Dinamo Zagreb v Red Star: did the game in May 1990 start the Yugoslav war?
Football writers Juraj Vrdoljak and Vladimir Novakovic shed light on the Croatian & Serbian views of what happened at Maksimir stadium nearly three decades ago
1. Do you have any particular personal memories of the infamous game between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade that took place at Maksimir stadium in Zagreb on May 13, 1990, marked by riots in the stands and on the pitch?
2. It’s been almost 30 years since that match – how are the events that occurred at Maksimir perceived nowadays in Croatia and Serbia, respectively?
3. What do you make of the conspiracy theories that the riots on the pitch might have been orchestrated to create chaos and destabilise the new authorities in Zagreb after Franjo Tudjman’s party, the HDZ, had won the first free parliamentary election in Croatia just a week earlier?
4. In your opinion, what role did this football conflict play in the Yugoslav War that broke out a few months later? Did the Maksimir violence unleash a chain of awful events or the war was inevitable anyway?
5. We, who live in the Balkans, are well aware of the fact that here nothing is ever entirely black or white – there’s so much grey area, so many different and subjective point of views, depending on who you’re listening to... Do you think that in order to move forward towards a better future we need to bury the past once and for all? Or would it be better to continue talking about what happened nearly three decades ago so that people remember it as a history lesson that would prevent such conflicts from repeating in the future?
Croatian journalist Juraj Vrdoljak: This game has now a mythical status in Croatia, but the truth is it didn’t really spark the war conflict
No, I was born in 1989 so I wasn't aware about the things that unfolded that day.
They go hand in hand with the need to overblow things if they do have any sort of symbolic meaning in the whole wartime narrative. The riots are nowadays given a mythical status in Croatia and a lot of people truly believe that they were the first real conflict that sparked the bloodshed that came in 1991. Which is nonsense; the league went with Croatian clubs on for another season and Dinamo met Red Star two more times (including one preseason friendly too). Those riots were just depicting the rise of the nationalism throughout 1980s and they are important in the context of decaying Yugoslav society, but in no way did they have any domino-effect on the armed conflict later on apart from the fact that a lot of fans from both sides later joined the armies.
If anything, the riots didn't diminish Franjo Tuđman's power in any way: it just made him more appealing to the public. One thing that is always brought up is the fact that both Željko Ražnatović Arkan, the infamous warlord, as well as the current Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić were present as the Red Star officials that day, so that kinda puts an element of a political divide into a hooligan incident. But the BBB [Dinamo Zagreb’s fan group Bad Blue Boys] as well as all the other ultra groups in Croatia embraced the HDZ and Franjo Tuđman because of their stance on Croatian independence; you could hear chants 'Franjo Tuđman' and see banners such as 'Dinamo for the HDZ' a lot during that time, even in Bergamo v Atalanta.
The war broke out a full year later, in April 1991, when the 'Bloody Easter' incident officially marked the beginning of the war in Croatia. The last Yugoslav Cup final between Red Star and Hajduk took place a month after that, in May 1991, so it would be very inaccurate to see Maksimir as a spark that lit the whole thing. For instance, in September 1990 the match between Hajduk and Partizan had to be abandoned because of the pitch invasion by the Hajduk fans who ultimately took down and burned the Yugoslav flag. And the league still went on till the end of the season, even after that.
As I said, those incidents are very important from a sociological perspective; they help us note the impact that the political tensions had on everyday life. The Gazimestan speech in 1989, the Miners' strike in Trepča and the behavior of the Hajduk fans in November 1989, who booed and whistled during the minute of silence for the 90 Serbian miners who died in the tragic mining accident in Aleksinac, Serbia, were all incidents that were showing how the rise of nationalism affected everyday life in Yugoslavia. The tensions were very high, yes, and these incidents prove it. But the conflict ultimately began for different, bigger reasons.
The biggest issue we have to tackle is to try and learn from those mistakes, which is unfortunately impossible in the current situation. The rise of historical revisionism only makes things worse, because each nation seems to have its own truths on both the buildup and who is to blame for the war as well as the horrible things that happened during it. We do not see the victims as people but rather as a mean to prove a point in an endless debate, but that doesn't mean we should strive to move on. What happened in Balkans is too heavy and too important to just leave it behind, especially to the populists who now use their own 'truths' to spark new tensions and turn people further away from each other. Instead of learning from our mistakes we all seem to turn those into our identity, and no one can move forward with that.
Serbian journalist Vladimir Novakovic: Those, who were ready to kill in the war, didn’t need Maksimir at all
I was nearing seventeen and half way through my high school at the time. After having spent three years at the stadium’s north side (one missed home game per season and serious involvement in tifo scene), I cooled off after the politics entered the fan scene in Yugoslavia. Had the Maksimir incident happened a half year earlier, I would probably have been able to give you a firsthand story, but by that time I more or less turned into a part time supporter.
I still followed football closely. There was a feeling that the current team was best in a long time (Stojković, Savićević, Prosinečki, Pančev…), even better than the one that played in a UEFA Cup final in 1979. After suffering heavily in 1989 (no silverware and a shock exit to FC Köln, after a 2-0 win at home), the league was won early this time, along with the goal scoring record, and later in May Red Star would beat Hajduk in the Cup. On the other hand, it was pretty obvious that Dinamo would be the biggest rival in the following years, as they started assembling a very fine team, and still feel that the breakup prevented a few years of a quality two-way tussle.
Just two weeks ahead of the game I was on a sport-unrelated field trip to Sarajevo. Red Star won the league that day, but for me that was the first personal contact with the disaster that was approaching, as one of the guys from my school was stabbed with a knife for speaking Serbian in a Muslim part of town. Nationalism had been growing fast for a few years, but the sheer level of hatred was shocking for me. A couple of years before Maksimir I was a little suspicious when some ethnic Serbs who moved to Belgrade from Croatia told me they feared for their safety back there. A year after Maksimir a full scale war broke out. It seems I spent late eighties in a bubble.
As far as I understand, most Croatians view that day as a sort of an uprising against the oppressive Serb-controlled Yugoslav state. I guess Juraj would be able to give you a more nuanced view, because I get mine from Croatian media, and those often seem like the war isn’t over yet. Most of my Croat friends tend to disagree with them on most topics.
In Serbia there has been a lot of talk of its impact on the following events, but only a minority believes it was big. Most common view is that that Sunday afternoon moved the story from the fringes to the mainstream, that it was some kind of advertisement to the world, but also a show of strength, aimed at the domestic audience.
Serb and Croat ultras were always glad to pick a fight with each other and nationalist choreography and songs were the norm for many years before Maksimir, but it was always a matter of a few hundred people commonly viewed as thugs or hooligans. But that day the guys who stormed the field were the defenders of Croatia, with Zvonimir Boban the undisputed symbol of their struggle.
When Yugoslavia hosted the Netherlands a few weeks later in Maksimir, huge majority of the spectators whistled the Yugoslav anthem and openly supported the shocked Oranje. No way that would be possible without Maksimir. That day was like a bravery pill for the silent majority.
But of course, it’s one thing to whistle the anthem, and a completely different one to shoot at people. Those who were ready to kill didn’t need Maksimir at all.
That’s an amusing theory, but if you look at the consequences of Maksimir, you might think of a different type of conspiracy. Before the game most of the top positions in local police were held by the ethnic Serbs (it had been so since Yugoslavia was formed in 1918, large parts of the police force all over the country consisted of people from Serb-populated parts of Bosnia and Croatia), who were subsequently replaced by the HDZ-friendly Croats. Croatian television was controlled by the former Communists (SDP), who immediately lost their positions to the HDZ guys. In many ways Tudjman profited from the incident.
Also, back in those days Franjo had had strong backing from both of Croatia’s major ultra groups (Dinamo’s Bad Blue Boys and Hajduk’s Torcida), political banners were always visible in their stands. Six days after Maksimir Hajduk brought more than 5,000 fans to the Cup final in Belgrade, who spent half the time cheering for Tudjman and his party. It’s quite ironic when you know how their relationship developed once Croatia got its independence.
Funnily, that Cup final (on 19 May 1990) was properly policed and passed without a single incident. In fact, the most striking detail from the game was the 42-minute silence by Red Star fans in retaliation for the club’s breach of confidence in relation to torches or banners, or some other tifo stuff. This just shows how detached from the fast approaching reality we were.
If you take a careful look at Serbo-Croat relations between 1988 and 1992 you can find so many murky details that cannot be properly explained before the archives are open. Each side had its own agenda (people tend to forget the role of federal Yugoslav government) and in many instances Serbian and Croatian political leaders had complementary plans.
To be frank, I always viewed that theory as way too naive, after all I’ve seen, including some more violent Belgrade derbies than that fight on the field of Maksimir. The wars of the nineties were just the continuation of the Second World War, because many unimaginable atrocities were just pushed under the carpet in order to reunite the country under the Communist rule in 1945. If you compare the casualties, it is striking that for each death in the 90’s Yugoslav wars ten people perished in WW2, and most of those were civilians. Most of those crimes were not properly prosecuted, so it was natural that the resentment between the survivors would grow. And to make it worse, the shifting war fortunes meant that each of a dozen or so sides were both the perpetrators and the victims. The emotions were controllable as long as foreign credits were flowing into the country. But once the economy turned sour every ethnic/religious/political group claimed that it’s someone else’s fault. Only ten years and nine days separated the famous weeping at Tito’s death by Hajduk and Red Star players and Maksimir. In reality Yugoslavia was never a sustainable country.
The worst thing is that even after all that, when I left for the summer school in the US, in June 1991, I still did not believe that the country would completely fall apart (I expected it would turn into some kind of confederacy), let alone turn into a bloodbath. Two days later Slovenia and Croatia declared independence and the war began.
There is no way to bury the past, but fighting over different versions of history is not a solution either. I am emotionally tied to the Nordic countries (my primary vocation is Nordic languages and literature). Over the course of history they fought each other a lot, but they still learned to overcome it and nowadays it is quite normal that they would support each other in almost every instance, even celebrating each other’s sporting victories. Can you imagine something similar around here? For instance, I supported Croatia against France in both 1998 and 2018 World Cups. Not that I particularly like the Croats or their team, I dislike the French one. Back then the war was barely over, so it was understandable many people around here couldn’t cope with that. But I must admit I was a bit shocked by some raised eyebrows last summer.
People in Balkans are way too emotional and they do enjoy the status of victims. That is a very difficult position to start a conversation from. Apart from Serbia - Romania we don’t have a single pair of neighbours without conflicts within a last hundred years or so. I mean, Serbia and Bulgaria fought each other four times over the course of 60 years. Balkan nations even managed to fight each other in the peace time within larger multiethnic countries, like Ottoman Empire and Yugoslavia.
I can think of two steps that might be a good starting point. First of all, a simple but sincere “Sorry for your loss” is due. Not the talk about the guilt, just a simple human emotion. After that a more complex point of letting the minorities feel equal and safe in your country. Not overprotecting them, just letting them live normally as they would if they were actually a majority.
The problem is – I don’t see many positive developments, especially across the former Yugoslav states. Frankly, I’m not an optimist at all.