The Nation's Most Holy Institution: football and the construction of Croatian national identity

More than religion or war, it is football that is uniquely shaping Croatian national identity in a post-Yugoslav world

Dario Brentin
30 June 2013

Croatia fans. Wikimedia. All rights reserved.

Following Eric Dunning’s and Norbert Elias’ assumption that it is the ‘knowledge about sport [that provides us with] knowledge about society’, the social field of sport can be regarded as an expression of a socio-cultural system and a mirror image of the society in which it is established. In the case of post-socialist Croatia, sport including its interpretations, images, metaphors and actual events proved to be a highly politicised form of national expression over the last twenty years.

Moreover, Croatian sport can be described as a unique source of social knowledge contributing significantly to the formation, establishment and conservation of the newly emerging national identity after the dissolution of socialist Yugoslavia. It was the country’s first democratically elected, yet authoritarian, president, Franjo Tuđman, a man convinced that ‘football victories shape a nation’s identity as much as wars do’, who exhibited a remarkable awareness of the galvanizing effect sport could have on his country.

During his ten-year-long presidency, sport would become an object to shameless political exploitation often epitomising central (nationalistic) ideological narratives imposed by the government and functioning as an influential transmitter of political and/or symbolic messages. However, more than two decades after the Yugoslav break-up and more than a decade after the end of Tuđman’s regime, sport, and particularly football, has remained a central social field in which Croatia’s (national) identity is still intensively articulated, debated and contested.

Did a football game start the Yugoslav Wars?

Even today, popular narratives all over the former Yugoslavia suggest that it had been a football match that symbolically initiated the dissolution of the socialist federation – ‘the day the war started’. In the early summer of 1990, during a phase of general political turmoil and insecurity, football-related violence, which had been a widespread social phenomenon for several years, peaked on 13 May at the game between the ‘eternal rivals' in the Yugoslav football league: Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade, at Zagreb’s Maksimir stadium.

The game, listed by CNN as one of five games that ‘changed the world’, had to be suspended due to violent clashes between the opposing set of fans, still remembered as the ‘Maksimir riots’. Only two weeks after the election of Franjo Tuđman, the tensely awaited game escalated into wild stadium and street fights, with the club’s hooligan groups - Delije, who were headed by the future war criminal and paramilitary leader Željko Ražnatović (Arkan), and the Bad Blue Boys clashing. It resulted in the worst football riots in Yugoslav sport history.

Yet, although being a heavily mythologized event, the ‘war’ did definitely not start at Maksimir. It was much rather the beginning of an accelerating process during which sport would become an important nationalising and homogenising factor in some of the Yugoslav republics. More significantly, the outcome of the 1990 elections and the successive push for independence promulgated by Tuđman and the newly elected Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) government led to a severe disruption of ethnic understanding in the (still) Yugoslav republic. During the summer of 1991 tensions between the Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Serbia and the Croatian Serbs living in the Krajina region and Eastern Slavonia escalated and developed into a full-scaled war (the so-called Homeland War) which would last until 1995. The Bad Blue Boys and the Delije were amongst those who were leading the charge.

Presidential love for sport

As highlighted by Tuđman, sport was the ‘first thing by which you can distinguish nations after war’. As such, it needed close monitoring and political guidance. He was adamant in keeping Croatian sport strictly centralized with himself, or politically loyal nomenklatura, in control of sporting associations, clubs, coaches, etc. all the way to sport editors and commentators on national television. Tuđman often emphasized that he was well aware of the importance of sport, especially in times of crisis and conflict. In an interview he asserted that it is politics which should decisively influence sport because ‘everything is politics’ and a distinction would not exist. The president’s extensive personal involvement enabled him to interfere in clubs’ financial matters and to appoint coaches, reaching almost comic levels at times with him ‘dictating’ who should play for the national team or indicating what score-line ‘he would like to see’ for certain games.

Tuđman, who had been a high-ranked sport official in socialist Yugoslavia, saw athletes as ‘Croatia’s greatest ambassadors to the world’. They should be used to promote a certain image of the country, which would be free of stereotypes and fears of a repeating past; a democracy-loving nation under attack from ‘barbaric’ and ‘backward’ forces. As ‘Croatians’, athletes were obliged to fight a lofty battle for Croatia, it was their way of fighting for Croatian independence and participating in building national identity. Sport adopted the function of a key symbol for creating a distinctive Croatian nationhood with athletes continuously arguing that competing on behalf of the nation was more than ‘just’ sport. 

As the Croatian sociologist Srdjan Vrcan noted, they symbolically represented a true manifestation and incorporation of almost all positive attributes attached to Croatians and sought to be recognised by their original and true Croatianness. The Croatian national teams became part of the 'national folklore' and a narrative was established which identified representing your country in a red-and-white-checkered jersey as the 'holiest' of all achievable virtues. The success of Croatian sport, most notably achieveing third place at the FIFA World Cup in 1998, was mobilized in order to create a popular homogenizing sense of national pride and portrayed as a sublimation of national character, culture and collective will. The result was not ascribed to actual talent but rather to a unique feeling of togetherness uniting the national team with its people and creating a ‘deep horizontal comradeship’ (Hobsbawm).

Sport as a constructor of 'otherness'

The Tuđmanist presidential narrative saw and promulgated Croatia’s formative years as a time when the nation was denied a peaceful separation from socialist Yugoslavia and subsequently forced into a war triggered by ‘Greater Serbian’ aspiration to conquer ‘holy Croatian soil’. This dominant binary of a ‘peace and freedom loving Croatia’ and an ‘imperialistic and ferocious Serbia’ prevailed during the war years and has remained a potent marker of difference ever since.

Since ‘Croatianness’ was defined in strict opposition to anything perceived as ‘Yugoslav’, the dichotomy between ‘Croatia versus Yugoslavia’ was determined as a significant element of national self-understanding. This everyday production of collective identity on a ‘We-They’ boundary was an integral part of the Croatian nation-building process after 1991, while the ideological core of Croatian nationalism was based on an exclusiveness of (a-)historical dichotomies; the construction of insurmountable differences between e.g. Yugoslavia vs. Croatia, barbarism vs. democracy, Balkan vs. Europe, Serbianness vs. Croatianness.

Sport – in a Barthesian sense – prominently contributed to such boundary constructions internally by fostering consolidation and externally by fostering confrontation. Thus whenever a Croatian team faced a Yugoslav/Serbian team, sport transformed into a rallying point reasserting national identity in opposition to ‘them’, transferring war cleavages onto the sport field and constructing the games in question as a continuation of the Homeland War by other means. These games, no matter how marginalised the post/discipline was, were always emotionally and nationalistically charged with every defeat being proclaimed as a national tragedy and every victory a symbolic payback for the humiliation endured during the ‘Greater-Serbian aggression’.

A game like any other?

The latest of these occasions came a few months ago when the Croatian national football team played a qualification match for the FIFA World Cup 2014 against the Serbian national team at Zagreb’s Maksimir stadium. It was only the third time that these two sides had met in a competitive game, with the last games dating back to 1999, when the countries were still ruled by Franjo Tuđman and Slobodan Milošević. The two games ended in two draws (0-0; 2-2). Yugoslavia qualified over Croatia for the European Championships 2000 leaving Tuđman and his nomenklatura watching their own symbolic end. ‘If we lose, Tudjman will never be president again’, a young spectator said in a short newspaper interview.  Two months later, in December 1999, Tudjman died from cancer only a few weeks before the scheduled presidential elections. In January 2000, a centre-left coalition government was elected and set out to change Croatia’s political system by reducing presidential powers, introducing economic reforms to combat nepotism and corruption, and pursuing better cooperation with European institutions.

Although the political situation in both countries had transformed drastically since then, the encounter was nonetheless under heavy international scrutiny with both governments worried about having yet another football related scandal. In contrast to 1999, when the charged atmosphere was orchestrated and induced from above to serve for political purposes, this time, countless pleas for tolerance and respect were echoed over and over again.

In the months leading up to the game, the two national team coaches did not necessarily help to mitigate the tense atmosphere. Igor Štimac (CRO) and Siniša Mihailović (SRB) have a history that dates back to 1991 when they were involved in a heated altercation during the Yugoslav Cup final resulting in Štimac allegedly expressing the wish that Mihailovć’s family in Borovo would be killed by the Croatian army. Mihailovć, who is from an ethnically mixed family, repaid his dues during the second game in Zagreb in 1999, by almost causing a riot after crossing himself in front of a banner that read ‘Vukovar 1991’. The city of Vukovar, a besieged and heavily bombarded Slavonian city during the war still represents one of the constituting myths of post-socialist Croatia and symbolizes a central moment of Croatian resistance, suffering and heroism during the Homeland War.

In November 2012 Štimac travelled to the home town of Croatian general Ante Gotovina to celebrate his acquittal from the ICTY for his role in the 1995 military operation Oluja. The national team coach proudly informed the press of his plans to let Gotovina perform the kick-off before the game with Serbia - a proposal he had to renege on very quickly. Ultimately though, the pressure by FIFA and UEFA on both two national coaches paid off and in the weeks leading up to the game they actually tried to foster a general perception that it was just ‘a game like any other’.

The crowd at Maksimir stadium, however, did not seem to want any reconciliation; at least not the Croatian fans. Serbian fans were not allowed to come to Zagreb to watch the game as negotiated by the two Football Associations in order to minimize any potential conflict. The same will apply to Croatian fans when their team plays Serbia in Belgrade, in September 2013. During the game the Croatian fans unfurled a gigantic banner that read ‘through the rough times and through the battles we defended honourably our homes. The ones who defended our land didn’t die in vain. Our flag is flying and we don’t have to hide it anymore’, booed and chanted down the Serbian national anthem whilst some chanted ‘Kill a Serb!’ during the match. Also, Mihailović’s ‘provocative’ gesture from 1999 was not forgotten. ‘Vukovar, Vukovar’ might have been the loudest and most utilized chant on the night. The game finished with a comfortable 2-0 victory for Croatia and without any major incidents.

Towards a healthy sporting rivalry

As J.A. Mangan points out in the introduction to his book Tribal Identities: Nationalism, Europe, Sport, there are three main functions of sports in modern societies: Firstly ‘as a mechanism of national solidarity promoting a sense of identity, unity, status and esteem’, secondly ‘as an instrument of confrontation between nations stimulating aggression, stereotyping and images of inferiority and superiority’ and thirdly ‘as a cultural bond linking nations across national boundaries, providing common enthusiasm, shared emphatic experiences, the transcendence of national allegiances, and opportunities for association, understanding and goodwill’. In the Croatian case, the first two points are undoubtedly established. How long it will take for the third one become less marginalized, is hard to predict. 

Still, the emergence of a sport-Yugosphere through the creation of several regional sport leagues over the last decade has shown that a gradual rapprochement is possible even on the sporting ground. Something many would have doubted only a few year back. Whilst acknowledging the different magnitude when talking about football and especially when talking about national football teams, since they represent the main vehicles for the expression of inter-ethnic conflicts, examples from basketball, handball and water polo tell a different story. It may just be the way towards the developing of a ‘healthy’ sporting rivalry between the post-Yugoslav societies.  


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