September 5, 2013

Football: A Way of Life in Mostar

A special article from Football Beyond Borders founder Jasper Kain on his experiences promoting tolerance through football in Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina: 

We buy our tickets in a hole chiselled in the stone wall nestled between two old black cars, with the word ‘Ultras’ scribbled next to it. The attendee inside the cave-like booth tells us we only have to pay for three because women get in for free. This is still very much a patriarchical environment, with barely a trace of a woman in the stadium.

We have come to watch a Bosnian Premier Division match at the home of FC Zrinjski, who were banned during Tito’s Communist rule for their Right Wing affiliations but have since been re-established after the fall of Yugoslavia. They play at the Bjela Brijeg stadium which is situated on the Croat western side of the city of Mostar but was infamously home of Bosnian Muslim side and arch rivals FC Velez. FC Zrinjski took control of the ground in the aftermath of the Siege of Mostar during the bloody Civil War (1992-1995), much to the anger of their rivals.
Our host Alen embodies this sentiment, he is a keen fan of FC Velez and when we had asked him earlier that day if FC Zrinjski are playing tonight, he remarks “I don’t know and I don’t care…there is only one club in Mostar.” The acrimonious relationship that exists between the two football clubs represents broader trends in society.
International Political Forum

Damage to buildings from the fighting on the Croatian side of Mostar. Image credit: Sgt. Brian Gavin

Earlier in the day we had hosted a Football Beyond Borders tournament that brought five under-13 youth teams from both the Catholic and Muslim communities who live on separate sides of the city together as part of tournament to promote reconciliation and reintegration. The youth team of these arch rivals would go on to play against one another and even shake hands, which was a feat in itself, but any truly meaningful attempt to bring the teams together falls on deaf ears. Our initiatives, including an anti-discrimination talk after the event, as well as a mixed team to play a friendly match against us, were boycotted by the FC Zrinjski youth coaches despite the intent from their Muslim counterparts to make it happen.
Later that evening as we sit in the family stand of the Bijeli Brijeg stadium, looking out onto 500 barechested Ultras, fanatical fans who sing incessantly from the first to the last whistle. It becomes easy to see why the youth coaches were resistant to engage with our reconciliation attempts. Smoke plumes out of red flares as Croatia flags are unfurled, the hands of the self-styled Ultras clap perfectly in sync as their performance resembles preparation for a military operation. A banner at the front says: ‘Ultras: a way of life’, and it becomes clear that the club represents more than just a football team.
International Political Forum

Football match HŠK Zrinjski Mostar-FK Željezničar. Image credit:

It is an institution that symbolises the steadfast nationalist desires of this section of the Croat population. Sitting beside the pitch are some of the young 13 year olds who had been participating in our youth tournament that morning but are now serving ball boys for the match. They watch on as FC Zrinjski secure a tense 2-1 victory and their idols head over to salute the Ultras. Football is a powerful tool to shape hearts and minds particularly when you are young and impressionable.
I have watched hundreds of football matches but have never experienced this sort of fanaticism in the flesh. After the match a group of the ultras, no older than 20 years of age, race round the outside of the stadium to try and confront the away supporters. It leaves an eerie feeling amongst the group of us. As we head back across to the poorer Eastern side of the city where we are staying, one of our group Joseph stops off at the petrol station to get some food and tells the man behind the counter that we have been watching FC Zrinjski this evening, to which he is told that he is not welcome in his presence. The rest of the group are later quizzed if we too have attended the game. The entrenched sectarianism that shapes this beautiful city, split down the middle by the Neretva is present for all to see.
International Political Forum

Mostar – Old Town Panorama. Image credit: Ramirez HUN

Within 24 hours we have seen the power of football, displayed for very different ends. The next day I sit chatting to local PE teacher Haris Idriz and co-organiser of the Football Beyond Borders tournament about these challenges. He is a remarkable man who fled with his mother as a young child to America but has since returned and tirelessly strives to promote reintegration between the different communities. He accepts that he is in the minority and that incidents such as the intransgience shown by the FC Zrinjski youth coaches are all too familiar but refuses to give up. “Events like today are only a small step, but they show that we will not be forced into silence.” It strikes me that it is going to take several generations for the society to recover, while the prospect of future conflict remains a real prospect. We head on to Sarajevo, our faith in our cherished medium of football still just about in tact but with plenty to ponder.
Read the whole of our Football Beyond Borders coverage here.

About the Author

James Appleby
Having just completed his first year studying at SOAS, as an avid football and development fanatic James and Football Beyond Borders seemed a perfect match. He has used his journalistic abilities to publicise FBB's work extensively in the past and will now write a series of blog posts covering the 2013 Balkans Tour.

One Comment

  1. […] Borders tour, yet it was plainly evident that this was no time for reflection. All of our days in Mostar had been a resounding success, but we had challenged ourselves in coming to the Bosnian capital […]

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