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Croatia

Capital Zagreb
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 385
Mobile Codes 91,92,95,98,99
ccTLD .hr
Currency Kuna (1EUR = 7.26HRK)
Land Area 56,594 sq km
Population 4.5 million
Language Croatian
Major Religion Roman Catholicism

An Ex-YU Football League: Will It Ever Happen?

By Ante Raić

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: Little Macedonia’s improbable run to a fourth-place finish in last month’s European basketball championships was just the latest event to focus world attention on the achievements of the ex-Yugoslav sports ‘zone.’ In this entertaining new article, Croatian correspondent Ante Raić draws attention to the legacy of other former Yugoslav teams in several different sports over the years, and their apparent return to competition in united leagues, and asks the question: will sports fans ever get to enjoy a united ex-Yu football league?

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People from the former Yugoslav nations have not been living in the same country for the past 20 years. But since they remain neighbours, they are part of each other’s destiny. And in this part of the world, one of the most important things – if not the most important – is to be better than your neighbor.

There’s an old Balkan saying: I don’t mind that my cow dies, if two of my neighbour’s cows die. And let’s not forget that grass is alway greener on the other side.

Since the war has been over for 15 years, residents of the former Yugoslav now only have sport to prove that ‘we’ are better than ‘them.’ And football is the sport number one in the ex-Yugoslav countries. Indeed, when 12 years ago the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia (consisting of Serbia & Montenegro) drew 2-2 with Croatia in Zagreb (and qualified for the European Championship, leaving the World Cup bronze medalist from 1998, France, to go home, it was a national catastrophe for Croatia.

The Big Four

On the other hand, Dinamo Zagreb’s 5-0 win over Partizan Belgrade in the UEFA Champions League qualifiers is considered to be one of the highlights of Dinamo’s entire history, which dates back to 1945. As well as Hajduk Split’s win in Belgrade over Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) in 1991, in the last true Yugoslav Cup Final, when Alen Bokšić scored the only goal and ensured the trophy would remain in Split forever- as the next year’s competition never started, of course. (And let’s not forget that Crvena Zvezda was European champion that year).

All of the above-mentioned clubs were part of the ‘Big 4’ of Yugoslavian football, winning most of the national championships and cups. In fact, in the period after WWII until 1991, the only other winners were Vojvodina Novi Sad and Sarajevo (twice), and Željezničar Sarajevo (once). That means that every year fans of these clubs had three big games at home. The stadiums were full, the quality of football was very good, and the Yugoslav league was one of the strongest in Europe. One of the reasons for this was the fact that players were not allowed to leave the country to play on foreign clubs until they turned 27.

War brought nothing good to the people of the ex-Yugoslavia. Along with the economy and quality of life, quality of sport was devastated. All of the ex-Yu national leagues in every ‘important’ sport (football, basketball, handball and water polo) grew weak. Players started to go abroad as teenagers, and spectators stopped attending the events because there was nothing worth seeing, and besides the stadiums and sport halls were not comfortable. And also, of course, because you could watch quality foreign leagues on cable TV from your cozy sofa.

I Love this Game!

Basketball was one of the most successfull sports in the former Yugoslavia. Bosna Sarajevo was European club champion in 1979, Cibona Zagreb in both 1985 and 1986, Jugoplastika Split three times in a row (1989-1991) and Partizan Belgrade in 1992. And mentioning all the Yugoslav national team medals from the Olympics, World and European Championships would be a lengthy task as well.

Something had to be done in order to bring audience back to the sports events. Basketball was the first sport which showed the others the way to go. On 3 July 2001, representatives of four basketball clubs – Bosna Sarajevo, Budućnost Podgorica, Olimpija Ljubljana and Cibona Zagreb – met in Ljubljana and agreed to form a basketball competition to fill the void left by the dissolution of the Yugoslav basketball league.

The name chosen for the competition was the Adriatic League, invoking the Adriatic Sea as a common thread for participant countries and avoiding the terms ‘Balkans’ or ‘Yugoslavia,’ that at the time carried a fairly undesirable public perception in Slovenia and an extremely negative one in Croatia.

Among the public, the Adriatic League was met with mixed reactions. Although many hailed it as an important step for the development of club basketball in the Balkan region, many others felt that it would bring no new quality and that it was not worth dismantling three existing domestic leagues to create it.

Further, there was a lot of negative reaction from political circles, especially in Croatia, where even TV panel discussions were broadcast on state television. A very vociferously-held opinion in the country saw the league’s formation as a covert political attempt to reinstate Yugoslavia.

Adriatic or Yugoslav?

The league organizers, for their part, did their best to appease the Croatian public with statements such as the one delivered by Radovan Lorbek (one of the founders) in Slobodna Dalmacija (a Split-based newspaper) in September 2001: ‘This is not a Yugoslav league, and it will never become a Yugoslav league. The Adriatic League has no clubs from Serbia and Macedonia, therefore the Adriatic League and a Yugoslav league are not the same thing.’

Ten years later, in a 2011 interview for the Serbian newspaper Press, one of the founders of the league, Roman Lisac explained that the behind-the-scenes strategy of the league during its nascent stages was actually quite different: ‘I’m convinced the league would’ve never been able to survive without Serbian clubs. Getting Red Star and Partizan to join the league was something that we worked on from day one. However, the situation ten years ago was not that simple. Too much antagonistic post-war politics was still all around us, and it made our task all the more difficult. Everything that smelled of old Yugoslavia caused a lot of resistance both in Croatia and in Serbia. I repeat, the idea of having both Red Star and Partizan in the league was there from the very beginning, but we avoided talking about it publicly because of politics.’

Let’s Swim Together, Let’s Go Hand in Hand

Althought not being a very popular sport internationally, water polo has very strong appeal in the Balkans, and was indeed the second sport which formed its own Adriatic League. As many as eight Croatian teams, three from Montenegro and one from Slovenia joined, increasing its perceived importance. Indeed, from this season, Italian club Pro Recco has joined the league.

Pro Recco is probably the richest water polo club in the world, and the main reason that they play this league is that they’re sick of getting surprised by clubs from Croatia (Jug Dubrovnik) and Montenegro (Primorac Kotor) in the Euro-league Final Four. And having Pro Recco in this league is proof that this league is very, very strong. (Israeli basketball champions Maccabi joined the ABA league this season, which also proves that the league is strong).

Partizan Belgrade also wanted to join from the 2011 season, and got the green light from Croats and Slovenes. However, water polo officials from Montenegro said no, because Partizan still owes money for the transfers of two players (Andrija Prlainović and Dušan Mandić) to Jadran Herceg Novi and Primorac Kotor. So, it now appears that are no political reasons for a delay, and that money is the only issue that can come up today.

Another regional sports league started a few weeks ago is the SEHA (South East Handball Association). This looks certain to be a top-level regional handball league, featuring teams from Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovakia. It seems to be another sign that the former Yugoslav countries see a common interest in cooperating with yet another sport.

Where the Grass is Green…

So, all that said, the biggest question of all in the ex-Yu countries remains- will we ever get a regional football league? The benefits of an ex-Yu league would be huge for all the participanting clubs. Money the clubs would get from media advertising and TV rights would help them to keep young and talented players. At present, the clubs are being forced to sell their best young prospects just to survive.

A regional football league would also means that spectators would get to see a much more fair game. Since the gambling industry is so widespread, there’s a lot of match fixing going on. Buying and selling games is not a new thing, but clubs used to do it only when it was about keeping a place in their own league, or securing the champion title. Now they’re doing it for the money. If the match is not important for any club, for example, if there’s only two or three rounds until the end of the season and both clubs have secured their places (i.e., they can neither drop to a lower league nor reach the European competition), then why wouldn’t they fix the result and fill the empty coffers of the club (and their private) accounts?

In 2003 NK Zadar and Marsonia from Slavonski Brod fixed their match. The agreement was that Marsonia will take the lead at the halftime, and that Zadar will win the game. Even if you’re not a football fan, you know that these kind of situations happen rather infrequently, and so the bookies offer a good deal of money if this happens. In this particular case, all the people that placed a 100-euro bet earned 2500 euros each.

After this infamous game, Stanleybet (a Great Britain based company that has opened more than 100 betting offices in Croatia) stopped taking spread-bets on Croatian league; now one can only bet on who will win. Why? Out of 82 won bets, around 50 were placed in Zadar, around 30 in Slavonski Brod, and the rest in Rijeka. Yes, you got it right- the referee was from Rijeka.

That said, with a regional football league, it would be much more interesting to the public, and any ‘strange’ results would be spotted much more easily. Match-fixing would possibly become easier to prove, since more people from more different countries would be involved.

Injury Time

Football is definitely sport number one, and not just in ex-Yu countries. Football has the biggest venues (the averege stadium capacity of the big clubs in this part of Europe is 30-40,000). And some of those fleshing out this capacity are hooligans. And not just any hooligans, but also nationalistic, right-wing extremists. And they’re always ready to make trouble.

On 12 October 2010, rioting Serbian football hooligans caused the Italy-Serbia match in Genoa to be abandoned in the sixth minute. The start of the match in Genoa had been delayed for 35 minutes as Serbian fans in the stands were already clashing with police and stewards before the game. Masked Serbian supporters were seen smashing a glass safety barrier and throwing flares and other objects onto the Marassi stadium’s pitch. There had also been chaotic scenes before kick-off, and suggestions Serbian goalkeeper Vladimir Stojković refused to play after being threatened by his own supporters. And that was just an away game, in ‘neutral’ Italy. There are suggestions that some politicians and criminals stand behing this chaos, but could one imagine what it would be like to have similar situations every week?

Every match between Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb in the Croatian national league or Cup becomes a top security challenge. The Croatian police are very well organized, and they know what they have to do. If the match is to be played in Split, they block the roads, stopping cars with Zagreb registration plates. They wait for the fans at gas stations, by highway exits, and on the other roads.

Away club fans are escorted to the stadium, and they have to remain on their places for 30-60 minutes after the game is over, at which point they are escorted back. Organized buses have police escort for a 100-kilometer range, until the fans are far enough away to be out of possible harm.

Extension of War by Differents Means

This type of security protocol would be the best-case scenario for any game between any Croatian and Serbian club. A game would require thousands of policemen, while victory would be counted not by the final score but by the absence of dead or wounded fans. This sort of realization has made many believe that creating such a league is simply not worth it.

The regular people, of course, would love it. Imagine this: a father takes his 10-year old son to the game. They’d buy popcorn and enjoy high-quality football, Dinamo-Crvena zvezda for example. In the real world, fathers are sick of having only one big game a year (and being scared of whether there will be hooligans rioting or not). This year Dinamo Zagreb finally (after 12 years) qualified for the UEFA Champions League, Real Madrid played at Maksimir Stadium, while Olympique Lyonnais and Ajax Amsterdam will too. However, during the regular season, the only ‘big’ game is Dinamo-Hajduk. In Serbia, things are the same- only the match between Partizan and Crvena Zvezda is considered to be akin to a derby.

Some critics of the idea of a regional football league say that it would not ensure higher quality football. Yet considering that such a league would bring together the best clubs from the ex Yu, an overall rise in quality seems likely (as has been the case with the other ex-Yu leagues). The only real problem are the nationalists. And there are a lot of them involved in football. The rising of national feelings happens whenever one’s national football team plays. And that’s one of the very few occasions.

By comparison, people who attend basketball, handball and water polo games in the former Yugoslav countries seem to be much civilised than the football fans. They don’t mix love for their teams and hate for the other nation. Most of them don’t, anyway.

But football is something quite different. The first Croatian president, Franjo Tuđman, once said that ‘football is an extension of war by differents means.’ As far as the Balkans is concerned, he was absolutely right.