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Ethnic-Related Soccer Clashes In Bosnia Revive Old Fears

Fans of Sarajevo's Zeljeznicar clash with fans of Croatia's Hajduk Split clash on October 6.
SARAJEVO -- Soccer fans in Bosnia-Herzegovina are celebrating after a hard-fought 1-1 draw against France in Paris on October 11 was enough for their national team to secure a play-off place, which moves them one step closer to qualifying for the Euro 2012 championship.

Although the team was unable to seal automatic qualification, they can look forward to the play-offs with optimism as their creditable draw in Paris came hot on the heels of a 5-0 shellacking of Luxembourg last week.

Buoyed by such a rich vein of form, Bosnia-Herzegovina's footballers must now fancy their chances of ensuring their country's first appearance in a major international tournament since it became independent 19 years ago.

For a decade now, soccer has stood out in Bosnia, a country still haunted by memories of violent civil war and still riven by divisions among its three main ethnic groups -- Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Serbs.

Despite the ethnic tensions and weak central government, the national soccer league has endured for the last 10 years, boasting teams from all ethnic communities that have been able to hold hundreds of matches each year with very few violent incidents. Politics and ethnic animosities do play a role in the league, both on and off the pitch, but overall it has demonstrated that cooperation in Bosnia is possible.

That achievement, though, now seems under threat, as soccer-related violence has broken out in three cities in the last two weeks. Most recently, this was the scene in Sarajevo on October 6, as rampaging fans for both teams injured dozens and damaged cars, forcing officials to cancel a match between Croatia's Hajduk Split and Bosnia's Zeljeznicar.

Observers blamed the violence on ethnic Croat fans of Hajduk from Bosnia's southern region of Herzegovina, noting that Zeljeznicar played Hajduk in 2010 in Split without incident. But Zoran Catic, a journalist with the independent Student Radio eFM in Sarajevo, also blames the weakened authorities for the violence.

"It doesn't matter if the fans were from Herzegovina or Croatia -- that is just pointing to the political background," Catic says. "Such things could never happen if the organs of law and order and the state that stands behind them regulated things as they should be regulated. We all know who needs to secure such public events."

The rioting in the capital followed hard on two similar incidents in the last few weeks. In Banja Luka, capital of Bosnia's ethnic-Serb-dominated Republika Srpska region, on September 24, local fans rushed the field and threw stones and other objects at visiting fans of Zeljeznicar. And in ethnically divided Mostar on September 29, play was stopped when ethnic Croat fans stormed the field and attempted to assault players from a largely Bosnian Muslim team.

In the Mostar incident, several players from the Croat-supported team tried to shield their opponents from the rampage, and others issued statements afterward rejecting the actions of their fans. Overall, although the teams in the Bosnian soccer league tend to reflect the ethnic composition of their communities, many of them are remarkably mixed and almost none of them is exclusively one ethnicity or another. Their fans, however, still largely reflect the ethnic boundary lines that have bedeviled the country for decades now.

War By Other Means

But the recent incidents have stirred up memories of soccer-related violence in the late 1980s run-up to the wars that destroyed Yugoslavia. The most notorious incident occurred in Zagreb on May 13, 1990, when fans of Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade clashed, leaving more than 60 injured.

The Serbian fans that traveled to Croatia for that match were led by Serbian nationalist Zeljko Raznatovic, widely known as Arkan, who was later indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the Geneva Conventions.

The Zagreb rioting marked the beginning of the disintegration of the Yugoslav First League, with Croatia and Slovenia pulling out in 1990 and the league collapsing after the 1991-92 season. By that time, the fighting across Yugoslavia was out of control.

Are Bosnia's violent soccer fans being used by other political forces?
Are Bosnia's violent soccer fans being used by other political forces?
Now some fear that history might be repeating itself. The Bosnian authorities have been unable to form a government for more than a year now, and relations between Bosnia's Muslims and Serbs are at a total standoff. In addition, relations between Bosnia's Muslims and Croats are also strained, with occasional calls for reviving the wartime Croatian statelet. There is concern that frustrations could be played out in soccer stadiums. A recent report by the International Crisis Group warned that the situation is so tense that a single incident could "ignite serious violence."

Speculation is now rife that the recent violence is not merely spontaneous unrest. Muslim-Croat Federation Prime Minister Nermin Niksic noted recently that when the fans of teams in Croatia or Serbia clash, "it's just a fan fight. When the fans of Zeljeznicar and Borac fight, then they say it is a fight among ethnic groups -- although it is quite certain that within each group of fans there are people who are not ethnically pure. But I'm afraid that fan groups are being used for certain goals."

Sarajevo-based journalist and commentator Ahmed Buric agrees. "We can definitely expect that paramilitary organizations, fan gangs, or someone else will get involved in order to rule the streets," he says.

"We are the country with the biggest number of police forces in the world. Isn't it now up to someone who is responsible for [security] and who also has the expertise to assess which political structure could be using which informal structure to realize its goals?" Buric adds that in the absence of a central state, "everyone pulls toward his own side."

RFE/RL Balkans Service correspondent Nedim Dervisbegovic and RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this story from Prague