- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- All Balkan Countries
If the authorities think that by relativizing the problem of racism in sport it will go away, the experience of other countries shows they are wrong.
You’ve got a problem, we’ve got a problem, everyone has a problem, so, no one has a problem. Such is the gist of Serbia’s muddled and all too predictable response to the shocking scenes in Krusevac, where the sights and sounds of racism on the part of the so-called hosts have flown round the world and gained the proportions of an international incident.
Normally, reports of misbehaviour on football terraces remain stuck on the sports pages at the back of daily newspapers. But this story not only whizzed onto the front pages in the UK but dominated radio news bulletins as well before heading into parliament, where even the British Prime Minister felt compelled to make a statement saying he felt “appalled”.
When a story gains those kinds of ramifications in another country, and when that country matters to your own in terms of foreign policy, you might think that this would be the moment to hit the pause button, put on a hard hat, face the music and deliver some unambiguous-sounding promises to clean house.
No such response from Serbia, however; still, as ever, tone deaf to criticism, playing for time, shifting blame and apparently heedless of the damage being done to its reputation.
What century do Serbs think they are living in if they still imagine that monkey chants and hurling stuff onto the pitch at black players isn’t prime facie evidence of something radically amiss in the football sporting culture, rather than youthful high spirits, or something to be traded off against “problems” on the other side? Clearly not this one.
The fact, at least to anyone outside the country, is that football fan clubs in Serbia (and other former Yugoslav countries) have long been mixed up in the unsavoury and violent world of far-right nationalism.
This goes back decades, to the time of the Yugoslav wars if not further, and has been greatly to the detriment of the interests of genuine fans. They can hardly be expected to enjoy watching matches in the company of people whose main reason for showing up is howling abuse at people of a different nationality or skin colour and spoiling for fights.
But Serbia’s authorities just don’t want to grasp this nettle. Football fan clubs occupy the place taken by so-called “veterans” in other former Yugoslav republics; effectively untouchable, they seem to be ring-fenced off from the rule of law as it applies to ordinary people. These clubs have friends in high places, fuelling a culture of impunity on their part and an obvious feeling that they can do just what they want.
The authorities in Belgrade clearly feel embarrassed by what went on in Krusevac, hence the sport’s minister’s pledge to investigate.
But this matter shouldn’t be left to the sports minister. Bigger political figures need to take a stand. If the authorities they think that playing it down, ferreting around for evidence of racism on the other side and generally denying that there is a problem will make phenomenon go away, the experience of other countries suggests this is a dud strategy.
No country has ever dealt successfully with racism in sport except by confronting it. Specifically, it means rigorously prosecuting offenders. Generally, it means making it uncomfortable, indeed boring, for racists, nationalists and violent people to attend matches. Do that, and as the UK experience shows, thugs drift away from the terraces.
They don’t disappear, but at least they no longer have a forum in the “beautiful game” to vent their mindless frustration, so enabling families to take their children to watch games in peace.
The longer Serbia waits to act, the more these kinds of events seen in Krusevac will replicate – that is a given. You might think that pure self-interest would prevail and dictate tough action at this stage. But will it?
The Serbian paramilitary who became a key prosecution witness at his former comrades’ trial for war crimes in Kosovo says he had to speak out about the brutal massacres his unit committed.