ACROSS THE BRIDGE – Bosnia’s ethnic divide endures in Mostar Derby

Updated: September 20, 2013
Mostar fans Bosnia
Photo: Reuters/Dado Ruvic

Photo: Reuters/Dado Ruvic

In the early 1990’s Bosnia and Herzegovina tore itself open as it tried to assert its independence from Yugoslavia. Ethnic Serbs fought a coalition of Croat and Bosnian forces as communities turned on each other and quite often into themselves. Nowhere was this more apparent than within the south western city of Mostar. The Ottoman Empire controlled the city from the fifteenth century, building the Stari Most Bridge, perhaps the most famous piece of architecture within Bosnia. The bridge later became a target for Croatian gunners in a bid to separate communities during the 1992-1995 war.

A Serbian Orthodox church followed in the early part of the nineteenth century and after Mostar became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878, a Roman Catholic Church was built in the town. Following the First World War and the creation of Yugoslavia as a nation state, Mostar became part of an autonomous region called Banovina of Croatia which encompassed most of Croatia as well as sections of Bosnia and Serbia.

Following Bosnia’s declaration of independence in 1992, the mainly Serb Yugoslav National Army (JNA) firstly besieged the town and then occupied it until a joint operation by the Croatian Defence Council and the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBiH) began to drive the JNA out of the city. Soon however, members of the coalition began to turn on each other and the Croatian community occupied the western half of the city and the Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) population was forced into the Eastern half. Later the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia would accuse Croats within Bosnia of war crimes for both the enforced evictions of Bosniaks and the destruction of the Stari Most Bridge which effectively split the city in two.

The war ended in 1995 and gradually communities began to rebuild for the future. Essential services were needed, food and employment were also required if Mostar was to rise out of its ashes. Cultural regeneration was needed too if there was to be any degree of cohesion. The bridge was rebuilt so Croat and Bosniak communities were at least physically linked and football began to re-emerge too.
Football had its role in the break up of the former Yugoslavia.

In 1990 Croatian Zvonomir Boban when playing for Dynamo Zagreb stepped in as a Zagreb fan was being beaten by a Yugoslav policeman. Boban’s kick at the policeman has been cited as a spark for Croatia’s independence movement to finally gather momentum. The Serbian warlord Arkan whose paramilitary group The Tigers were feared across Bosnia during the civil war, drew many of his recruits from the more extreme elements of Serb football fans.

Within Mostar the two main teams are HŠK Zrinjski Mostar and FC Velez Mostar. The fixture itself dates back to the early part of the last century and has an eventful history. Zrinjski were formed in 1905 and are the oldest team in Bosnia Herzegovina and exist as part of an overall sports club which includes basketball, handball and boxing. Their supporters have a largely Croatian background. The club has been banned from competition and individual matches on numerous occasions for their Croatian sympathies. Their first ban was during World War One, followed by another ban in 1936 when Yugoslav authorities refused to let them play a tournament in Dubrovnik due to the Croatian colours displayed on their jerseys.

The most protracted ban however came after World War Two. Zrinjski participated in the PRVA HNL League following the short lived creation of the Croatian independent state. The participation within the league came back to haunt Zrinjski once the war ended however. Tito’s Communist government, fearful of any nationalism within the ethnically fragmented Yugoslavia, suppressed any wartime show of nationalist intent and Zrinjski were banned as a club from 1945-1992.

Zrinjski were refounded in 1992 as Bosnia disintegrated into civil war. Initially they were only able to play friendly games, mainly in Croatia, Canada and Germany, but in 1994 they played in the inaugural season of the league created by the Herzeg-Bosnia Football Federation. The league included several Croatian teams and Zrinjski themselves included two former FC Velez players amongst their squad. In 1998 they participated in play offs with Bosnian teams and in 2000 played in the Bosnian Premier League which included both Croatian and Bosnian teams for the first time, Serbian teams joined in 2002. Zrinjski’s rebirth reached its conclusion in 2005 as they became league champions and also participated in the early qualifying rounds of the Champions League. They won the league again in 2009 and Football Cup of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2008.

Fudbalski Klub Velež Mostar for their part were originally founded in 1922 and have a long history of stability in top flight football both in the former Yugoslavia and present day Bosnia, save for a short spell in the lower division only very recently. Traditionally they have attracted supporters from the three main ethnic groups within Bosnia and also Yugoslavia as a whole when it formerly existed. In the early 1970’s Velez were title challengers within the old Yugoslav leagues.

They were runners up in 1972/73 and in 1973/74 where they lost the league on goal difference to Hadjuk Split. The following season they reached the UEFA Cup quarter finals eliminating Spartak Moscow, Rapid Vienna and Derby County along the way. They also qualified for the UEFA Cup in the late 1980’s managing to defeat Borussia Dortmund at home though still losing the tie overall. Between 1988-1991 UEFA rankings saw Velez ranked higher than AS Roma, Manchester United, PSG & Fiorentina amongst others and their ranking of 43rd in 1989 was the highest achieved for a team from Bosnia.

In March 2000, the teams met for the first time in over half a century as they played out a friendly in Sarajevo, ending in a 2-2 draw. Since then Zrinjski have finished higher than Velez in the league more and have the better of the head to head contests. Taking into account results since Zrinjski’s ban has ended, they have won the Premier League of Bosnia twice and the domestic cup once, whereas Velez have won the Premier League just once and have been runners up twice.

Fans of both sides have an extreme hardcore element at their heart. Velez fans are called the Red Army and though mainly made up of Bosniaks, the term Red Army is a broad umbrella for many smaller groups and include those from other ethnic backgrounds. Zrinjski fans call themselves Zrinjski Ultras and are almost exclusively from a Croatian background. The Red Army are drawn more from the left wing of society and the Ultras are more to the right, which further exacerbates tensions.

The fixture itself acts as a focal point for demonstrations of nationalism. Many ethnic Croats like Silvio Bubalo refuse to cross the bridge linking the two communities except for the attending the away fixture of the derby: “Over there, I never go there, there’re only Muslims. Me, my country, is Croatia.” The isolationist attitude of Croatian residents in Mostar is echoed by Velez fan Gaga; “The difference between us and the Zrinjski, who never cross the river, is that we know how to swim,” before making the more serious point that for the most part life in Mostar is pretty much the same as any other European city and its only when the derby occurs that “nationalism and the past resurface”

There is a heavy police presence on the day of matches. Often in the weeks preceding a game, nationalist graffiti of the dreaded Ustaše (an armed Croatian nationalist group from World War Two) as well as swastikas appear on monuments within the city as well as the graves of soldiers who died in the 1990’s. Away fans meet at a predestined point before kick off and are herded into buses and driven straight to the ground and are escorted directly in and out by police. Despite the heavy police presence fascist salutes, nationalist songs and flags are often unfurled by fans in a bid to antagonise their counterparts.

Often the rivalry can spill out from the terraces and onto the pitch. In September 2011 during a cup tie, Zrinjski fans climbed over the terraces and onto the pitch in a bid to confront Velez players who had just scored a decisive goal in extra time. The Velez players immediately fled both the pitch and the stadium evading missiles thrown by the pursuing fans. In April 2013 Police arrested around 30 Zrinjski fans, previously banned from attending the fixture, as they tried to make their way to the match.

Marko Tomas writing in believes that there is little hope in the near future of the fixture losing its edge and there are parallels between the antagonism felt between the fans and the state of wider Bosnian society. Nationalist curricula at school combined with poor economic prospects mean that those born even after the war finished in 1995 are growing up with a strong nationalist identity. If children are taught what Tomas describes as “murky political and educational campaigns” and then cannot find a job after they leave school then it is only natural for them to follow a path whereby they can blame another group of people for their misfortunes.

Others believe that the rivalry has its roots much deeper than the recent civil war. Janine di Giovanni, author of Madness Invisible states that Croats and Bosniaks have had a different outlook for centuries and are unlikely to change. Croatia was ruled by the Habsburg dynasty and as such ethnic Croats naturally looks towards Europe for its identity, whereas Bosnia having been ruled by the Ottoman Empire looks more towards Turkey and the East. The two communities in Mostar will never therefore be compatible and the education system within Bosnia is unlikely to break that cycle.

This ultimately leaves the Mostar derby as one which is scarred by fervent nationalism bottled up for most of the year by communities who may not mix often and acts as a release valve for those few times that they do. Though little known throughout Europe, the fixture is full of passion, fight and ironically enough a real sense of identity

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