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Croatia: Recent Soccer Violence in Balkans May Be More About Politics Than Sports

By Kit Kadlec

Politicians say a recent string of violent incidents at soccer matches in Croatia have more to do with political loyalties than the game itself. RFE/RL correspondent Kit Kadlec looks at the reasons behind recent violence at soccer matches in the Balkans and what is being done to stop it.

Prague, 30 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last week's Croatian Cup 1-0 victory for Dinamo Zagreb over Hajduk Split went without major fan incidents. But that may have been because the crowd was being closely monitored for signs of tension. Fans of both teams engaged in violent clashes earlier this month.

Other riots at recent soccer matches in the Balkans have taken on a new dimension that appears to be unique to the region -- political activism.

Dusan Maravic is the vice president of the Yugoslav Football Association. He says the mixture of politics and sports at recent events has resulted in dangerous unrest at recent matches throughout the Balkans:

"It is a trend, and we have to do everything to stop the trend concerning the violence of our supporters. It's not good for the game itself. Or for the people who would like to come to our stadium -- young people, women, you know. Because they don't want to come to the stadium when they hear what is happening there."

When hundreds of Hajduk fans rushed onto the field near the end of their 2-0 loss to Dinamo earlier this month in the first leg of the Croatian Cup, top Croatian government officials denounced the ensuing riot as politically motivated. Hundreds of fans were injured, as were some 30 policemen. Police had to use tear gas and eventually clubs to remove rioters from the field in order to allow the match to finish.

Interior Minister Sime Lucin later told a cabinet meeting that the section of the stands in the Split stadium where Hajduk fans were sitting was full of political banners expressing support for right-wing oppositionist parties in Croatia. Prime Minister Ivica Racan accused the Hajduk fans of disrupting the match to increase discontent in Croatia a week before local elections.

Croatian Football Association spokesman Ado Kozel disagrees, however. He says the incident had nothing to do with politics. "[It was] normal European hooligans in Split [making] trouble. It's not the first time [this has happened]. And last year in the same place and the same match between Hajduk and Dinamo, [there were the] same problems. One hundred and fifty hooligans made trouble, and the problem is for the Croatian Football Association. This is not a political problem."

Hajduk official Ivica Surjag would not comment on the recent riots, other than to say, "it is better to forget this incident." The Croatian government seems to now be doing the same. Both Lucin's and Racan's offices recently declined to comment further on the issue.

But Croatian league spokesman Kozel says the riots are linked more to economics than politics: "The problem is an economic situation. Many people are unemployed, and we have a problem with [recovering from] the war. It's a normal situation, normal for this time. Croatia is a new country with new problems."

The Croatian political magazine "Globus" said in this week's issue that the contrast between Zagreb's booming economy and Split's rising unemployment may be the reason for heightening political tensions. The magazine said the Split soccer field provided an arena for radical parties to play on the growing rancor between the two cities.

In a survey published in the same issue of Globus, some 80 percent of Split residents said they thought of Zagreb as a privileged town. Split is still an area of strong support for the political party of late President Franjo Tudjman, while Zagreb is seen as the center of support for the new government. Dinamo Zagreb recently returned to their original team name, reversing the decision of Tudjman who, while president, had ordered it changed to Croatia Zagreb because, he said, Dinamo sounded too communist.

Violence may be even more of a problem for Balkan countries outside of league matches, when they play each other at the international level. Yugoslav league official Maravic says some rivalries are still very dangerous: "It is still a big problem playing against Croatia here. [As far as] Bosnia-Herzegovina, no -- [but] Albania, yes, yes. For the world cup matches, yes, it is still a big problem to play against these countries, especially with Croatia."

Like Croatia, Yugoslavia has seen some politicized skirmishes recently at its soccer matches. Last October, fans of Belgrade rivals Red Star and Partizan rushed onto the field throwing fireworks and chairs three minutes into the game. Partizan fans say it was Red Star banners -- taunting them for their owner's rumored support of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic -- that sparked the fighting that left some 40 people injured.

Yugoslav league official Maravic says new laws being drafted on soccer riots will make fans think twice about engaging in violent clashes in the future. He said convictions for those caught fighting at matches in Yugoslavia will soon carry jail sentences of one to three years.