In recent months, Croatian football fans have been in the news for disrupting a UEFA European qualifying match and even forcing the cancellation of the domestic league’s biggest derby. Flares on the pitch, fights with police, and fascist songs suggest the familiar pattern of European hooliganism. The actions of Croatian fans, however, can be viewed not simply as violent disruptions but as acts of protest against crony capitalism and authoritarian governance in their domestic league.
Just a few weeks back, on 22 November, arguably the biggest game in Croatian domestic football, the Eternal Derby between Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split, should have taken place in Zagreb. However, minutes before the game, Hajduk players refused to enter the pitch. Their action was in solidarity with some of their travelling supporters who were not allowed into the stadium, which led to the entire crowd of Hajduk fans deciding to boycott the game. When the Hajduk players decided to join the protest, the match was abandoned.
The media outcry in Croatia was spectacular. What had happened was described as a national shame, a disgrace soiling the sacredness of the Eternal Derby, an instance of the “streets” and the “mob” taking control over Croatian football. The uproar was combined with demands for strict punishment and Thatcher-esque “law and order” policies against football hooligans.
The exaggerated outrage was partly due to the fact that the incident occurred less than a week after a set of Croatian fans almost managed to suspend the UEFA European Championship qualifying match between Italy and Croatia. By throwing dozens of flares on the San Siro pitch in Milan, the fans forced the referee to take the players off. Croatian supporters then engaged in physical altercations with security forces and the police.
The Croatian fans at San Siro also engaged in more problematic manifestations of hooliganism. Supporters sang “Za dom – spremni” and “Ajmo Ustaše” and waved several smaller posters with the letter “U” – a symbol of the Ustaše, the fascist movement that ruled the quisling Croatian state during World War II and was responsible for the mass murder of Serbs, Jews, Roma, and Croatian anti-fascists. By evoking the songs and symbols of the Ustaše, fans in Milan showed the ugly side of ritualized fan culture at games of Croatian national teams in various sports over the last 20 years.
However, despite the repulsive character of some of the chants and posters, these actions do have to be put in a broader political context. As pointed out by Zagreb-based football writer Aleksandar Holiga, whilst “there can be no justification for that kind of behaviour,” it is important to note that it wasn’t just a random act of “mindless hooliganism,” but an orchestrated “cry for attention” – a “desperate” attempt to send Croatian football governing bodies a clear message of protest and, even more importantly, to try and create international awareness of the problems that have taken over Croatian football. Even the evocation of the Ustaše can be understood as an expression of protest. Sociologists Paul Stubbs and Andrew Hodges describe this repertoire of actions as one of the “paradoxes of politization” of Croatian football fans who combine right-wing and neo-Nazi ideology with popular distrust of new elites and opposition to crony capitalism in football.
These two latest episodes of protest represent the tipping point of an ongoing protest movement that has been forming for several years now. The bulk of criticism is often centred on an immensely controversial figure. Zdravko Mamić, the executive director of Dinamo Zagreb and ostensibly omnipotent leader of Croatian football, has been frequently described as the “master-puppeteer” most responsible for the desolate and chaotic situation in the sport. Recently topping the list of the ten craziest chairmen in world football by a UK football fanzine, Mamić maintains his influence through clever institutional design in Croatian football governing bodies and a spider-like network of nepotistic relations with key figures within that field.
Mamić has also been accused of running Dinamo as a private business. In theory, Dinamo Zagreb is a citizens’ association that receives generous public funding and should hence have a mode of electing its leadership through a democratic process. In the case of Dinamo, however, the elections have been thus far limited to the members of the club’s General Assembly, rather than the entire membership. This has secured Mamić’s unopposed re-election. In his position as executive director, Mamić has beneficial private contracts with players, installed family members in significant club positions, and used the club for money laundering.
Although the fan protest may seem to be directed at one man, it is actually directed at what Mamić emblematises. Many of the organized football fans in Croatia associate the following issues with ‘modern football’: the loss of “authentic” identity through the introduction of “big business” and shady tycoons into football, the increasing commercialization and handling of football as an entertainment business, and the treatment of football fans as simply customers or in some cases as enemies.
In comparison to the political activism of organized football fans in Egypt during the Arab Spring or the Besiktas Istanbul fan club Çarşı during the Gezi protests, the social mobilization of football fans in Croatia at first hand seems more benign and driven by the urge to transform football rather than society at large. Yet Croatian football fan groups too have a history of dissent against authoritarianism and oppression. Probably the most well known episode was the opposition of the Dinamo Zagreb fan club, the Bad Blue Boys, against Croatia’s first democratically elected president, Franjo Tudjman, and his handling of the football club as his own personal toy. Although their most radical step may have been setting the VIP lounge at their home stadium on fire, the Bad Blue Boys’ famous graffiti in Zagreb stating “Da je sloboda i demokracija bio bi Dinamo a ne ‘Croatia’” (If there would be freedom and democracy, it would be Dinamo and not ‘Croatia’) was one of the iconic images of dissent against Tudjman’s authoritarian regime in the 1990s.
However, Croatian fans’ contemporary engagement with new (and old) forms of direct and participative democracy goes beyond “just” football and can be identified as a laboratory of politics with wider social implications. Media and public discourse predominantly focus on the extreme manifestations and articulations of social protest within the stadia (such as flares and Ustaše slogans). But these ritualized idiosyncrasies should be recognized as only one aspect of football fan mobilizations.
For example, the initiative Zajedno za Dinamo (Together for Dinamo), a supporters’ organization led by more senior fans and aided by some former players, has engaged in a variety of democratising actions and practices raising public awareness of the state of the club. Their main fields of engagement are proactive media interventions, the initiation of petitions, as well as street demonstrations against Mamić. They were also particularly vocal against the introduction of the “law on sport” in early 2013, which controversially allowed for the creation of fan “black lists.” The central demand of their endeavours for more accountability was the inclusion of fans in the decision-making process at the club level, which is in line with the participatory model of “one member, one vote.” More than 50,000 people signed the petition initiated by Zajedno za Dinamo demanding fair and democratic elections, and for the club to live up to its statute as a citizens’ association. The petition did not yield results.
The demands for more club democracy with Dinamo were echoed in Split in 2011 when Hajduk fans created a similar initiative. Naš Hajduk (Our Hajduk) was created with a strong agenda of keeping the club in municipal hands in order not to jeopardise its local identity. Perhaps more importantly, the initiative has successfully established a code of good governance for club officials on how to run the football club. Another smaller, albeit even more radical fan group, the White Angels of NK Zagreb demand the introduction of direct democracy into their football club as well as an eradication of all private business interests in football.
These groups may not form a homogenous social movement. Rather, they have to be seen as an ideologically heterogeneous and loose collective. However, they are a collective that is prepared to co-operate in their fight “against modern football” – a fact that is particularly remarkable if one is aware of how deep is the ritualized enmity between Hajduk and Dinamo. The weekend after the Eternal Derby was cancelled, more than 30,000 protesters gathered in Split demanding not to be vilified as “hooligans,” but to be taken seriously as a legitimate protest movement against the current state of Croatian football. Their critique of bad governance in Croatian football should be understood as a popular critique of crony capitalism and neo-liberal side effects.
The non-transparent practices and shady character of the football governing bodies have resulted in a staggering decrease of spectators in Croatian football stadia. The weekend that the Eternal Derby should have been played in Zagreb, only about 6,500 people visited five stadiums in the Croatian top division – an indication of how disappointed people are with the way football is being organized and run. The latest round of social mobilization shows that organized football fans, as ordinary people who enjoy the sport, have grown as weary of the feeling that football has stopped being a people’s game, has stopped being “theirs.” They demand a radical change and more participation. Whether or not they will succeed remains an open question.
Dario Brentin is a PhD student at University College London and researcher at the University of Graz, working on sport and national identity in Southeastern Europe. He is on Twitter at @.