Football is War: How politics and sports intertwined in socialist Yugoslavia

In the past 25 years, there have been many controversies in sports. Mostly, those controversies have been due to the competitive nature of sports. However, on a few occasions, sports have transcended their own niche, intertwining with other parts of society. More recently, sports have grown into a huge economic factor and sometimes even provoke political debates. This shift has lead to the great political influence that sports have in recent times. In fact, in some cases, sports were the catalyst of notable occasions, revolutions and landmarks throughout the world. In this article, one of the lesser known stories of the political influence of sports is told.  The story of how a football match sparked Croatian independence and the subsequent war in the former republic of Yugoslavia, thereby changing the future.

May 13, 1990. The Croatian cry for independence was at an all-time high, thanks to the victory of nationalists in the first multiparty-elections in over 50 years. Communism was ousted. Politics were a mess in the struggling country of Yugoslavia. In the years leading up to the events of 1990, several Serbian-born politicians, historicists and other public figures let the masses buy into the idea of geographical segregation and created the fundamentals for a somewhat fascistic cry for nationalism. They did so through writing, as this was and still is one of the most powerful media to utilize for the propagandistic spreading of information. This led to the first outcry of a Croatian national movement during the late ’60s and ‘70s, better known as the Croatian spring. The movement gained mass grassroots support through student organizations.

Same trick, different name

One of the main characters during these times was Franjo Tudman. He was a former general in the army during the Yugoslavian war, historicist and proud nationalist who despised the communist body of thought. Tuđman wrote several articles criticizing the socialist establishment, and gained a large following through his publications. His most important book was called ‘Great Ideas and Small Nations’, which was ultimately a monograph on political history within the Yugoslavian area and tried to show the shortcomings and conflicts of the socialistic governmental role within Yugoslavia. As a proud man with leadership qualities stemming from his army days, Tudman rose to the opportunity to become the biding nation’s most well-known public figure. He rallied his fellow countrymen in a way that is similar to the ways that important historical figures such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao Ze Dong and Hitler used, managerially speaking. This brings forth a somewhat curious debate on Tudman’s practices: Why would he deliberately choose the same tactic as socialistic figures, when he was trying to create separation from those beliefs and values?

It would appear that the socio-cultural and economic state of the country of Yugoslavia, as well as the influential state of Croatian people, led to Tudman’s choice of tactic. Yugoslavia at that time was much like post-World War I Germany. A country in economic turmoil, desperately searching for ways to climb out of the hole that it dug itself into through the essential communist restructuring after World War II. People were unhappy that the glooming propagandistic stories about equally spread wealth and governmental support turned out to be sugarcoated dreams of a government which was only capable of enriching themselves, not the greater good. Croatians were fed up with the establishment and hoped that a new revolution could overthrow the existing problems and pave the way towards economical growth and socio-cultural acceptance.


Sports as a political vehicle

During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, many inhabitants turned to sports as an outlet for their growing discontent. Sports clubs were one of the few parts of society that, while often created by socialist parties, were truly successful. This has a lot to do with the fact that the image of sports is transcendent, together with the belief that sports teams are a perfect way to underline political beliefs. Since the Greek ages, mankind has been fascinated by the combination of politics and sports, and has practiced this combination on several key moments throughout history. Football teams that have had or still have a significant amount of political influence include SS Lazio Roma, Dynamo Kiev (both during World War II), Real Madrid and FC Barcelona (both strongly during the Franco-era), among others.

The riots

Two high-profile football clubs in Yugoslavia also were flagships of political beliefs. On the one hand was Dinamo Zagreb, a proud, socialist-founded team, which now was boasting the philosophy of Croatian nationalism and its political icon, Franjo Tudman. On the other, there was Red Star Belgrade, backed by Serbian socialist nationalists.  These two teams were scheduled to meet on May 13, during a game in the Yugoslavian football competition. However, the match was never played.

The fans of Red Star were backed by a huge following of the Serbian Voluntary Guard, an unofficial and extremely violent military squadron, led by the infamous Serbian military leader and war criminal Arkan, the right hand of Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic. Some say it was Milosevic himself who had ordered Arkan to set an example in Zagreb.

And he did. Arkan’s men were literally pillaging the hosting city of Zagreb, which caused havoc in the streets and an unparalleled hostility within the stadium.

All hell broke loose when fans of Red Star, who were thought to be provoked by the opposing Dinamo-fans that were throwing rocks and other debris at them, breached through advertising hoards and were able to climb into the home area of the stadium. A melee followed, in which a large number of fans and policemen were wounded through stab wounds, broken chairs and other materials.

Dinamo players, including captain and star prospect Zvonimir Boban, were standing in the midst of the riot. They saw fans being clobbered and smothered before their eyes. Boban saw a police officer attacking one of the Dinamo fans and promptly reacted by launching a kick at the officer. He was immediately protected from further harm by the Dinamo fans, who were acting as his bodyguards for the remainder of the riot.

International recognition

What Boban did not know, was that his action would ultimately become a symbol for Croatian nationalism, and furthermore gain him a reputation as a national hero and internationally known political figure. It is believed that the growing anger and revolt against the existing government came to culmination on that very day in 1990, in the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb. Boban later said of his act: “Here I was, a public face prepared to risk his life, career, and everything that fame could have brought, all because of one ideal, one cause; the Croatian cause.” The international media attention that the sports event gathered, was the first truly international  noise that the situation in Yugoslavia made.

What followed was and still is the ongoing deterioration of the Yugoslavian republic, which up to now has taken the lives of more than 200.000 people. It was also the catalyst for several other nationalistic movements, with the most recent being the one in Kosovo, an area which is still portrayed as very hostile.  At the end of the Croatian war in 1995, Croatia gained independence and was officially recognized as a country, albeit with the intervention of the United Nations.

Parallels before and after communism

In the end, Tudman and his following won, but the cost was high. There were a huge number of casualties on both sides of the argument, accompanied with all the gruesomeness that comes with war; mass slaughtering, executions, torture and other crimes against humanity. Those incidents make many outsiders doubt the methods that were used. Croatians, not so much. They concur with Boban about the acts that were necessary in the obtainment of their freedom as a nation and the development and sustainment of the socio-cultural and economic state of the country. According to the facts, they have every right to say so, as Croatia has flourished since independence.

However, the ongoing explosive situation in the region has led to a huge increase in emigrants and left the area of former Yugoslavia pretty much deprived from any future perspectives. That situation is awfully similar to the state of the country before the revolutionary movement began. While Croatia has established economic growth and has improved drastically since independence, other former Yugoslavian countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro, are well below the poverty threshold. That is in sharp contrast with the economic force that Yugoslavia was.

But the result is not to be denied.

As mentioned earlier in this article, the international media attention that the sports event gathered, was the first truly international  noise that the situation in Yugoslavia created . Thus, before condemning this case of football violence and portraying the fans as mere troublemakers, one should actually think about the ramifications that were involved. While the means of making a statement may not have been subtle, it caused the Yugoslavian situation to be put under the magnifying glass which it so desperately needed. It is an understanding many Croatians can relate to, which is further reasoning why this case serves as a prime example of how sports influenced politics, and how politics can be influenced by sports. Essentially, the actions of sportsmen on May 13, 1990, changed the course of events in the future.

Some other football clubs involved with politics

–          Livorno Calcio in Italy strongly boasts socialistic views.

–          SS Lazio Roma has always been linked with the fascistic views of ‘Duce’ Benito Mussolini.

–          Real Madrid CF was the favorite team of general Franco of Spain. It has been suggested that he manipulated certain transfers and matches.

–          FC Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad are a handful of teams in Spain that combine their sporting activities with a political agenda. Several board members have since become local politicians.

–          Steaua Bucharest was the favorite team of Romanian dictator Ceausescu, and with him playing an integral part in team affairs, won the Europa Cup I in 1986.

–          Atletico Nacional and Millionarios, among other Colombian clubs, have been backed by infamous drug lords, most notably the kingpin of cocaine, Pablo Escobar.


  1.     Vrcan, Srdjan, The Curious Drama of the President of a Republic Versus a Football Fan Tribe: A Symptomatic Case in the Post-communist Transition in Croatia. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, March 2002, 37: 59-77
  2. Zimmerman, Warren. Last Ambassador – A Memoir of the Collapse of Yugoslavia. 74 Foreign Aff. 2 (1995)
  3. Grandits, Hannes and Leuthoff, Carolin. Discourses, actors, violence: the organization of war-escalation in the Krajina region of Croatia 1990-91. In: Potentials of disorder, Manchester University Press, 2003.
  4. Sack, Allen L. and Suster, Zeljan. Soccer and Croatian Nationalism: A Prelude to War. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Aug 01, 2000. 24: 305-320.




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