OpEd

Crime, politics and football in Serbia

Football in Serbia could be a beautiful game. If only there weren't so many game spoilers from politics. For them, football is an instrument of power to manipulate the masses, incite hatred and achieve political interests - Speech delivered at the South East European Association Conference in Munich on Sport and Politics in South East Europe

Two years ago, when it was clear to almost the whole world that Russia was going to attack Ukraine, a Serbian tabloid newspaper announced in big letters on its front page: "Ukraine attacked Russia!"

On the eve of the second anniversary of Russia's attack against Ukraine, the Russian media announced in triumphalist tones that the fans of "Crvena Zvezda", the football champion in Serbia, waved Russian flags during a match and chanted: "Russians and Serbs are forever brothers".

From the point of view of the nationalists in Serbia, and a significant part of the football fans should also be counted here, Ukraine is still the aggressor, while "Mother Russia" is the victim of the malicious Western world.

The statement of the prime minister of Serbia, who recently compared the opposition to "insects" and said that she (the opposition) wanted to humiliate Serbia like Hitler and Himmler used to, fits this mindset. Any person with sound logic can ask what are the reasons that the prime minister of Serbia raised such accusations? The opposition is convinced that the elections held last December were manipulated by the government. Consequently, the opposition has asked the European Union for an international investigation into the alleged electoral fraud. This demand was enough for those in power in Belgrade to lose control. Officially, Serbia is a candidate for EU membership. But the toxic political culture increasingly resembles the slogans in football stadiums.

When Serbian politicians resort to war games, football hooligans join ranks to incite the nationalist atmosphere with threats. When three Serbian extremists were killed last September after an attack on the Kosovo Police, mostly black-clad fans marched through Belgrade. They lit candles in the Sveti Sava Cathedral and glorified the men who fell "for the motherland".

The capital city derby between Crvena Zvezda and Partizan was postponed due to the declaration of national mourning. In a written statement, "Delije", the ultra-radical fans of Crvena Zvezda, called Stefan Nedelkovic "friend from the stands". When Nedelkovic was buried in a town in Serbia, football fans lined up and held torches. The head of the mafia, Millan Radoicic, who had taken responsibility for the attack against the police forces in Kosovo, also appeared at the cemetery. This extremist is a trusted man of President Aleksandar Vučić. And this extremist continues to live freely in Serbia, and is even praised as a hero.

Aleksandar Vučić, the most powerful politician in Serbia, has been a supporter of Crvena Zvezda since his youth. This means that at the same time you must have a deep aversion against the local rival Partizan Belgrade. In the early 90s, Aleksandar Vučić was active in the scene of radical fans of Crvena Zvezda. Here, the criminal Zhelko Razhnjatovic, known as "Arkan", with the help of the Serbian secret service, recruited many paramilitaries, who left a bloody trail from Croatia to Bosnia-Herzegovina and further to Kosovo. First of all, the plundering expeditions made Arkan and his uniformed hooligans rich.

In May 1990, Vuçiqi was present at the football match of Crvena Zvezda against Dinamo Zagreb. Clashes in the streets of the Croatian capital and subsequent riots in the Maksimir Stadium were events that foreshadowed the wars that led to the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, caused by Belgrade's leadership.

There is no first-hand evidence that Vucic participated in the fighting. But as an ardent supporter of the war criminal Vojislav Seselj, Vučić visited the Serbian soldiers and paramilitaries who were besieging the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, where they killed thousands of civilians. At the same time, he worked as a reporter for a Bosnian Serb disinformation and propaganda channel. It is not unfair to say that his behavior at that time was warmongering.

The symbiosis of politics, criminal underworld and football in Serbia remains intact.

When Vucic began to consolidate his power ten years ago, he distanced himself from his past in a theatrical way and in many words. In some western capitals, they believed these promises of Vucic. He is praised for having met Angela Merkel 16 times. In Berlin, in Brussels and in many Western capitals, the red carpet was rolled out for Vučić.

But Vučić still maintained close contacts with suspicious circles, his "progressive" party (SNS), according to the Belgrade media, recruited violent types to the football stands, who attacked the opposition, also the heads of the underground were involved to discipline unwanted fans of Partizan.

Partizan fans insult Vucic by calling him a "fag" and demand his resignation. Meanwhile, the arrested mobster Velko Belivuk openly states that he acted on the orders of the head of state. Belivuk says he acted "for the needs of the state". Justice accuses this hooligan leader of being behind some brutal murders. In 2021, Vucic sang to Belivik for his birthday. Belivuk is accused of kidnapping, blackmail, murder and drug trafficking.

Violence, arson and racist slogans characterize the fan culture in Serbia. The director of Crvena Zvezda said in an interview with the French newspaper "Le Monde" that the biggest Serbian team is "not only a football team, but also an ideology, philosophy and national symbol. Crvena Zvezda is a defender of the Serbian identity and the Orthodox confession.

This is where the club's proximity to Russia comes into play. After Russia's attack on Ukraine, Russian football was isolated in Europe. But at the beginning of July 2022, Zenit St. Petersburg hosted the Serbian champion in Sochi - for Moscow this was a great propaganda success. Both teams have the main sponsor of the Russian gas concern Gazprom.

During the duel between Crvena Zvezda and Partizan in the spring of 2022, Russian flags with the capital letter Z were waved, a symbol for Vladimir Putin's war against Ukraine. Crvena Zvezda fans often demand the return of the Serbian army to Kosovo.

In 2019, the Swiss Young Boys football team played against Crvena Zvezda in the Champions League. The first match was played in Bern, perhaps the most comfortable capital in the world, and was accompanied by massive beatings. Several people were attacked. The police were forced to stop the attackers by shooting in the air. A bar was hit with beer cans. An LGBT community flag hanging from the building was likely to get in the way of fans.

Before the return match in Belgrade against the Swiss club, Crvena Zvezda placed a T-55 tank in front of the stadium. The European Football Federation - UEFA naively announced: "The tank in front of the stadium is not a problem until it is opened fire".

Whoever glorifies violence paves the way for mass beatings. In 2017, a real battle took place between the radical fans of Crvena Zvezda and Partizan. The duel has entered the new Serbian history as the bloody night of Belgrade.

In 2009, Partizan fans brutally beat a French fan, who died a few days later. The following year, Serbian hooligans committed violence in Italy during a qualifying match for the European football championship. The match was first stopped temporarily, then definitively. "I have never experienced something like this," said Italy's then coach, Cesare Prandelli.

How closely football and politics are connected in Serbia is shown by the case of a Serbian football player from Kosovo. Four years ago, the headlines of the Serbian newspapers were: "The bomb exploded: the first Serb in the Kosovo national team"; "Horror and shame: the first Serb who plays for the fake state of Kosovo"; "This was not supposed to happen, hell awaits him." But what had happened? Player Ilija Iviq from the Serb-inhabited village of Graçanica near Pristina told the media that he had received a call to be part of the U-19 Kosovo football team. The hunt against the "traitor to the nation" quickly expanded: his mother lost her job, the rest of the family was verbally attacked.

Football in Serbia could be a beautiful game. If only there weren't so many game spoilers from politics. For them, football is an instrument of power to manipulate the masses, incite hatred and achieve political interests. Unfortunately, Serbia is not the only example in the region.

(This speech was given on February 16 in Munich within the framework of the Conference of the Association of Southeast Europe).