Balkan game fails to live up to the past
BELGRADE (AFP) –
Football was a vehicle for national pride in the former Yugoslavia, enjoying support from the political elite and state policies designed to create competitive teams and world-class players.
But since the break-up of the communist federation in the 1990s, there has been mixed success for Balkan nations, with only Croatia — who took third place in the 1998 World Cup — emerging as a force to be reckoned with internationally.
Domestic teams meanwhile struggle with an exodus of top players to foreign clubs while hooliganism remains a problem that blights the game.
For more than 40 years after the end of World War II, though, football was such a part of life that it seemed that nearly everyone could recite the names of Yugoslavia footballers such as Dragan Dzajic, Safet Susic or Faruk Hadzibegic.
“It was a ritual. When I turned seven, my father took me to my first Red Star Belgrade match as a sign that I had matured enough to be initiated into the world of football,” said journalist Misko Bilbija.
With more than 22 million inhabitants, Yugoslavia was a hotbed of talented players and coaches, with the communist regime providing full financial backing to teams through industry or even directly from the state budget.
A law preventing players from leaving domestic clubs before the age of 28 also made for a high-quality league.
“We were working with a player from his earliest years and managed to keep him in the team until he fully matured,” former coach Milinko Resavica told AFP.
The 1960s were a golden era for Yugoslavia’s national team: they won Olympic gold in Rome in 1960 and reached the European Cup finals in the same year and again in 1968.
In the 1962 World Cup in Chile, Yugoslavia were fourth and Drazen Jerkovic was top scorer, while the squad earned the nickname the “European Brazilians” because of their creative and attacking style of play.
A key member of that side, the Croatian Josko Skoblar, won the European Golden Boot in 1971 after finishing with 44 goals for French side Marseille. Macedonian Darko Pancev also won the award while playing for Red Star Belgrade in 1991.
Red Star — perennial European challengers in the 1970s and 1980s — won the forerunner to the Champions League, the European Cup, in 1991 as well as the Intercontinental Cup, which would become the Club World Cup.
Just months later, war broke out.
The state policy of “brotherhood and unity” between the ethnic communities that made up Yugoslavia extended to football but failed to hold a decade after the death of communist leader Josip Broz Tito in 1980, as nationalist sentiment increased.
In June 1990, for example, a mainly Croatian crowd shouted down the Yugoslav national anthem and jeered players during a friendly match in Zagreb against the Netherlands.
Financial problems have since forced talented players to seek their fortune abroad while a number of teams have still to solve legal and property issues dating back to the communist era.
Hooliganism has also been the scourge of football in the Balkans since Yugoslavia was spliced — peacefully or violently — into Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia.
Many hardcore fans formed the core of paramilitary units that fought in Bosnia and Croatia in the 1990s and violence remains, such as in Serbia in 2009, when a group of ultra-nationalist Partizan Belgrade fans beat to death a French fan.
Football’s European governing body UEFA and the world federation FIFA have both warned Croatia and Serbia to curb violence, as they prepare to meet for the first time on the pitch as independent nations in Zagreb on Friday.