The Politics of Football in Yugoslavia
London, I.B.Tauris , 2018, ISBN: 978-1784539139; 384pp.; Price: £75.00
University of Giessen
Date accessed: 31 May, 2023
Football in the Balkans is usually associated with hooliganism and nationalist incidents accompanying international competitions such as the 2018 World Cup. The misconception of the 1990 Maksimir Stadium riot as the day when the violent breakup of Yugoslavia started, and the persisting omnipresence of this myth further contributes to the reduction of the game in the region to violence and nationalism. However, fan violence and nationalist chants had not only been present decades before the Maksimir incident, but they also constitute only an aspect of the rich and multi-perspective history of this sport in Yugoslavia. While recent years have witnessed scholars exploring multiple aspects of football in Southeast Europe from above and below, an in-depth account of history of the game was inexplicably missing. Seeking to explain the interaction between football, politics, and nationalism, Richard Mills’s Politics of Football in Yugoslavia explores football as it is - deeply intertwined with the 20th-century history of Yugoslavia.
The book centres on the questions of how football contributed to Yugoslavia’s communist revolution and what role it had in the state’s violent disintegration. With an eye for details and numerous anecdotes and illustrations, Mills leads the reader through the history of football across Yugoslavia, from the ‘Big Four’ to the smallest local clubs, demonstrating that everything that transpires in society is mirrored in stadiums and around them. Based on the plenty of diverse published and unpublished sources and interviews, the book is divided into three chronological sections exploring the inter-war Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the Second World War and the period of Yugoslav state socialism to the death of Josip Broz Tito in 1980, and the period between 1980 and 1995 characterised by the overall crisis and descent into the disintegration and armed conflicts.
The first chapter examines football within the complex political situation of the inter-war kingdom. As politics, Croats and Serbs dominated the game too, voicing dissatisfaction and defending centralism respectively. Nationalism and crowd violence provoked by political tensions accompanied football from the beginning. The chapter illuminates a fascinating dimension of the inter-war sports: workers’ football and its linkage with the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (KPJ). Realising that sport is a constituent part of the revolutionary struggle and inherently political (p. 31), the KPJ was directly involved in workers’ clubs, infiltrating administration in others and directly establishing football clubs such as Velež in the Bosnian town of Mostar. Players took part in illegal party activities. Authorities persecuted, repressed, and shut down workers’ clubs, especially after the 1929 establishment of royal dictatorship, as the state realised the link between football and communism that became even more evident during the Spanish Civil War.
Chapter two focuses on the Second World War. While the occupation and collaboration resulted in cleaning clubs of unsuitable members such as Jews and communists, the game also played a revolutionary role. Many workers’ club members joined the communist-led Partisans, football was the favourite pastime in liberated territories, and, as their victory became increasingly likely, football became one of the tools in state construction. The chapter underlines Hajduk as ‘the bastion of revolution’ (p. 71) and its significance in promoting Yugoslavia among the Allies and internally, touring liberated areas across Yugoslavia.
Chapter three moves on to the tumultuous post-war period. Revolutionary changes involved closing or rebranding of clubs deemed unsuitable because of their interwar or wartime activities or a strong ethnic identity. Inter-war clubs with revolutionary history blossomed again and new clubs emerged, with names revealing their goal of upholding the revolution. At this stage, the Soviet Union was a role model for physical culture. At the same time, incidents were common, including “klubaštvo”, condemned as extreme club loyalty, and inter-ethnic confrontations as Serbs and Croats chanted Ustasha and Chetniks to each other. Officials recognised the problem but could not deal with it. Through in-depth historical analysis, Mills sheds light on the issue of nationalism in socialist Yugoslavia from a bottom-up perspective.
In the decades following the 1948 split with the Soviet Union, the subject of chapter four, the symbolic importance of football was elevated to the international level. The national team turned increasingly to the West, leading football clubs toured continents, and football coaches were among experts sent to developing countries as Yugoslavia embraced non-alignment. Violence with nationalist undertones remained an issue, challenging the Yugoslav idea of brotherhood and unity. Moreover, the author reveals financial malversations that went on under the façade of amateurism, where the Big Four were rarely punished. In the 1960s, the league openly accepted professionalism while financially illegal player transfers, misuse of funds, and match fixing continued.
Chapter five explores the 1970s. Football continued serving the integrating function with the Marshall Tito Cup celebrating brotherhood and unity. At the same time, the feelings of injustice and being weakened by Belgrade characterised Croatian football. The attempt to implement workers’ self-management in the football sphere in this decade was not successful and was often abused. After Tito died in 1980, he was mourned and commemorated in football stadiums across the country. In the decade after his death, subject of chapter six, the game reflected the overall crisis in society and all problems that had existed from the 1940s continued - financial malversations, misuse of public funds, match fixing, and bribing. As Mills summarises, ‘a season rarely passed without irregularities’ (p. 168). This was the decade when supporter groups emerged, following the trends of the rest of Europe. However, they unfortunately appeared in parallel to nationalism and anti-communism that became the defining characteristics of politicisation of football fandom. Club rivalries became divisions along national lines as ethnicity and club loyalty intertwined, driving many fans away. While Mills focuses on the clubs becoming ‘extensions of national identity’ (p. 192), he also demonstrates that there were many pro-Yugoslav and non-nationalist fan groups, particularly in Bosnia. Sadly, as the state disintegration became violent, many of them embraced nationalism.
Chapter seven is dedicated to explanation and deconstruction of the 1990 Maksimir stadium incident and the myth it generated, situating it in the political context and the media backlash that followed. Although one of numerous football-related riots fuelled by nationalism, the Maksimir riot has been ascribed exaggerated significance as the day when the war started, the view shared by many football fans too. What is forgotten is that the Yugoslav First Federal League continued playing for an entire season afterward while Yugoslavia started descending into armed conflicts, as chapter eight shows. Croatia and Slovenia left the Yugoslav championship and ‘as artillery roared across the plains of eastern Slavonia, the united First League died’ (p. 265). Finally, chapter nine turns to football on the frontlines, focusing on the disintegration of the Yugoslav league, the emergence of national football associations, and football projects of self-declared states such as Herzeg-Bosnia and Republika Srpska, depicting what happened to the game in a country that was divided by war.
The Politics of Football in Yugoslavia should not be understood as only a book about football and the history of sports. Instead, football represents the lens through which the history of Yugoslavia is observed. Therefore, scholars from across social sciences and humanities will value a book that can also appeal to a much wider non-academic audience because of its subject and lively writing style. Enriched with vignettes, literary descriptions of sceneries and stadiums, and personal impressions and depicting legacies and leftovers of the Yugoslav past across the post-Yugoslav space, Richard Mills takes us to a fascinating journey through the world of the not always beautiful game. This long-awaited monograph is a brilliantly written and in-depth historical analysis based on the diversity of primary and secondary sources and, as such, it fulfils all expectations.
As with its subject and audience, the book’s scholarly contribution is broader than its research focus. It encompasses multiple and unexplored phenomena such as nationalism from below during the period of socialist Yugoslavia, observes the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the wars that ensued through a novel lens, and explains the overall turn to nationalism among football fans that went in parallel with the emergence of organised supporters’ groups. The detailed account of the game under state socialism shows nationalism not only existing but also publicly expressed in stadium terraces of Yugoslavia long before the 1980s and 1990s. Mills demonstrates that this issue, in fact, had surfaced already in the inter-war period, with nationalist chants becoming a regular part of the football supporters’ subculture from the immediate post-war period onwards. Often, the offensive nature of chants simply served the purpose of insulting the opposing fans. By focusing on football in relation to politics and nationalism, Mills goes against the still dominant top-down approach to studying socialist Yugoslavia and the understanding of nationalism in Yugoslavia as suppressed and frozen until it exploded after Tito’s death. Furthermore, Mills traces the parallel emergence of supporters’ groups and nationalist politicisation of football in the 1980s, offering background and explanation vital for understanding of football fandom in the post-Yugoslav space today. Finally, the book represents a great contribution to the scholarly knowledge about the wars of the Yugoslav dissolution, uncovering the until now neglected dimension of the slow death of the Yugoslav game and wartime football.