Our latest edition is out in print and online now. Subscribe today and start reading.

Ninety-Minute Nationalists

Richard Mills

Yugoslavia’s communists recruited so many football players that some even joined the partisans while still wearing their kits. But today, football in the Balkans is famous for its far-right extremism.

Grobari, fans of FK Partizan, celebrate their nineteenth champions title, 2005. Grobar / Wikimedia

Interview by
David Broder

Football grounds in the former Yugoslavia have a grim record of sectarian violence. After the collapse of the postwar socialist state and the region’s descent into all-out war in the 1990s, some stadiums were used for prison camps and even for mass executions. Even in more recent times, football in the Balkans has been marred by violent hooliganism and player and fan tributes to war criminals.

But if football sometimes puts on show the ugliest aspects of the Balkans, this was not always the case. In the first part of the twentieth century, Yugoslavia had a rich tradition of workers’ sport clubs, and even before the partisans of 1941–45 finally drove out the Nazi occupation, the communists had begun using football to promote an internationalist and anti-fascist identity for the new Yugoslavia.

This all ended in 1990, with a football riot often (exaggeratedly) claimed to have triggered the final downfall of Yugoslavia. But can sport drive political change, or does it just reflect existing social mores? Jacobin asked Richard Mills, author of The Politics of Football in Yugoslavia: Sport, Nationalism and the State, to explain how football in the Balkans turned from a tool of coexistence into an arena of conflict.


Croatia’s run to the World Cup final drove social media discussion of past racist abuse and violence by its fans and players, including tributes to the Nazi collaborationist Ustaše. When did this image of the country’s football emerge? Is this a history rooted in old undercurrents of bigotry, or a product of the wars that destroyed Yugoslavia in the 1990s?


Provocative chants harking back to the fascist movements of the Second World War are nothing new. For decades, a vocal minority of football fans across the former Yugoslavia has sung odes to the Croatian Ustaše, the Serbian Četniks, and other violent political extremists. References to these domestic enemies of Josip Broz Tito’s victorious partisan movement became an explosive means of challenging communist authority and insulting entire nations. The first postwar matches between clubs from Belgrade and Zagreb were marred in this way, as small pockets of spectators dismissed their adversaries as “Četnik bandits” or “Ustaše.” The ruling communists took such behavior very seriously, denouncing, arresting, and even imprisoning fans, players and officials with genuine, or alleged, sympathies for “enemies of the people.”

Much of the violence of the 1940s was perpetrated in the pursuit of ethnic exclusivity, casting a long shadow over the second half of the twentieth century. A cornerstone of the new, socialist Yugoslavia was the communist idea of “brotherhood and unity.” In an attempt to forge a new state from the ruins of an interwar Kingdom paralyzed by national disputes and extinguished by interethnic violence, Tito cast the defeated Ustaše and Četniks as symbolic of all the dark nationalism that blighted the region. By contrast, the new Yugoslavia was to be a federal state that would cherish the diversity of its constituent nations. As part of the state-building process, football clubs tainted by association with disgraced regimes, or with narrow ethnic identities, were forcibly dissolved. Attempts to rehabilitate these discarded relics were taboo. Such sweeping purges, which saw communists commit crimes of their own, left many with a sense of injustice that would bubble to the surface at times of political unrest.

By the 1980s, Yugoslavia was crippled by foreign debt and an aging communist leadership. Emerging political alternatives in the constituent republics tended to view the country’s problems through the prism of nationalism, while groups of young football supporters — and some politicians — turned to the disgraced icons of the past. A significant minority of fans wore the provocative names of fascist movements as badges of honor. Before the infamous Maksimir Stadium Riot of 1990 — later positioned as a kind of trigger for Yugoslavia’s disintegration — Red Star’s fans could be heard mocking the deceased communist leader Tito with odes to the Četnik general Draža Mihailović. Their Croatian counterparts, the Bad Blue Boys, in turn lauded the Ustaša leader Ante Pavelić. In the wars that followed, belligerents harked back to atrocities perpetrated half a century earlier, adding fuel to the fire.

Because it is so explosive, the provocative terminology of the Second World War remains an effective weapon for militant football fans across the former Yugoslavia. The hard core of Croatian supporters — and, occasionally, players — who make headlines in this way do not have a monopoly on such behavior, but they have been far more visible in recent years due their national team’s success.


Stadiums in the ex-Yugoslav countries see the display of strong political identities, for instance banners in homage to the criminals of the wars of the 1990s. What links do such displays among torcidas [fan associations] or hooligan firms have with more conventionally political organization?


Like their communist predecessors, the parties that emerged in the late 1980s were aware of the benefits that could be derived from association with sport. Emerging voices of the Right actively courted the affections of the biggest football supporters’ groups. Vuk Drašković and his Serbian Renewal Movement appealed directly to Red Star Belgrade fans through nationalist rhetoric. Further west, Franjo Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Union erected advertising hoardings inside stadiums during elections and used the re-formed Croatian national team to fuel national pride at a time when this republic was still part of Yugoslavia. Ironically, Tudjman had gained experience of manipulating football for political purposes earlier in his career, as a colonel of the communist-era Yugoslav People’s Army and president of the army club, Partizan Belgrade. Many supporters openly embraced political figures and their dangerous programs, as did some leading footballers. Red Star’s Dragon Stojković was among those to publicly endorse Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević.

As the state crumbled, league matches provided opportunities for fans to express political allegiances and indulge in nationalist exchanges. This was nothing new; similar confrontations occurred regularly in both the interwar Kingdom of Yugoslavia and its socialist successor. However, the scale and frequency of politically motivated incidents increased markedly at the end of the 1980s. The legendary Maksimir Riot resulted in the abandonment of Dinamo Zagreb’s match against Red Star before kickoff. While the myth that this Croat–Serb hooligan confrontation sparked actual war is little more than a romantic legend, subsequent events underlined the interrelation between football, organized politics, and conflict.

One reason why the Maksimir Riot assumed a symbolic role as the opening battle of Yugoslavia’s disintegration is that members of the opposing fan groups participated in the conflict that followed. Under Milošević, the Serbian security apparatus took a direct interest in Red Star’s Delije (Heroes) supporters’ group. Željko “Arkan” Ražnatović, a figure from the criminal underworld who reputedly carried out the state’s dirty work, became an influential voice on Red Star’s terraces. Shortly before the outbreak of war, he formed the Serbian Volunteer Guard, a paramilitary organization better known as the Tigers. With a nucleus of Delije members, this notorious unit fought in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and Arkan was subsequently indicted for war crimes. Red Star were reigning European Champions at the time of the Tigers’ first campaign, and the club’s magazine reveled in the military exploits of some of its most dedicated fans.

In Croatia and Bosnia, fans also flocked to incipient army formations. Experienced hooligans viewed the war as a direct continuation of nationalism-fueled stadium conflicts. A tank was named after Dinamo’s Bad Blue Boys, while club badges served as national symbols on makeshift uniforms. Fan groups in Belgrade, Zagreb, Sarajevo, and elsewhere went on to erect monuments to fallen members and choreographed elaborate terrace displays in their honor.

In contrast to the pride generated by fans’ wartime contributions, direct association with organized politics left a far more problematic legacy. Even before the guns fell silent, the Bad Blue Boys descended into a bitter decade-long dispute with Croatia’s President Tudjman over the politically motivated renaming of Dinamo. In Belgrade, the Delije expressed their frustrations at the way in which Milošević conducted the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, accusing him of abandoning fellow Serbs. Many of the group’s members participated in the revolutionary events that brought him down in 2000. Yet fans continue to express admiration for uncompromising political and military figures, including Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, both of whom have been prosecuted for war crimes by the Hague Tribunal.


If all this often presents an ugly picture of sectarianism, you tell us that in past decades, football could serve as a point of reference for anti-fascists. What does it mean to suggest that football played a role in the revolution of 1943–45?


Long before Tito’s partisans took to the hills in 1941, communists had developed an intimate relationship with the game. The Communist Party of Yugoslavia (KPJ) had been outlawed in 1921. Forced underground, members looked for new ways to continue their activities. The Party was racked with deep divisions and lacked influence for long periods, but workers’ football clubs provided both communists and noncommunists with opportunities to continue their activism. Such endeavors were not without risk: the interwar authorities raided and dissolved dozens of workers’ clubs, and arrested members for illegal political work. In Mostar, the KPJ established a club directly. Velež, named after the mountain that rises above the town, was a celebrated bastion of workers’ politics. It was a lifeline to the Party during years of adversity. Such clubs served as fronts for printing and distributing illegal literature, as conduits for volunteers departing for the Spanish Civil War, and as a means to coordinate demonstrations.

After the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia, hundreds of players, functionaries, and supporters from workers’ clubs answered the Party’s call to arms. Some joined partisan units in their football boots and winter training kits. This eagerness frequently proved disastrous, as inexperienced fighters fell in the first months of the struggle. RŠK (Workers’ Sport Club) Split lost a whole team in the autumn of 1941. By war’s end, thousands of adherents of workers’ clubs had fallen for the National Liberation Struggle. Fascist regimes also murdered a number of famous players accused of working for the underground. Among them was former international Milutin Ivković.

After the war, the sacrifices of humble clubs were celebrated — and sometimes embellished — in rich hagiographies and monuments. These organizations stood as strongholds of the revolution and developed close ties with the senior Party leadership. Some such clubs, like Velež Mostar and Željezničar (Railway Worker) Sarajevo, rose to the top of the Yugoslav game.


Workers’ sport has a long tradition, rooted in the fight for leisure time and the creation of an autonomous working-class culture. Not only did trade unions and social-democratic parties form their own sporting associations, but in the 1920s and 1930s there were also Workers’ Olympiads. Did this tradition also exist in interwar Yugoslavia?


Workers’ sport, and football especially, thrived against the odds in the interwar Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In addition to sporting activities, workers’ clubs enabled their members to gather socially and politically, to form music and drama groups, and to educate themselves. From a very early stage, these poorly funded clubs realized there was strength in numbers. They formed a block in the mid-1920s, with the objective of securing basic rights, as well as equality with the domineering “bourgeois” clubs and football associations. Relations with the latter were often poor, and workers were regularly subjected to police harassment. The block and many of its members were dissolved amid the wave of repression that surrounded the declaration of the royal dictatorship in 1929. Another organization, the Workers’ Sport Union, came into existence shortly afterwards. Like the Block, it was predominantly football-focused, but while it enjoyed some advocacy success within the Yugoslav Football Association, it was divided by infighting and power struggles. The police hounded its clubs until the outbreak of war.


In your narrative, Hajduk Split plays an especially important role as the “team of the National Liberation Army.” In what sense did they serve as “ambassadors” for the new socialist Yugoslavia?


Hajduk were among the few leading teams that refused to compete after the Axis invasion, despite attractive offers from the Italian occupiers. This left the club untainted by collaboration and presented Dalmatian communists with an opportunity. When the partisans reformed Hajduk in 1944, they did so with the express intention of using it as a propaganda arm of the National Liberation Struggle. Split remained in enemy hands and many of the players were smuggled out of occupied territory so as to join up with teammates already serving in the ranks.

With the backing of the senior communist leadership, and with the red five-pointed star of socialism adorning their kits, Hajduk played dozens of matches against British Armed Forces teams. After initial successes, the club embarked upon a grueling tour of the liberated Mediterranean. The high point came in Bari, where before an estimated 50,000 spectators, the team faced a strong British Army side, packed with professionals. For the first time, Yugoslavia’s new star-emblazoned tricolor fluttered above the stadium on an equal footing with its British counterpart, and an emotional rendition of the emerging state’s anthem brought tears to the eyes of many partisans. After Italy, Hajduk played matches in Malta, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. As soldiers on an official mission, they attracted the attention of the international press wherever they went, raising awareness for the partisan cause.

Following liberation, the club toured shattered Yugoslavia. The team attracted large crowds and Tito hosted its players. Decorated with military honors, Hajduk enjoyed support across the state for much of Yugoslavia’s existence. However, it was simultaneously an important symbol of narrower civic, regional, and Croatian identities, a tension which frequently came to the fore at times of strained relations with Belgrade. When Yugoslavia fell apart, the contested nature of both Yugoslav and Croatian identities was particularly marked within the club. A fierce dispute erupted over Hajduk’s emblem, with many pushing for the five-pointed star to be dropped and for the Croatian šahovnica (a red and white checkerboard) to be reinstated. This eventually occurred in 1990, albeit amid huge controversy. The club’s complex past reflects that of the region as a whole, though its partisan exploits are often downplayed in the post-Yugoslav era.


How did the communist authorities instrumentalize football in the postwar period?


In addition to Hajduk, the communist authorities harnessed the game in a number of ways. For a start, they recreated the football landscape in their own image. When tainted clubs were swept aside in the revolutionary tumult of the 1940s, new ones imbued with the spirit of revolution replaced them: Red Star, Proletarian, Brotherhood and Unity, Fighter, Freedom …. When Hajduk declined the invitation to relocate to Belgrade to continue to represent the armed forces, the authorities formed a new team. The Partizan Society of the Yugoslav People’s Army concentrated the country’s best players in the capital, including — controversially — several from Zagreb’s disgraced clubs. Other leading teams enjoyed close relationships with the security apparatus of Yugoslavia’s constituent republics or were funded by large factories.

New league and cup systems were also designed to reinforce the new reality. The inaugural First Federal League took place in the 1946–47 season. Clubs qualified via republic-level competitions, giving every constituent republic at least one representative and underlining Yugoslavia’s new internal boundaries. The authorities used the new competition to support their claim to new external borders too: after the season started, a team from recently incorporated Rijeka (the Italian Fiume) was parachuted into the league. Another last-minute inclusion was even more controversial: for three years, Ponziana — a small workers’ club — represented the disputed city of Trieste in the Yugoslav league system, at the same time as another club from the city competed in Italy’s topflight.

In other ways, the game was harder to manipulate. Just as it had been an effective tool for the illegal interwar Communist Party, it continued to serve those who wished to challenge the status quo in the socialist era. With good reason, Croatian clubs and associations often expressed discontent at the inequalities to which they were subjected by Belgrade. Disputes that mirrored broader political disagreements could be particularly bitter, including those that occurred during the Croatian Spring of the early 1970s.

Football also exposed some of the worst aspects of Yugoslav society. Throughout the socialist era, corruption, favoritism, match fixing, and violence racked the game. This all reflected badly on the authorities, not least because senior Party figures were never far from the worst excesses and scandals. Widespread abuses of Yugoslavia’s innovative system of workers’ self-management — including excessive payments to players and clandestine transfer deals — were politically toxic.


What attempts did Tito’s governments make to found a common Yugoslav identity using the national team? How did sporting ties serve Yugoslav foreign policy in the non-aligned movement?


Yugoslavia’s victory over the Soviet Union at the 1952 Olympic Games was a highly symbolic moment for the young state. After four long years out in the cold, it was a chance to underline the survival of Tito’s Yugoslavia against all the odds. Yugoslav communists had looked up to their inveterate Soviet allies before 1948, basing their state upon the Soviet model and emulating many practices, including in the realm of sport and physical culture. When Stalin turned upon them, deeming Tito an uncontrollable maverick, the fiercely independent Yugoslavs felt a deep sense of betrayal and faced severe economic hardship and hostility. This made the Olympic victory all the sweeter: it enabled a people dismissed as fascist Western lackeys to demonstrate superiority in the face of Soviet arrogance. Radio broadcasts sparked wild celebrations across Yugoslavia, and the political leadership made much of a rare occasion of unity in the face of adversity.

The Tito-Stalin split forced Yugoslavia to look beyond the communist world for allies. Initially turning to the capitalist west, by the early 1950s Belgrade had begun to develop ties with the newly independent states of the Third World. Football was in the vanguard of this innovative foreign policy shift, as the national team and leading club sides embarked on regular tours to Africa, East Asia, and the Middle East. These sporting ambassadors met with Indonesia’s President Sukarno, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and China’s Chairman Mao. At the same time, Yugoslavia dispatched dozens of coaches to its new allies, as what would develop into the Non-Aligned Movement steadily took shape. Talented Yugoslavs served as national team and club coaches across Africa and Asia — and in the best leagues of Western Europe — as the game became an effective soft power tool for a country navigating a “third way” in the Cold War world.

The symbolic importance of a multiethnic national team was understood at an early stage. One of the defining features of the 1952 side was the prolific strike partnership of the Croatian Stjepan Bobek and his Serbian teammate Rajko Mitić. During socialist Yugoslavia’s existence, all the constituent nations were represented in the national team at some point, though the extent to which the team succeeded in reaching out to the state’s non-South Slav citizens is open to debate.

Support for the national team started to wane in the late 1980s. By the time of Italia ’90, a strong Yugoslav side did not enjoy universal backing at home. With Croatia moving towards independence, the team had been jeered in Zagreb prior to their departure. A quarterfinal defeat to Argentina sparked clashes in parts of the country. The greatest support emanated from Sarajevo, the capital of multiethnic Bosnia & Herzegovina, where many steadfastly clung to a belief in a Yugoslav political solution and celebrated the achievements of a team packed with Bosnian stars.


If football clubs are today sites of sectarianism and combative identities, how far was this overcome during the Tito period? Were squads and fan bases genuinely pan-Yugoslav? What signs of national tension were there?


The most successful teams in Yugoslavia were multiethnic. The illustrious Partizan sides of the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s brought together some of the country’s most talented players. Though this arguably deprived other republics of success, the team attracted fans from across Yugoslavia. The Partizan side that reached the European Cup final in 1966 contained players from five of the country’s eight federal units and was managed by an ethnic Muslim from southern Serbia. It was a similar story twenty-five years later, when city rivals Red Star went one better and won the European Cup on the eve of Yugoslavia’s disintegration. This sparkling team was a genuinely Yugoslav one, even though Serbian nationalism was the prime beneficiary of the victory.

By that time, both Belgrade clubs had lost a considerable amount of support. The chauvinism of their fan groups led many non-Serbs to abandon them. As derogatory chants about Muslims reverberated across Belgrade’s terraces, it became increasingly difficult for the clubs’ many Bosnian Muslim and Albanian supporters to retain an emotional attachment. Red Star and Partizan stood as highly emotive totems of Serb nationalism in the new political climate, a role fulfilled by Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split in Croatia. For many, these clubs had been fulfilling this role for decades.

In parts of the country famed for ethnic diversity, supporters’ groups clung to cosmopolitan pro-Yugoslav identities for much longer. This trend was particularly strong in Bosnia’s cities, where Muslims, Serbs, and Croats backed Velež Mostar, Željezničar Sarajevo, and Borac (“Fighter”) Banja Luka as reflections of their own diverse communities. Nevertheless, as nationalist abuse came to dominate fan rivalries and Milošević manipulated the Yugoslav idea to favor Serbian interests, such outlooks became increasingly difficult to preserve. Bosnian groups initially narrowed their pro-Yugoslav stance to a cosmopolitan pro-Bosnian one, but all these groups were eventually torn apart by the conflict. Velež, that famous symbol of communist brotherhood and unity, was also a victim. Many of its Serbian and Croatian players departed eastward and westward respectively, as Croatian nationalists targeted the club’s premises. Velež was cleansed alongside many of the inhabitants of west Mostar as an unwanted symbol of the hated Yugoslav era. Even after the war, many of these clubs continued to speak warmly of their inclusive attitudes, albeit against the backdrop of a much-simplified ethnic map. Fans of Velež continued to cherish the club’s communist heritage too, singing odes to Tito long after his state ceased to exist.


You write that during the wars of the 1990s, football stadiums also became part of the instruments of detention and massacre?


Since the wars, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has unearthed details of a dark end to the Yugoslav game. Football stadiums were used as military parade grounds at the beginning of hostilities in Croatia. In Bosnia, Željezničar Sarajevo’s stadium, built at the height of “brotherhood and unity,” was a frontline war zone for the duration of the conflict. Elsewhere, Bosnian Croat forces used Velež Mostar’s pitch as a holding ground for Muslims slated for expulsion. In Bosnian Serb-held territory, the football grounds of lower league teams were harnessed in a similar manner. Some, including those in the vicinity of Srebrenica, became sites of mass executions. Multiethnic coexistence thus ended on football grounds that once served to bring Yugoslavia’s citizens together. In besieged Sarajevo, the training pitches of the Koševo Stadium became cemeteries.


Recent encounters between the national teams of ex-Yugoslav countries have been played in acrimonious circumstances. To what extent are there voices in these countries, their federations, and media, arguing for the use of football to normalize political relations?


International football exposes the region’s political realities. At times, the game’s international governing bodies move faster than their political counterparts, creating all manner of difficulties. Kosovo has been recognized by footballing authorities like FIFA and UEFA even before it has achieved membership of the United Nations. For Serbia and Bosnia, neither of which recognize Kosovo’s independence, the consequences reverberate well beyond the football pitch. From a Serbian perspective, Kosovo’s participation in European Championship and World Cup qualifiers makes a mockery of its refusal to accept the — highly emotive — secession of what it considers its own southern province.

Just like their communist predecessors, the various state-building projects of the 1990s sought to use football to underline claims to statehood, through “national” leagues, cup competitions, and national teams. In several self-declared states, the humble grounds of small town clubs were elevated to the status of “national stadium.” Some projects, like Kosovo, have endured, while others, including the doomed state of the Croatian Serbs — Republika Srpska Krajina — have failed. Football has been politicized without exception. This process continues in contested territories, with Serbian clubs in northern Kosovo tenaciously playing on in Serbia’s national competitions. For as long as the game serves as an effective means of expressing statehood and defining boundaries, it will continue to be highly divisive.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of voices in the region advocating reconciliation through football; there are many in the media and elsewhere who refuse to view the world through a divisive nationalist prism. Serbia’s most successful sportsman, Novak Djoković, offered his vocal backing to the Croatian national team during the World Cup. Likewise, Croatia’s Ivan Rakitić, and Serbian coach Mladen Krstajić spoke warmly of their friendship and mutual support throughout the tournament. All were on the receiving end of nationalist abuse.


In your book you suggest that a study of football — its clubs, its political use, its fans and their identity — offers a window to understanding broader social developments. But why do you think social historians tend to overlook this terrain relative to other, less “popular” forms of mass culture?


In the past, academics often dismissed football as peripheral low culture. Thankfully, this is changing rapidly as more historians acknowledge the game’s rich complexities. Across the world, football sparks the passions of millions who invest their identities in it. The former Yugoslavia is no exception. Historians ignore at their peril a sport that Yugoslav communist leader Josip Broz Tito and his central committee, as well as 1990s Croatian prime minister Franjo Tudjman and a host of other political leaders took very seriously indeed. The game is inextricably linked with every era of the region’s twentieth-century history. Hundreds have died because of their connections with it, and hundreds of thousands have experienced and interpreted historical developments through it. Few other forms of mass culture could spark national celebrations on the scale of those that occurred in Croatia in July or provoke such bitter controversies as those that accompanied the republic’s World Cup success.