Feature 13 May 16

1990 Football Riot Becomes National Myth in Croatia

Hardcore Dinamo Zagreb supporters believe a riot at a match against Red Star Belgrade 26 years ago kicked off the war, while conspiracy theories still circulate about why the violence erupted.

Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
Fighting between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade fans at the Maksimir stadium in 1990.

Dinamo Zagreb’s hardcore fans, the Bad Blue Boys, gather each year on May 13 to light candles and lay wreaths at a monument to their comrades who were killed in the 1990s war - and to mark the anniversary of the most controversial game in the club’s history, the match against Red Star Belgrade at the Maksimir stadium which erupted into a riot in 1990.

The fighting with the Red Star fans at the match has taken on iconic status for the Bad Blue Boys, who see it as the first clash of the war which broke out the following year as Yugoslavia collapsed.

They have even erected a monument in front of the stadium with the inscription: “To all the Dinamo fans for whom the war started on May 13, 1990 and ended with them laying down their lives on the altar of the Croatian homeland.”

Dario Brentin from the University of Graz in Austria, an expert on sport and nationalism in Croatia, told BIRN that the violence at the match subsequently became one of the “founding myths of the Croatian nation”, an event which is “deeply ‘cemented’ in social memory”.

This year, in the run-up to the anniversary, public broadcaster Croatian Radio-Television, HRT screened a documentary about the riot, ‘The Homeland War Started at the Maksimir’, which aired unsubstantiated theories that the Yugoslav secret services and Serb police chiefs were responsible for the violence.

The riot at the match came a week after Franjo Tudjman’s right-wing, Croatian Democratic Union party, the HDZ, won the first free parliamentary election in Croatia, and the documentary contains claims that it might have been orchestrated to create chaos and destabilise the new authorities in Zagreb.

Its director Miljenko Manjkas, who was Tudjman’s media analyst and is now the media advisor for HDZ leader Tomislav Karamarko, repeated the claims in an article in Croatian newspaper Vecernji list on Sunday, saying that the police, who were commanded by a Serb, beat up everyone apart from Red Star supporters, who he said were “the ones who started the riot”.

The game in May 1990 was a Yugoslav football league match, and violence had broken out in the streets of Zagreb even before it got under way, after more than 2,000 Serbian supporters from Red Star’s hardcore Delije fan group arrived in the Croatian capital by train.

The Delije clashed with the Bad Blue Boys and ordinary Dinamo fans, but according to popular perception in Croatia, the police, who were believed to be mainly Serbs, only took action against the Croats.

Archive video of the 1990 riot.

Brentin noted however that although the Bad Blue Boys called the riot the beginning of the war, another season of Yugoslav league football was played after that, and Dinamo Zagreb player Zvonimir Boban, who famously kicked a policeman who was assaulting a fan during the riot, continued to play for the Yugoslav national team until 1991, when the first armed clashes had already broken out.

The Dinamo-Red Star game was important however because it further radicalised Croatian society at the time, Brentin said, creating an “us and them narrative” and suggesting that the use of violence was “a legitimate way to solve problems and conflicts”.

But he also said that the Bad Blue Boys cherish its memory because it takes them out the “sphere of hooliganism” and portrays them as honourable citizens defending the nation’s interests.

The view from Belgrade

In Serbia, the match at the Maksimir is also well-remembered, coming right after the elections that brought the right-wing HDZ to power in Croatia - a moment when people started to realise that Yugoslavia really could collapse, according to Belgrade-based sports journalist Vladimir Novakovic.

There were also rumours in Serbia that the violence was pre-planned, but by the Croatian authorities.

“In the Serbian general public, a lot of attention was given to the fact that the fence on the north stand [where the hardcore Dinamo fans gathered] was easily breached and it is a widespread belief that acid was poured on the fence the previous night, which in turn is considered hard evidence that the whole incident was staged by the new Croatian government,” Novakovic explained.

The first part of a 2015 documentary about the riot.

Members of the Bad Blue Boys and Red Star’s Delije both went to fight in the wars that erupted from 1991 onwards. Some of the Delije joined the notorious paramilitary unit commanded by Zeljko Raznjatovic, alias Arkan, who led a Red Star supporters’ association before the conflict.

“Only a few of them were to return to the stadium (some were killed or wounded, others had other priorities). By 1994 the majority of Red Star ultras were members of a younger generation which insisted on a clean break with their predecessors and especially were opposed to both Milosevic and Arkan,” said Novakovic.

“Among them today Maksimir is mainly considered as a phoney conflict, pre-planned by either government, in order to promote their own agendas,” he added.

Novakovic said there were also rumours in Serbia about the alleged involvement of the Yugoslav secret services in the Maksimir violence, “planning to use televised ethnic conflict in the stadium as a warning against nationalism”.

However, he noted: “If that was the plan indeed, it backfired.”

Manjkas’ documentary meanwhile tells the story from a Croatian perspective, suggesting the Dinamo fans and the new Zagreb government itself could have been the victims of a rumoured Yugoslav/Serb plot.

The director told Vecernji list that a number of people who appear in the film support the idea that the riot was pre-planned, including “Slovenian sources and [Slovenian] President Milan Kucan, the leadership of the police, headed by a Serb, Petar Djukic, and members of the Croatian police and intelligence services”.

Manjkas also claimed that he unearthed other previously little-known information - that Boban kicked out at a policemen after he was attacked by another officer, and Arkan was sitting on the bench with the Red Star substitutes.

Another documentary about the riot, ‘Sunday 13th’, directed by Croatian Igor Grahovac and produced by Produkcija B, along with Al Jazeera, HRT and Serbian state broadcaster RTS, which was shown last year, sought to debunk some of the myths that have grown up around the match in 1990 and continue to circulate today.

Even Manjkas admitted that the real instigators of the riot are still unknown, 26 years on, and that its impact on the conflict that followed remains open to question.

“The viewers will conclude in the end if the war started at the Maksimir,” he said.

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