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Thursday, October 14, 2010
Serbia hits rock bottom

Milan Govedarica

On October 12, Europe witnessed a disgraceful episode in international football history - an official UEFA Euro 2012 qualifier between Italy and Serbia was abandoned, due to the violent behaviour of a group of Serbian fans. Throughout the day, the host of the match, the city of Genoa, witnessed random acts of vandalism, antisocial behaviour and open violence. Most notable was the assault on Vladimir Stojkovic, Serbia's goalkeeper, by the angry mob of 'Ultras', stopped only by the reactions of his team-mates and Italian police wielding weapons. Traumatised by the incident, he had to be taken off the team. He had 'sinned' by 'switching the camp' - signing for Partizan Belgrade, from Sporting Lisbon, after being a Red Star Belgrade player. Clearly, the assailants were Red Star fans. Later on that evening, after the match was abandoned, while making the arrests and searching the buses, Italian police found an arsenal of bars, bats and knives but - more worryingly - shock-bombs and even a hand grenade on the suspected leader of the group, found hiding in the luggage hold. The Belgrade media report that his name is Ivan Bogdanov, 30 years of age, and at the moment there are four court cases against him. He was the man seen on photos, cutting the protection screen with pliers, commanding the riot and making Nazi-style salutes. One has to ask how all sorts of illegal weapons - including a variety of torches and pyro-tech - could enter the stadium in Genoa, and how did the troublemakers manage to slip under the radar of the Serbian security and judicial system and travel as far as Genoa with the intent of causing a major incident? The first question, related to the Italian hosts, I'd prefer to leave with UEFA's pending investigation. The answer to the second question is rather complicated and requires a look into the past 25 years. In the mid and late '80s, there was an amount of hooliganism that was mostly present at and around the games of the Grand Four of ex-Yugoslavia - Red Star, Partizan, Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb - where the rivalry was fuelled by local-chauvinism, comparable to that of games between Manchester United and Liverpool. However, the football fans were still ethnically mixed to a certain extent. With the demise of Yugoslavia and the socialist system, the football fan groups became increasingly violent and political. The most notorious incident heralding the civil war was the clash between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade fans on May 13, 1990. It was the beginning of a new era in which many of the football fans became stormtroopers of the nationalist political parties and many of them became paramilitaries throughout the conflicts in the former Yugoslav republics (1991-1995). The infamous late Zeljko Raznatovic, known as 'Arkan', gangster and a war criminal, was the leader of Red Star supporters. In Serbia throughout the 1990s, with the criminalisation of the society, not only did Partizan-Red Star matches become the symbol of violence on and off the pitch, but the lines between the football clubs, fans, security apparatus and gangsters became blurred. All of them were connected and running the business. In this isolated league, with no international games played, rigging matches, money laundering through buying different clubs, 'owning' and selling players and similar transactions became an everyday reality. Very little changed with the lift of the international sanctions in the late '90s. Football fans got increasingly involved in political rallies, especially towards the end of Slobodan Milosevic's era, around 1999 and 2000. Some of them had a very prominent role in the anti-regime protest, including some Red Star groups. Everything culminated on October 5, 2000, when Milosevic was toppled. The crucial element of bringing him down was many of the football supporter groups taking the key role in confronting the police, storming the Assembly and state TV. Therefore, the new government was indebted to them. Unfortunately, the political changes weren't systematic and deep enough, and not only did the new authorities owe a big favour to the different 'Ultra' groups but a huge portion of security services and the army stayed unreformed. The lack of reforms meant less foreign investment, and very few jobs were available. This led to the 'crawling civil' war that is still happening in Serbia now - between the pro-reforms parties and organisations and the reactionary nationalists. The result is informal centres of powers, like narco-bosses hand in hand with ultra-nationalists using large groups of football hooligans for political pressure - very similar to the South American professional supporters. The Serbian state showed reluctance on numerous occasions to seriously tackle this problem, especially the judicial system that many times rather leniently sentenced or even released them. Notoriously, some of the 'leaders' saw up to a dozen serious charges pressed against them by the police, such as racketeering, drug dealing, GBH, attempted murder or even murder, but were never sentenced. In the past ten years, they felt above the law - which led to many incidents in which these groups were openly violent against any representatives of the state or public - policemen, medics, judges, journalists. Not only lawless but increasingly extreme right, under the influence of clerical fascist organisations, they've become a cancer of Serbian society. Only two days prior to the scandal in Genoa, many of the perpetrators took part in a well-organised clash with the Serbian riot police forces that lasted for about seven hours, in an attempt to break up the first Belgrade Gay Pride parade, under the pretence of protecting the 'traditional values'. Attacks on the police seemed well co-ordinated and left police overstretched. The centre of the city was badly damaged, hundreds injured and, if it weren't for the staunch resistance from the police, it would have turned out much worse. Many arrested were in their teens. The ruling coalition condemned the protesters, but the opposition, mainly right-wing parties, were referring to them as the 'poor children'. Less then 48 hours later, they struck again. This time there was no doubt this was not just a coincidence - football hooligans, young men of similar description - officially unemployed, with a long record with the police and a number of charges in front of the Serbian courts. These people should never even have been issued a passport. The damage is done and Serbia will probably face a lengthy ban and a heavy fine. Serbian government's failure to deal with these issues has finally shown its ugly face. Italian hosts were shocked, as were many people in Europe, but most shocked of all were the ordinary people in Serbia who never dreamt of being so publicly ashamed - much more than after the 3-1 loss to Estonia in Belgrade.


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