan Mitrovic, who plays for the German team SC Freiburg, ripped the flag from the drone as Albanian players piled into him. Angry Serbian fans stormed the pitch and attacked the Albanian players, who tried to flee to the changing room. After an hour’s break the Serbian footballers returned to the pitch to say goodbye to their fans. Reports in the Serbian media claimed that the Albanian players had refused to continue with the match. Their condition was that all the – mainly Belgrade – fans should leave the stadium.

According to the Albanian Football Association, UEFA had recommended that no Albanian fans should travel to the game. In return, the following year no Serbian fans were to travel to the game in Tirana. Apparently the national associations had agreed to this.

Relations between the two nations are still strained. With its large Albanian population, Kosovo was part of the former Yugoslavia for many years. It then became part of Serbia, before the final war in 1999 later led to the territory declaring its independence. The riots in the Belgrade stadium in October 2014 initially threatened the planned visit of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to Serbia. On 22 October 2014, he was to be the first Albanian head of government to travel to Belgrade. The visit would have fallen through if it had not been for the calls made by Angela Merkel to Edi Rama in Tirana and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic in Serbia.

Now that we are in 2016, have we learned anything? I’m not sure. History repeats itself, and this is also reflected in sport. The fact that the sparks flew in a stadium in the former Yugoslavia and ignited a war perhaps means we are now better able to identify the sports arenas, football grounds and training camps where trouble could be brewing today.

Perhaps we now pay a little more attention to sportsmen and women who are a little too passionate? Venice Flying Services – Huffman Aviation was the name of the flying school attended by Mohammed Atta (33) and Marwan Al-Shehhi (23), who were 'average pilots' according to their instructor. Here they practised their attacks for ‘sporting’ purposes and later became notorious on 9/11 when they attacked Western lifestyles, security and freedoms. It was a declaration of war that has since escalated to bring us the consequences we see today.

No, it would not be right or fair to brand sport – and certainly not my favourite sport, football – as a troublemaker. Team spirit, fairness, the joy of movement – sport has so many benefits, including fair competition. But it also acts as a seismograph for society. It uncovers and can even promote ambition, rivalry, deceit, hatred, nationalism, fanaticism and megalomania.

It is striking how nowadays people brand athletes as their countries’ 'heroes' or as 'losers'. Just like in the Cold War, they seem to be used as a measure of a country’s standing. In parallel with this phenomenon, we observe the growth of irrational and dangerous nationalist tendencies and religious fanaticism. We see floods of refugees trailing across fields, at borders, on railway lines and streets, all as a result of this painful trend.

Whenever I think about refugees it reminds me of my schoolfriend in Kosovo, Ismet. Ismet and I were always playing football. We called him 'Žungul' because he was the spitting image of the Yugoslavian legend from Hadjuk in the late 1970s. Nowadays it would be like having a friend who looked like Cristiano Ronaldo. Ismet was a huge sporting talent, but his problem was that he was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Born in 1970, he could have been one of the greats of our generation if world events had not so destructively thrown our lives into disarray.

I’ll never forget the first time I was reunited with Ismet in Germany. It was in 1996, when my daily life revolved around my student residence in Stuttgart and whether I should become an academic or a writer. One day I suddenly saw Ismet walking down Königstraße. He was working as a florist! This huge talent from our childhood was now a florist in Stuttgart, in Germany. I was utterly astonished. We were no longer concerned with football and our youthful dreams. There were refugees everywhere in the Balkans and all over Europe. We no longer had to risk life and limb, and Ismet had had a stroke of luck by finding himself a job as a refugee. When I asked him whether he had tried to introduce himself to a club such as VFB Stuttgart, he responded in a flash: 'It’s too late for all that' – despite the fact that he was only 26 years old. Today, 20 years later, I regret asking that question.

For a few months I saw Ismet selling his flowers, then he disappeared. He probably became a father, found another job and brought up his children – perhaps they are now playing football somewhere. Thousands of former refugees from the former Yugoslavia who scattered across Europe turned to professional sport, from Scandinavia to Germany, Austria to Switzerland, and now they are in their second and soon third generation. Children whose parents came from Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Albania are now playing football for Germany and France. Some of those whose parents live in the West have returned to play in their former homes, where they now have to learn about the country and its language.

It may sound crazy, but many Albanians were proud to share the Brazilian World Cup glory of Shkodran Mustafi when he played in defence for the German team in 2014. When he visited Kosovo he was welcomed by the president, prime minister, minister for sport and thousands of fans. In Switzerland half of the national team is made up of Albanians from Kosovo and Macedonia. At the European Championships in France the Albanian team will be playing against Albanians – some of whom are now Swiss. The father of two players from Kosovo, Taulant and Granit Xhaka, was pressured by the Swiss and Albanian public to decide which team his sons should play for. So now Granit will be playing for Switzerland and Taulant for Albania. May the best man win! Fairness and talent should be the victors.

Perhaps the biggest irony in this story of how sport has been abused and misused by nationalists is how sport once again finds itself in exile. In the diaspora, a new mixture of emotions can arise thanks to the experiences of flight. We are happy to be with others but also happy to be ourselves, we can be with others yet also be on our own. This would make a good platform for the future of sport.

A Global Game – Sport, Culture, Development and Foreign Policy / EUNIC, … (Hg.). Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. (Kulturreport, EUNIC-Jahrbuch)

A Global Game – Sport, Culture, Development and Foreign Policy / EUNIC,... (Hg.). Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. (Kulturreport, EUNIC-Jahrbuch)

Beqë Cufaj, born 1970, is a Kosovo Albanian writer who lives with his family in Stuttgart. He studied languages and literature in Pristina and today writes for a number of newspapers in the Balkans and Western Europe, including the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Courrier International. He has published several volumes of essays and prose. In 2000 he published Kosova – Rückkehr in ein verwüstetes Land (pub. Zsolnay). This was followed in 2005 by his novel Der Glanz der Fremde. His most recent novel entitled projekt@party is published by Secession Verlag.

Beqë Cufaj © photo: privat

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