UEFA, apparently, has given its blessing on the creation of a “Balkan Super League”, comprising clubs from Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia and Montenegro, as well as Hungary and Bulgaria.
It’s 20 years since the region was hurled into turmoil by a war that was far bloodier than the western part of Europe really understood. There’s still tension, as anyone who has visited Croatia, Bosnia or Serbia will be aware. People are quick to talk about the war and their mistrust of the other countries. At the same time, they will tell you that anyone who lived through it will never want to do it again. Signs of the war, however, most notably in the form of monuments to the dead and pock-marked buildings, are everywhere. Bosnia, in particular, is a down-trodden nation that looks like it has never recovered from the conflict. I’ve been all over Europe, but when I visited Mostar, I took one look at a divided city and the shell-damaged buildings, and I felt decidedly unsafe.
This week, Croatia beat Serbia 2-0 in a World Cup qualifying qualifying game. The game went off without incident, but there were no visitors from Serbia, as will be the case when the two countries meet again in Belgrade later this year. A football game between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in 1991, during which fights broke out on and off the pitch, was said to have been the final straw in the build-up to war.
The idea of a Balkan League has emerged because of the parlous state of domestic football in many parts of Europe. The continent’s best players gravitate to the top leagues, so what’s left behind is not good enough to excite the public in thw region. Average attendances at the top level in Croatia are barely more than 2,000.
It’s a sad story, especially when you compare it to pre-war days when Yugoslav teams were among the most formidable in Eastern Europe. Red Star Belgrade (Serbia) won the European Cup in 1991 and clubs like Dinamo Zagreb and Hadjuk Split (Croatia), Partizan (Serbia) and FK Sarajevo (Bosnia) were very difficult opponents if you were drawn against them in Europe.
Yugoslavia were often called “the Brazilians of Europe”. That may be a little extravagant, but the national team was highly respected and flirted with genuine success on a number of occasions. They reached the last eight of the World Cup in 1954 and 1958 and went one better in 1962. They also reached the final of the European (the Nations Cup) Championship in 1960 and 1968. Yugoslavia produced some fine players and coaches, notably the flying forward Dragan Djakic and much-coveted coach Miljan Miljanic.
But since the war broke up Yugoslavia success has been hard to attain for the independent countries, although Croatia, thanks to a batch of highly talented players like Davor Suker, went close in the 1998 World Cup.
On the domestic front, teams from the region are invariably Champions League make-weights. In Croatia, Dinamo Zagreb have dominated for the past seven years, while Partizan Belgrade are winning the battle for supremacy with neighbours Red Star. Bosnian football is currently in the hands of Zeljeznicar of Sarajevo. It’s all very dull.
So the authorities are hoping that a competition involving the top clubs will rekindle the fire in domestic football. It may well do, but it may also reignite hostilities among certain people. Football hooliganism is a growth industry in these countries and the underlying feeling of nationalism may rise to the surface with the game being used to create mini-wars among willing fans. The memories of the civil war are too fresh. The fans may not be too keen on the experiment, either. Red Star fans have already held aloft banners showing their feelings, mostly because of their hatred for Croatians. And a Zagreb fan recently told the media: “If someone wants another war, let’s have the league.” UEFA, you have been warned.