Well, not the kind of football you might be thinking of… Whenever I write ‘football’ throughout this whole post, I am referring to what Americans call soccer. I’ll make the distinction if I mean otherwise.
Now, football matches in Europe are a bit different than any mainstream sporting event in the US. To use an example from my home state, arguably the biggest rivalry in Minnesotan professional sports is the American football rivalry between the Minnesota Vikings and the Wisconsin Packers.
Although a game between the two teams is a serious situation for fans, it is a pretty safe atmosphere. While there will always be the groups that had too much to drink at a tailgating celebration beforehand, in general the game would be considered a family-friendly event.
In Europe… not so much. Particularly in the Balkans, football matches have a strong nationalist streak. They can even be dangerous, especially when there’s a match between some combination of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, and Croatia. The hooligans, or football fans, take things to a level that is unheard of in the US. For example, this is a scene from Zenica, a city in Bosnia, when there was a match against Greece last March. To be fair, that day was an important match and demonstrations like this one don’t happen all the time. But they do happen.
Once inside the stadium, there is yet more drama. Things that are essentially smoke bombs are set off, flares are lit, aggressive nationalist songs are chanted, and eventually fights may even break out. So in a town like Mostar, with the divide between the two sides of the city, football match days are always a bit tense. There are typically more police around the town than usual, and sometimes they’re in full riot gear.
It’s hard to write about this, because it is such a tense subject. I don’t want to say something inflammatory or incorrect. But I do want to try to find a way to convey the differences between American football in the US and football in BiH, because they are significant and their implications on culture and day-to-day life shouldn’t be discounted. A Minnesotan supports the Packers and the worst that can happen is a few jokes. Here, the team you support has a much deeper meaning. Croats who have lived in BiH for their whole lives will still put up a Croatian flag and root for the national team of Croatia; Bosniaks are basically the only ones cheering on the team of the country that all three groups are living in together. Football has become the socially-acceptable outlet for nationalism sentiments that are left over from the war.
A couple weeks ago, the night of Friday the 6th was a big night. There were two matches, Croatia vs. Serbia and BiH vs. Slovakia. I noticed as I walked to my residence on the Bosniak side of the city that many Bosnian flags had been put up for the match, so after dinner Christina and I went for a walk and took pictures of the various ones near the residence.
It’s not unusual on nights like Friday that the school will tell students to take a taxi when coming back to the residence after going out, or to stay near the residence, or sometimes to just cancel all evening activities and stay in the residence. While there’s only been a few isolated incidents over the years, they want to be cautious; better safe than sorry, as the saying goes. It’s usually not that dangerous though, as long as you’re being smart. Laughing and shouting in English with a group of girls, for example, is not very smart. Neither is walking alone, or wearing red, white, blue, or yellow, the colors of the football teams.
The following Tuesday was another big night… In fact, even bigger than Friday. It was a qualifying game for the Bosnian team’s World Cup group. If that doesn’t mean much to you, let me phrase it a different way. In keeping with the comparisons to American football, it’s sort of like your team winning its division and therefore qualifying for the Super Bowl playoffs.
And BiH won! Near the end of the game, they scored two goals. The first tied the score with Slovakia, and the second is what allowed them to win. But being the crazed football hooligans that they are, shouting and cheering and hugging the people next to them wasn’t enough. At a bar just down the street from my residence, the guys outside that were watching the game threw chairs, flipped a table, and lit flares. Then masses of people went to Musala Square, which is about a two minute walk from the residence (and the residence’s namesake). It wasn’t really a riot in the negative sense, as it was mostly a celebratory, happy demonstration; except for, of course, the hooligans that were looking for a fight. They crossed the main bridge that connects the two main squares of Mostar, Musala Square and Spanish Square (which is right in front of my school building), and started throwing rocks towards the police that were in Spanish Square. They lit trash bins and tipped them over in the street and they broke a glass sign. Now, to clarify, I wasn’t actually there. This is what I’ve gathered from reading the news and talking to locals who heard about it. I did, however, check out Musala Square with a couple other students, and by that time there weren’t signs of aggression or violence, just a mass of people watching cars go by like a parade, with people hanging out the windows waving flags.
When I talked about the demonstrations with the housemom as she came to our room for check-in, she said, “You guys [internationals] can’t fully understand all this. Even we [locals] don’t fully understand all this. It’s crazy, it’s really… crazy.”