The Sad State of Croatian Football: Seeking Catharsis in a Nutshell


It was a strange and tense atmosphere in the air during this Friday’s EURO group stage game between Croatia and the Czech Republic; as if something was about to happen or maybe even had to happen. The debates in Croatian media and on various social media channels in the days prior to the game had been repeatedly insinuating that there were rumors of a group of organized football fans who would try to interrupt the game. After the incidents in Marseille before and after the game between England and Russia and UEFA’s relatively harsh reaction, this would have been a catastrophe for Croatian football authorities. Although surely not intended as a self-fulfilling prophecy, it certainly nourished anxieties. And then it did happen. Unloading in the 86th minute, only a couple of minutes after French riot police had positioned themselves in front of the Croatian fan sector, a small group of people lit up a dozen of flares and threw them, accompanied by an explosive petard, on the pitch thereby causing a suspension. It was almost a cathartic moment as this group of fans had been repeatedly causing trouble during the entire game. Throughout they repeatedly tried to get themselves heard with problematic content by chanting fascist songs and salutes and exhibiting Ustaša flags and banners; attempts that were drowned in whistles by the rest of the Croatian fans who seemed aware of the potential consequences for a federation that is already on their third strike due to prior racist behavior of their fans and in realistic danger of being excluded from the World Cup qualifiers should these issues occur again.

Once the first flare hit the ground, the damage was done, both on and off the pitch. The Croatian national team let an almost secured victory slip through their fingers and Croatian fans were universally and uncritically branded as hooligans and troublemakers. The incident, however, is only a continuation and a new, preliminary peak in a conflict that has been boiling for several years. To cut it short, as it has been discussed in detail so many times before: the Croatian football federation has been in a quasi open “war” with several organized football fan groups over the question of how and by whom Croatian football is run. While there are particular issues with the way that Hajduk Split fans perceive their (non-)relationship with the football governing body, the social protests are more of a vocalization of a broad established social consensus that Croatian football has been hijacked by a small number of individuals who utilize it for their personal benefit.

This level of differentiation could, however, not be expected from the tabloidized media in Croatia. What ensued was a classic case of hypocritical hysteria or “moral panic”. Demands for 10 year prison sentencing were accompanied by defeatist sound bites by officials, players and disappointed fans. Again, a handful of hooligans had managed to disgrace “us” in front of a global audience jeopardizing “everything” for their personal goals. But what exactly are these goals? The national team coach, Ante Čačić proclaimed that those responsible are nothing less than “sporting terrorists”: “What has happened was terrorism. They are hooligans, not supporters. Their place is not in the stadium the same thing happened in Milan against Italy. There was the Nazi sign on the pitch – they are ruining what we are doing. Čačić was referring to the troubling repertoire of action Croatian football fans have been employing over the last several years to make their protest heard by an international audience. Besides throwing flares and fighting with the police, they also engage in singing of ‘Za dom spremni’ and ‘Ajmo Ustaše’ or the conscious waving of Ustaša flags. The, thus far, internationally most widely reported incident of that sort, was the over-sized Swastika on the pitch of the Hajduk Split stadium during a game against Italy in 2015; a game that already had to take place in front of empty stands due to racist behavior of Croatian fans. While some fans do share an ideological proximity with Ustaša ideology, this particular incident, was the clearest example of strategic usage of fascist symbols in order to discredit the federation in front of a worldwide audience.

Whether the goals justify the means taken remains to be seen. As a result of the open confrontation and the seemingly cemented positions, organized football supporters in Croatia however have found themselves with their backs against the wall. They do perceive themselves as having moral superiority over the corrupt political elites in Croatian football and the propagators of so-called modern football, maybe even rightly so. But their legitimate protest has turned into a protest where all means have become acceptable. On this occasion last Friday it almost seemed to happen out of spite. As a reaction to all the media reports that there might be trouble. As if the fans followed the logic of “well if you want those troubles so badly, we’re going to give them to you”. The level of preparation and organization for a protest as staged in Saint-Étienne however casts doubts over whether it could have been a quasi spontaneous action. The exact opposite is far more probable.

Trapped in the logic of the “supporters’ world” it is a legitimate question to ask whether the employed strategies will be helpful to facilitate actual change and create lasting hegemonies in Croatian football. At the moment, it does not seem that way. While, as pointed out by Aleksandar Holiga, the aim of many organized football fans “may be to introduce more democracy and transparency in domestic football, a chance to start afresh their methods are all wrong.” This was also manifested in the physical altercations that ensued within the Croatian fan sector almost immediately after the first flares were thrown. Most fans present in the stand did not belong to organized football fandom, are alien to this repertoire of action and furthermore do not share the same grievances as those from inside the “supporters’ world”. As much as institutionalized Croatian football may be universally despised, the altercation showed that many people still tend to differentiate between the federation and the national team itself. It was thus not surprising that the people who came to watch the game and support the national team would protest against those who were “ruining” their match day experience. However, Vice Karin underlines the differences between fans of the national team who show their support predominately during international tournaments and organized football supporters who have to live with the unbearable situation in the HNS week-in, week-out.

To be fair one also has to point out that other, far less problematic methods have been tried out. The implementation of the new law on sport was significantly influenced by organized football fans, but the question remains what a law is worth if it is not implemented. On this case I can recommend a great research paper by Loic Tregoures. It is thus also understandable that many organized football fans have lost all of the little belief they might have had in the mechanism of Croatian rule of law, identifying more radical measures as more worthy.

While the moral outrage in Croatia over a dozen flares and the damaged reputation is still ongoing, one last question should not be forgotten. How did we get to this point of escalation between the Croatian football federation and organized football fans and who is responsible for that. As much as the Croatian football federation is pushing this narrative, it was certainly not “just” the fault of organized football fans, but it rather has to be seen in the nexus of Croatian football fan culture, institutionalized football and Croatian politics.

The ostensible moral authority that is now portrayed by football officials is also more than just hypocritical; not just vis-à-vis the football fans but also vis-à-vis the international community. While the Croatian football federation is portraying itself as a victim of hooliganism and political extremism, one may not forget a few things about how the organization is run. Instead of repeating for the 1000s time what role Zdravko Mamić and his entourage play within the nepotistic and corrupt structures of Croatian football, you can read it here or here. These are the same people who decided to employ Josip “Joe” Šimunić in the national team as some sort of a “national motivator” after his ban for the “Za dom spremni” incident in late 2013. Furthermore, the pride with which Davor Šuker, the head of the Croatian football federation, boasted about defending the right to keep “Lijepa li si” as the official song of the Croatian national team. It is song which content can be interpreted as controversial, but more damagingly a song that is sung by Marko Perković Thompson; a singer who has sung fascist songs in the past and still today continues to commence concerts with “Za dom spremni”.

The president Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic herself posted on Facebook after the game that she was proud of the national team, but used a rather intriguing way to describe the group of fans that had forced the suspension. She described them as “Orjunaši” or “Organizacija Jugoslovenskih Nacionalista” (Organisation of Yugoslav Nationalists), a political organization that was active in the 1920s. This historical comparison is a political strategy of “grouping” and stereotyping ideologically oppositional individuals. They are then described as “Yugoslavs” or as people paid by the, also no longer existent, Yugoslav Secret Police, the UDBA, and ultimately branded as “enemies of Croatia”. A political practice well known to Croatian football fans from the 1990s when the then ruling autocratic president Franjo Tudjman was in open conflict with the Bad Blue Boys of Dinamo Zagreb. As seen from these past experiences, this polarizing and divisive discourse only provides both parties with further ammunition to cement their ideological standpoints and self-perception.

The way in which official politics and media have reacted to the incident leaves little space for interpretation whether this time it might be an initial step towards resolving existent issues; a process that will not be easy or quick on or the other way. If anything is sure, than that further repression will certainly not solve anything. Much rather it suggests that the existent trenches may only become deeper. So, maybe, even if unintentionally, Ante Čačić was right in his emotional post-match interview when saying that “we are all at fault for this”. Without a full implementation of the law on sport and radical changes in the Croatian football federation the state of catharsis in Croatian football may linger on for much longer than we think. Considering the current power relations in football and the network of power into which the main people of Croatian football are entrenched, it is difficult to see where these changes are supposed to come from. And as the Hajduk Split fan club Torcida highlighted in their official statement, as long as this does not happen, everything else will only lead into further chaos.

Ustaše, the fascist Croatian movement and the quisling Independent State of Croatia responsible for the mass murder of Serbs, Jews, Roma and Croatian anti-fascists during WWII