Last week, in an interview with a local radio station, Zdravko Mamic, the executive director of the country’s most successful football club, Dinamo Zagreb, launched a scathing attack on Croatian Education and Sports Minister Zeljko Jovanovic, who is an ethnic Serb.
Accusing the minister of hating "everything Croatian," Mamic described Jovanovic of being an "insult to the Croatian brain."
"When he looks at you, blood squirts from his eyes," the AFP news agency quoted him as saying. "Looking at his smile, one can only see eye-teeth ready for slaughter."
"As an [ethnic] Serb who never worked in education and sports, he cannot be in charge of the most important field in Croatia," Mamic added.
Not surprisingly, the Dinamo Zagreb chief’s comments have sparked outrage in some quarters and added extra spice to the upcoming World Cup qualifier between Serbia and Croatia, which is the first time the two former Yugoslav nations have met on the soccer pitch since they fought a bitter war in the 1990s.
Serbia’s sports minister, Alisa Maric, described Mamic's words as "an appalling example of hate speech," which she thought had "belonged to the past and would never be repeated."
Maric called on the Croatian authorities to respond to Mamic’s remarks in the "proper" way before appealing for calm ahead of the historic match in Zagreb.
Senior Croatian officials moved quickly to distance themselves from the comments.
The country’s soccer federation described Mamic’s outburst as "unacceptable" and launched disciplinary proceedings against him.
Croatian President Ivo Josipovic also weighed in -- calling the Dinamo official’s remarks "vulgar and primitive," which he said were "offensive and maliciously aggressive toward all members of the Serbian minority [in Croatia] and Serbian people in general."
For their part, the Croatian police arrested Mamic on March 15 on charges of hate speech and incitement to violence.
He was released the following day pending trial. If found guilty, Mamic could face up to three years in jail.
According to Balkan Insight, Mamic’s incendiary words are the latest in a series of attacks he has made on Jovanovic ever since the minister’s government announced a renewed effort to fight corruption in sports in January.
Bad Blue Boys
Whatever the legal upshot of Mamic’s remarks, however, they are likely to go down well with a sizeable portion of his club’s hard-core fans.
Members of Dinamo Zagreb’s "ultra" group of supporters -- known as the Bad Blue Boys (BBB) -- have long been associated with extreme nationalist causes.
An infamous "football riot" between them and diehard fans from Red Star Belgrade in the summer of 1990 is seen as one of the precursors to the ethnic Balkan wars that erupted a year later.
Many BBB members later comprised a crucial portion of Croatian forces in the ensuing conflict and there is even a statue commemorating their efforts at the club’s ground.
More recently, Dinamo also courted controversy by donating $94,000 in gate receipts to Croatian generals awaiting trial for war crimes in The Hague.
Given the highly charged ethnic undercurrents that exist in Balkan soccer, it is perhaps not surprising that Zagreb’s security forces will be tightening security around Dinamo’s Maksimir Stadium, where the match between Serbia and Croatia is going to be played.
Both countries’ soccer associations have also agreed to ban Serbian fans travelling to the match in an effort to minimize the risk of violent clashes.
-- Coilin O’Connor