An anthropologist among the football fans. Football in Serbia analyzed by Ivan Đorđević

In the following interview published by Serbian Monitor, the anthropologist Ivan Đorđević touches many aspects of this phenomenon in Serbia, from the elaboration of the nationalist identity at the stadium curves through social and criminal dynamics, of which the fanatic groups are both cause and effect, to the inevitable mingling of fans and politics, which in this country often results not only in physical violence, but also in organized devastation and sensational acts.

Recently the newspapers Insajder and Newsweek have dedicated several articles to the complex reality of football in Serbia, bringing to light the inadequacy of political response to putting a stop to hooliganism, and on the other hand pointing out on the problems related to the organization of the system of professional clubs, whose financing activities and those related to selling players often lack transparency. As reported by Insajder, in the aftermath of the composition of the new government, in the shortened version of the exposé that Vučić sent to the journalists, only two sentences are dedicated to this subject, but according to the newspaper, so as to relativize it, because “the violence in stadiums is not exclusively a problem of Serbia”. But “Serbia however is one of a few countries that surrender in front of the hordes of hooligans who go out of the stadiums to the streets under the pretext of fighting for the “national cause” destroying and putting cities on fire. Serbia is a country in which in the last couple of years many investigations have been opened, against the leaders of fanatic groups, for murders, attempted murders, drug dealing, extortion. The processes went on for years, but never brought to final judgments“.

To understand the complexity of a phenomenon that presents itself culturally articulated on various levels, but also the complexity of the relationship between football, nationalism and politics, Vreme, another renowned magazine, has published in its latest issue the interview with Ivan Đorđević, anthropologist at the Ethnographic Institute of Belgrade and the author of “Antropolog među navijačima” (An anthropologist among the football fans), called “Violence, hierarchy, power of politics”. The dynamics that characterize and nurture the connection between sports and politics have often been the subject studied by the social sciences, and in one of the interviews that we ourselves made with Ivan on the last July 28th we tried to figure out with him how the prism of social science can enlighten the context of football in Serbia.

Why have you, as an anthropologist, decided to dedicate yourself to the study of football as a cultural phenomenon?

Above all because I like football, and I have been fortunate to have a supervisor who is a football fan, but honestly…

I found this to be very serious…

Sure, liking football is definitely a very serious thing. In any case, I have always been very interested in the relationship between politics and sports, rather visible in Yugoslavia during the ’90s, but much stronger nowadays. Ever since I started working in the Ethnographic Institute, this has been the subject that attracted my interest at most, and while writing my PhD thesis, I had the opportunity to investigate on the types of connection between nationalism and sports, and between hooliganism and political parties, especially the right. Then I focused on the study, through narrations on football, on the relationship between Serbia and Croatia. In a way the narrations appear better defined when you read or talk about football than about politics, especially in the context of politics after the year 2000. Despite the normalization of the relationships between the two countries, the disputed games played between the two national teams keep making some kind of tension: football in this sense is a good key to interpret this type of relationship, a territory in which you can observe how relationships are activated and work in practice.

How exactly the study on football can help us understand the reality, and why can
football have this role?

Clearly because of its popularity, and the importance it has for people: when something is given such importance, it can be filled with a whole range of other things. It is not “just” football anymore, it is always something more than a game. One of the first political uses of football dates back to 1934 during the World Cup in Italy: Mussolini tried to use football as an instrument for the foundation of the ”new Italian man”, and from that moment the examples are obvious. Moreover, the first time the German flag appeared in public after the First World War was when West Germany won the World Cup of 1954, in Bern. In a certain way, football can also be defined as the war without arms.

Simon Kuper wrote that in football “the symbols and flags are a mask under which the secret and uncontrollable identities are sometimes hiding”. This trend seems to be taking shape significantly in the context of the Balkans, and in Serbia it has been taking specific connotations related to feelings of revenge and the assertion of nationalist identity. The expression, which may sound paroxysmal and violent, that such instances embody, can often become a bargaining tool and the exercise of power in the hands of politics, as shown by example by the sports journalist Ivan Lončarević:

“Sports and politics are always connected, especially in this part of the world, and politicians use sports to emphasize differences, primarily at the political level.”

This juxtaposition with the war is rather constant, and for Serbia it has been repeatedly reaffirmed by the ethnologist Ivan Čolović, that you have often quoted…

It substantially is because the national football teams facilitate the process of identification of an individual in the collective subject and make a perfect instrument in the process of national homogenization. And this is the reason why it can be connected to the war. It does not necessarily need to be connected only with this, football can also be used for other things, many of them positive.

So, before going on with the aspects that could be negative, which are the positive aspects of football in Serbia?

It is pretty complicated. The status of football in Serbia at the moment is not going in its favor, because the level is quite low and it is getting even worse constantly. If we consider the fact that nowadays football is an extremely capitalistic thing, it is difficult to expect that Serbian market could be competitive. It is fundamentally a matter of economy. We can produce talents, but we are forced to sell them quickly, at prices which are not very convenient: in this way the big clubs are not capable of giving continuity to the teams and creating something praiseworthy. But it is not only about the games of the market: we lack resources and motivation that could keep a player here. Even though the stadiums in Belgrade are not bad, the whole Serbia lacks adequate structures.

Therefore the exodus of talents is caused mostly by practical reasons?

Apart from that, the reason is also business, of course. Many people work in an obscure way. Football clubs in Serbia are registered as citizens‟ institutions, the owner is not the state, a specific private subject or a “social” subject, so basically it is impossible to keep track of the money and they are not requested to pay the taxes, the rules are completely different from the ones governing in the normal societies. All in all a perfect mechanism for money laundering.

And it has always been like this?

In the former Yugoslavia the system was much more regulated and the state had a bigger role, but in any case it has always been some kind of a black market. But from the „90s nobody knows anything about the budget and incomes of the clubs anymore, and they are not obliged to make the contract terms public during negotiations. Actually many criminals have turned into sports agents.

Every once in a while it is proposed to privatize the clubs, do you think it could be a solution?

If the state was not the owner, it would be easier to privatize, and to even sell them. Moreover, as they are registered as civic associations, the clubs cannot even possess any properties by law, so you would not even know what you are selling. If the clubs are possessed by municipalities or factories it is much simpler, and it has already happened with the club Čukarički Stankom, which is now completely private and works in a more or less transparent way. In the case of Red Star or Partizan it gets difficult, it is enough to take into consideration the price of the land under the Red Star stadium, which could not even be sold because it is nobody‟s property. Anyway, who would invest in something without knowing what could happen next with it? You could only make hypotheses about the debt of these associations, they say Red Star has 50 million and Partizan 15. It is not even clear how they keep working with such a debt. I guess it is a political decision, it would be a huge risk for anyone to try and close one of the clubs, as their rivalry is of great importance for people, especially in Belgrade, but also in the whole country. And being a part of it has always been a matter of prestige for politicians. People are deeply involved in this rivalry.

Red Star fans – FC Red star

I did many interviews for my research and when asking how they keep supporting Red Star in spite of a terrible quality of their game, the response was always more or less the same: “I cannot do anything, it is what it is. When I hear the choirs of the stadium it fills my heart”. It would be rather unpopular to close one of these two clubs. And there is for sure something else unofficial, a certain connection between politicians, clubs and fans. There are well-known stories, of fans involved in drug trafficking, but nobody has ever been arrested, and even when there is a process it results in stalemate. The connection with a certain structure within the state machinery is obvious, many components of these fan groups work as security guards in political parties.

But if people are aware of such a deep connection, why do they keep supporting this mechanism?

I believe it is a “historical” and “sentimental” matter. People tend to look at positive sides of the two teams, even trying to deny the “negative” part of cheer-leading, considering it fake. But many of them have even stopped going to the stadium because they cannot stand the choirs and nationalist and racist songs. You simply feel that you do not belong there anymore and the new generations that are now going to the stadiums do not remember that: my prediction is that within ten years from now the popularity that football has at the moment could become extinct.

Banner displayed by Partizan fans during the qualifying match for the Champions League against Ludogorec on 6 August, anniversary of the expulsion of Serbs from the Croatian town of Knin in 1995. The text says: “Expelling civilians, the action is clear. Next year in Knin, the message is clear”.

However sometimes the rivalry is also based on a differentiation that acts on a local level, which then binds to the processes of identification of a community which claims to be connected not only to a specific historical path but also to a particular place or territory. Do you recognize this element in the rivalry of the two Belgrade teams?

The difference here is cultural rather than territorial. There is a narrative that concerns Red Star and Partizan, which I’m investigating now, and I can basically summarize it in the fact that the fans of Partizan have always been regarded as “Yugoslavs”, while Red Star fans are “Serbs.” On the other hand there is also a legend, about the cultural difference between these two groups, which says that “pure” Belgraders support Red Star, while it is assumed that all the others are fans of Partizan. I do not believe this is true, but it is a rather widespread belief, and quite solid, and so are people when it comes to this matter, especially the generation born in the 50s and 60s after the Second World War. Therefore the difference has always been a cultural matter.

But isn’t it classicist?

I have been asking myself the same question while writing the thesis and comparing the English and European fan groups to the Serbian ones. In England the principle of differentiation could definitely be classicist but in Yugoslavia it has never been the case. People from all classes have always been united in fan clubs. I tried to find any kind of a connection to a class consciousness but I could not identify any at all. Even now, or during the period of transition and economic crisis I would have expected the occurrence of such an element, but that is not the case. Many of the people who are involved in violence for example do not necessarily need to be considered members of the working class.

How did the images of sport events that marked the history of the last thirty years, from Red Star’s victory of the European Cup in 1991, the match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star on May 13, 1990 at Maksimir stadium settle in the collective memory? And how are these stories triggered even today?

As far as Maksimir is concerned, we can say that memory is much more profound and powerful in Croatia, because that game was actually used for the construction of a national myth: people strongly believe that “the war began at Maksimir”. In Serbia it does not have such a big importance: the episode was actually exploited in the immediate aftermath to discredit the Croatian behavior, while in Croatia it was more a matter of national pride. Apart from this episode, sports and football were very important for TuĎman, within the context of a typical process of nation building in which a series of symbols and myths were used to homogenize the nation. In order to be effective the myth must be comprehensive in its component parts, and this explains the role played by the memory of football that the ‘”hero” Zvonimir Boban launched to a police officer in an attempt to defend a fan of his team.

May 13, 1990 at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb: Zvonimir Boban, the protagonist of accidents during the match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade

In Serbia other myths have taken hold and strength. And we must also consider that Serbia lost all of these wars, so you cannot celebrate something that you actually inevitably lost. If Serbia had won, Maksimir would have probably become a part of the national myth as it happened in Croatia. But speaking about that time here in Serbia is not very popular, Serbian society is a society of rejection, and silence fell on this episode. And Serbian fans do not speak much of the wars in the ’90s, the story from their point of view is simply hidden: there is not much to remember other than the Champions League victory.

So, to summarize, football in Croatia has been an active instrument for the nation-building process, but in Serbia it is clearly not the case, to what extent and how this differentiation occurs in the role of football?

In Serbia it was different because the state that emerged here after the separation of Yugoslavia was, however, still named Yugoslavia, there was no new construction with different national symbols. And it is interesting that many fans decided not to support the national team for this reason, as summarized in the famous song “Red Star Serbian! Never Yugoslav.” Milosević’s regime was purely nationalistic, but somehow it was also linked to a certain form and ideology of the old communist-style, for which Yugoslavia did not represent something negative. On a symbolic level it was difficult to identify his nationalism, and it was not his intention to start that kind of a national building process. Obviously, everything was full of nationalism, but it was a more informal process than formal. So, back to football, this is the reason that explains why the national team in this period was not a symbol of national identity, because it was the Yugoslavian national team. The last time that football was part of some kind of a national construction process was when the Red Star won the European Cup becoming at that time the representative team of Serbia. In 1990-1991 season Red Star won the European Cup in Bari, in the finals against Olympique Marseille.

Back to more recent times, the association between Serbian football and a certain type of violence is internationally quite widespread, consequently to some relevant episodes, such as the one occurred in Genoa during the match between Italy and Serbia on October 12, 2010 …

Nobody knows what actually happened, as far as I know, it was about some sort of an internal fight. Some fans, especially the Red Star ones, intended to create incidents in order to force someone who was at the helm of the national football federation to resign. The fans wanted that position for themselves, as it brings money and power, but this person was actually on Partizan’s side, therefore they basically used the international scene for an internal fight. Their official justification at the time was the response to Italy’s recognition of Kosovo as an independent state.

And this is yet another interesting point, how the fans use the narrative on Kosovo. At the stadium of Marakana in Belgrade, there is a banner that on every game reminds of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The banner was displayed in almost all stadiums in the days after February 17 of 2008, when the government in Pristina unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo. In those days a lot of Serbian fans, combined with the nationalist parties, crowded the “border” between Serbia and Kosovo with parades, demonstrations and violent conflicts with police.

This is just a typical nationalist rhetoric, that would never happen in practice. None of them would ever decide to actually fight for it in the current state. It is an inherited political position, which is the center of their conservative-right and nationalist identity, which makes it, perhaps, an empty symbol, performing at a linguistic level but not operational. Just as the adherence to the Orthodox religion is a constitutional part of their line of reasoning, and a fundamental part of their identity. The situation was even more different in the case of the drone at the European Championship qualifying match between Serbia and Albania on October 14, 2014.

Belgrade, October 14, 2014: during the match between Serbia and Albania a drone with the flag of the Great Albania and an inscription praising the ‘free Kosovo’ flies over the stadium as a sign of provocation. The Serbian player Mitrović grabs the wires and pulls down the aircraft. Game suspended.

This was the next step… how do you interpret that episode?

For me it was a sign that it is still possible to use football for this kind of manipulation, and when you press on nationalism sometimes things develop in a different way from what you expected. In that case, things could have gotten very bad, but nothing else happened because the political will was to calm things down, to restrain what could have happened. And it is interesting to compare this episode to what happened in Maksimir, because in Zagreb in 1990 the events were highly manipulated and political elites on both sides used the incident for their own political purposes, to show their own people what the opponent was like. It was used as a metaphor, with help of the effective and constant action of the media. But more recently the political decision was to simply calm the situation down.

So the violent drift is always somehow connected to politics?

In these particular cases we are not talking about the typical stadium violence, in these big events there is always a connection to politics, it is always organized. And the fan groups here in Serbia are highly organized, they even have some sort of a military hierarchy. Whatever happens in this field, especially if it is of such dimensions, happens because there is somebody from the top supporting it. Nobody has the power for an individual and autonomous initiative. And I believe that the connection is even stronger. Everything related to Arkan is quite well known, and I believe that connection to the security service is still very active, as it was at his time.

And does the ethnic issue have some role in this process?

People do not think about it now and I think that connection in the 90’s was due to contamination with politics and from that moment we can almost say that this connection is a part of the patriotic capital, and even if we do not pay attention to it, it has assumed a great symbolic power among the fans. Since cheerleading has become strongly ethnically oriented in the 90’s, this has never changed. Basically the identification is done through the use of the category of ethnicity, fans consider themselves Serbs, Orthodox, and only if we talk about local rivalries we do not talk about something different, as it is the case in Croatia. I cannot imagine a differently oriented fan group, although there are some initiatives, such as the Trash Grobarski Romantizam, internal movement among the fans of Partizan, which uses art to create connections with Partizan, they do a great job and are very funny but no one would ever dream of openly taking sides of the left. You have to be right, you have to be a Serbian first. So if privately you nurture different ideas you know you cannot express them in that context. Not to mention the LBGT rights.

Yes, I was just thinking about the disorders that happened in Belgrade in 2009, first the murder of a French football fan Brice Taton and then with local fans who opposed the Gay Pride in Belgrade. That period was interesting because there was also a public protest against the violence in these situations …

Yes, the wave of protests was above all connected to the death of the French fan. There was no great awareness of the LBGT rights, but the interesting thing is that when our prime minister came to power in some way the violence against Gay Pride stopped. I believe that before they were sent to create disorder. Some structures had, and still have, influence on the fans, but when “they” have decided to put a stop to the violence triggered by reactions to the Gay Pride, everything went the right way. In the past they could talk about the reluctant state of LGBT rights, which is still reluctant, but in a different way, ambivalent.

After the riots and the public protests, there were some initiatives to change the law in order to punish more effectively the violent incidents and other crimes of the fans. Has something changed since then or not?

Aside from the actual change of the law, which is not bad at all and is aligned with the legislation in any other European nation. The problem is that the people who are responsible are not prosecuted, nothing is happening in this regard. And above all there was a lot of noise because the killed boy was French, because many people are seriously injured in these accidents, but no one cares. From time to time they make a charade with accusations and responses, but nothing changes.

But how has the relationship structurally changed between politics and football?

I do not believe it has changed, it is a part of a structure that never changes. My opinion is that Serbian politics has not changed a lot from the ’90s, officially it is very different of course and we are not in the same situation, but this structural nationalism is still very present and strong, and so is the connection between the fans and politics, strong as it was before. Even if it is not used in the same way, and with the same visibility and frequency, it is still present. And I believe that this type of nationalism can be a useful instrument for any kind of government, especially in the moments of crisis, to divert the public discontent against some external enemy, or perceived as such. Do you know the story about the war between Ecuador and Honduras? In fact, the war began after a football game and the tension during the game was used to prepare for what happened next…

A kind of a practical exercise …

Exactly, and I believe it happened in a way also with the game between Serbia and Albania, because people were quite angry, in fact they were ready to do something concrete, you could cut the tension with a knife. But it was just a practice to show that everything could be under control, use the violence to show that they were able to control it.

Finally, what do you think about the suggestion for a Pan-Yugoslav championship?

There are some stories about it, on the trail of the model used for the basketball league which exists from 2003, if I am not wrong, but as far as football is concerned… yes, it could happen but it will not have impact on the normalization of football in Serbia, unless they intervene on the lack of transparency, high level of corruption and involvement in crime. The point is – how to change the structure of the corrupted system, and I am rather skeptical about this. It would be more stimulating to have that kind of a championship, but the problem we have is present in other countries too, therefore there is a risk it could expand the system in the same form it is in now. If you do not intervene in the system, nothing can change. And the clubs will stay alive only for the young talents, not even interested to achieve good results, because it is not the thing that makes money.

Ivan Đorđević is a member of the Ethnographic institute of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. He graduated and completed a PhD at the Ethnology and Anthropology Department of the University of Belgrade. He published three monographs
and many scientific articles. His research is focused on the subject of anthropology of sports, politics and literature. As a result of the focus on the field of anthropology of sports, he published the monograph “An anthropologist among the football fans” (Biblioteka XX Vek, Belgrade 2015).

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