In 2012, even as the other Serbian players sang the national anthem before a game, attacking midfielder Adem Ljajic stayed silent. The anthem, ‘God of Justice’ reads: “God our master! Guide and prosper the Serbian lands and Serbian race”. Ljajic, a Bosnian Muslim, didn’t sing along despite stipulations in his contract and was banned. Six years later, he remains one of the key players in the World Cup that many feverishly hope would stir Serbia’s comeback story.
In 2010, goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic, Serbia’s player of year in 2017, was in the team bus ahead of game against Italy in a Euro 2012 qualifier, when fans smashed the door and barged through smoke to look for him with torches in their hands.
He would have been seriously hurt but his teammates Dejan Stankovic and Nikola Zigic jumped in front of him, forming a barricade. All three once used to play for Red Star, one of the oldest and most notorious clubs known for its violent fans, but Stojkovic had shifted to its greatest rival Partizans; hence the fans’ anger. Not long after, he responded to the incident by donning a T-shirt which read: “Please forgive my ugly past”. The reference to his old team didn’t obviously pleases Red Star ultras but in the here and now, Stojkovic is Serbia’s star in Russia.
Football played a huge part in the coalescing of ethnic identities which led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the ‘90s, and creation of seven countries, including Serbia. After the Civil War in the 1990s, the country broke up to form seven independent entities: Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and (in 2008 ) Kosovo.
Milos Markovic, editor at Sportske.net who tweets at @MilosMarkovic, tells The Indian Express about the nexus between football, politics and violence in Serbia.
“Football in Serbia – and in former Yugoslavia – is a hybrid feeding off of a political hatred, ethnic intolerance and overly expressed nationalism which usually spills over into chauvinism. Serbian football in general comes from a politically charged background. Two of Serbia’s biggest clubs are still state-owned franchises with roots going deep into the socialist times of the former republic. Partizan and Red Star supporters are said to nurture close connections with the political elite – and underground echelons – in the country and would often be used as a platform to send messages which, through football, reach masses and shape public opinion. Therefore, the leniency (shown by the government),” Markovic says.
With the death of Yugoslav’s communist leader Marshal Tito in 1980, various ethnic tensions began to spiral up. Tito had zealously suppressed the separatist nationalisms and it was said that only the Yugoslav People’s Army and football held the country together. By the early 1990s, football was no longer the unifying force it was in the communist phase, losing first the support of Croats with secessionist aspirations. In 1990, they had even fielded their own team which didn’t have authorisation of FIFA but played a game against USA. The 1991 census showed Serbs as the dominant force (32% of population, more than double of Croats).
Red Star and Partizan, two of the oldest Serbian clubs, stood for different ideas. Red Star supporters were seen then as supporters of Serbia, while Partizan stood for the Yugoslav state. To this day, the rivalry plays out in the most ugly fashion. The famous Belgrade Derby between the two clubs, who incidentally have their own stadiums just 500 metres apart, spills blood to this day. The red menacing smoke of the flares fills the Belgrade air. The sky turns crimson. Flares leap off the stands. They even have a name for it in the Serbian language: bakljada. Photographers don’t watch the game. Their cameras are focused instead on the stands where the blood-curdling action takes place.
In his article in the International Journal of History of Sport, titled, ‘It all ended in an Unsporting way: Serbian football and disintegration of Yugoslavia’, Richard Mills writes about the way the clubs were perceived by the public. “While Partizan struggled to assert its Serbian identity, it was Red Star – whose anti-communist and anti-Yugoslav characteristics were highly questionable for much of the Yugoslav period – that was ‘consecrated’ as ‘one of the most important symbols of ‘‘Serbdom during the relentless resurrection of Serbian nationalism during the 1980s.”
Mills quotes the curator at Red Star museum who talks about the chants that rung out in the stadium after the collapse of Yugoslavia. “Red Star Serbia, never Yugoslavia”.
Flag, a statement
On 29 March 1991, just months before the country’s collapse, Red Star Belgrade became the first Yugoslav club to win the European Cup, the biggest prize in European club football. During the game, an enormous Serbian flag, 60 meters long, was held by 20,000 travelling Red Star fans. It was a statement in itself. Not long after, the country collapsed into civil war.
Sanctions followed the break-up, and Serbia weren’t allowed to feature in FIFA and UEFA games, which further hurtled Serbian football into a decline. Violence, sanctions, and the inability to shift to a capitalist system that followed the state-sponsored leagues during the communist era further dented Serbian football.
Markovic sums up the importance of Russia 2018 to the future of Serbian football. “The 2018 World Cup in Russia holds great importance for the future of Serbian football. Our team is back at the international scene after a lengthy, eight-year break. Chronic disappointments have choked the sense of excitement and lowered the expectations back home, but with our team showing great unity and team spirit, people are starting to believe this generation of players can do something great. No one expects the Eagles to go into the final, of course, but it’s great to see our boys function as a team. Consequently, their success is likely to put Serbian club football back under the spotlight, especially with Red Star’s successful European campaign last season.”
Hope is in the air. Or as Markovic puts it, football remains the only hope in a harsh life. “Football offers a way out of the cruel reality. On its way towards the European Union, Serbia is still one of the poorest countries in the region with the lowest average monthly wages. Corruption and political favouritism are still present in all levels of society.
People are struggling to find jobs and emigrating in masses. Football, initially a form of a pastime, is actually an important element of everyday life which sparks debates, triggers opinion exchanges and elicits brain activity which helps snap people out of the lethargic state of mind.”