“A crime that has nothing to do with sports” is an eternal phrase that accompany every new act of violence connected with football. Such shocking incidents repeat every week, some images appear, which in a certain way alert that sometimes football can be a horror spectacle. But once an initial fright is overcome and people are cured of the impact, new clashes continue to fuel overwhelming passion of millions. And new acts of violence infect with the virus that will never disappear again.

Barras bravas in Argentina, Ultras in Italy or Spain and paramilitary groups with wide political connections in the Balkans and post-Soviet countries form a part of the world football map of violence. All those people are united by a venue, which is usually located not far from stadiums as many clubs have taken security measures in their stands. The financing of big radical groups also has similar roots, no matter what the origin of these gangs is: tickets donated by the directives, sale of their own uniform and, in the worst cases, incomes obtained due to various kinds of shady business that can be found in any city. 

All the ultras groups have their history, hobbies and phobias, and, of course, a range of personal profiles that that make them profoundly open despite a seeming secrecy around them. Open because we can find any type of a person within their ranks, from fathers of families that seek to violence trying to avoid family pressure during the week to unemployed young people, lawyers or insurance agents. There’s no biography that would be able to define an ultra precisely.

In the 80s, during the prime years of Hooligan violence, a radical Chelsea fan was arrested after a bloodstained brawl with Sunderland followers. It wasn’t unusual for the Metropolitan Police to deal with those hooligans that were besmirching the name of the whole country. The most serious, curious and bloodstained thing about the situation was that the detainee was no more and no less a London police officer. The detail that perfectly explains to what extent the violent groups represent a certain segment of society, the most shameless one among all stratas of society. After every crime the directives and politicians seek to separate violence and sports, but undeniably football also has its share of responsibility for survival of those gangs, which tarnish the name of this sport around the world in pursuit of fanaticism and violence.

The Balkan Tigers

Athletes from the Balkans are accompanied by an innate ability of producing and distributing talents in any group activity. Accustomed to suffering in their childhood full of constraints, football, basketball or handball players born in the last years of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia or during the war, learned how to create or improvise as easily as they got used to the anarchy in the streets of Belgrade, Zagreb or Ljubljana. Being out of the hands of the most fierce and disciplined coaches from the previous socialist regime, today the athletes from former Yugoslavia are the sons of a turbulent epoch that left rivers of blood and separated the Republic´s inhabitants into five countries. Sports is the best tool for soothing the pain. That's why so many players and fans have a special mood about every sports events. The situation has significantly changed in the last few decades, but the ethnic war, which divided the country and converted dozens of brothers into enemies, remained in the memory of every Balkan.

Ultras were the first who started the conflict between Croats and Serbs. They rebelled against the power that they considered illegitimate and by all accounts oppressive. Decades after, they are still the ones who spread the racial hatred and bring up a confrontation of flags as their ideal of life. Every sporting event represents a new opportunity to dredge up unsettled feuds.

It’s not about discipline, as in this case more than in any others, sports is a perfect excuse for one’s crimes and one’s tortures. On the pitch some gifted players get into relentless fights and brawls without a truce. And it has the same meaning both for them and their fans. It’s the same when there’s a spiritual leader in every team, so there’s an ingenious, prudent enforcer in the gangs.

In 2013 Serbian Red Star Belgrade and Croatian VK Jug Dubrovnik faced each other in the waterpolo LEN Champions League. The match was an excuse for the radical fans of two countries to remind old conflicts. That situation significantly alerted the governments of the countries. Few matches in this sport have had such a high-profile follow-up and such an influx of spectators over the past few years. Mutual threats took few hours and then turned into brawls. And new victims of Serbian-Croatian war joined the death toll. There were the best world players in the swimming pool, but just like in the previous decades, they couldn’t but notice what was happening in the stands.

Dinamo Zagreb vs Red Star Belgrade, 13 May 1990

The ultras of clubs or any Balkan team always cross the line of sports. In former post-Soviet countries teams had clear linkages with government institutions (clubs related to the navy, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, police etc.) and currently the gangs of radical fans act like the militia of social and political movements. That can be considered as a childish and marginal behaviour in many countries, but it becomes the essence of the Balkan football. There’s a famous story, which many historians have a true devotion to, and Zvonimir Boban is the protagonist. There’s no fan that doesn’t know it. Many people claim that this fight set in motion the hostilities between Croatian people and Serbian police. It was the first confrontation. 

13 May 1990 was a crucial day for the history of Yugoslavian disintegration, the day when football contributed more than ever as a catalyst for the society during that effervescent period. Red Star visited Dinamo Zagreb accompanied by 3000 followers, real soldiers that were ready to obliterate the city with a cry “Zagreb is Yugoslavian”. Trained for years and having all kinds of weapons with them (some inherited them, others borrowed from the Yugoslavian military soldiers), they came to establish their “justice”.

They considered their actions legitimate because the country they knew little by little had already begun the process of decomposition. At that moment they were developing into the biggest criminals that in a very short time undertook the most bloody war in Europe in the second half of XX century. Among Red Star fans there were the most dangerous paramilitary leaders in the country (as Željko Ražnatović, Arkan, about whom we will talk later). However, they were protected from the police that was still receiving orders from the central government. 

They unleashed the passion and those spirits became uncontrollable, because the local fans didn’t understand that the confrontation went beyond sports framework. Red Star fans were outnumbered, but they started to uproot all advertising boards and smashed the security barrier. At that time the brawl turned into an improvised fight between fans. Nevertheless it wouldn’t have gone down in history if it hadn’t been the preamble to the war. The police that wasn’t able to tame the tensions, stepped in with spraying tear gas what resulted in the first victims.

During the outbreak of Yugoslavian civil servants’ violence, local player Zvonimir Boban became the first fighter of the Croatian War of Independence: “He was a public figure ready to sacrifice his life, career and all the fame that he could have had with a singular purpose, one cause: Croatia”. His involvement formed a living symbol for Croatia and it was the first step for the nationalistic front to feel the necessity to confront Belgrade’s power.

Boban represents one of those rational and talented soldiers about which we talked before, a man that left his country to become a football star in Italy who meanwhile completed his education (he has a degree in history). Zvonimir managed to unite Dinamo and Hajduk fans in the brawl against the enemy and at the same time he obtained Serbs’ eternal antipathy. He shared unforgettable moments with those fans, such as the victory at the 1987 World Youth Championship.

On the side of the front there were some members of Arkan's Tigers (the Serb Volunteer Guard was formed from more than 10,000 members that spread fear in the Balkan wars in 90s). But that spiral of violence had been born long before Željko Ražnatović, known as Arkan, a self-proclaimed commander of Red Star radical ultras. His extraordinary military bastion was born in football stadiums, where he recruited the most faithful followers. They were adapted to the situation that was reigning in the country, so he was able to train, indoctrinate them and provide with the weapons of the highest technology.

The destiny of his militia was written between 1991 and 1995. They would acquired their knowledge during many small football battles. Arkan went down in history as a person that caused one of the most bloody genocide in Europe. That was why after the end of the Balkan wars he didn’t dare to leave Serbia. If he had done that, he would have been immediately detained and punished by the international authorities.

But Arkan’s dream was to have his own football club, a team with which he would be able to clear the pitch for his fighting tigers. He tried to do that with Red Star, but had to settle for Obilic, a club that reached the top division and became the champion. The team’s fans were devoted to the fanatic and extremist ideals that provoked cruelty in the past. In fact, Arkan encourage them with his mascot, a beautiful tiger, which walked around before the matches.

In 1998 Atletico Madrid came to scent the war on the pitch facing Obilic in the Europa League. Long after Arkan refused to travel to the Vicente Calderon stadium due to his passport restrictions. His wife substituted him as Obilic’s director. There were litres of blood and tortures behind that image of a happy family. And there were myriads of fixed matches and threats in football thanks to the power that their dirty business and friendship with Slobodan Milosevic provided them.

Arkan was killed in 2000, but his seed of violence sprouted very deeply in the ultras’ consciousness of those who became his successors afterwards. The images of the match Italy-Serbia, both countries were suspended in 2012, demonstrated than even though several decades have passed, football continues drawing rampant passion among the Balkan tigers. 

Source: El Enganche