The Football Match That Broke Yugoslavia’s Back – The Battle of Maksimir

Red Star visited Dinamo Zagreb two weeks after Yugoslavia’s communist party had lost an election to the Croats. The match triggered the fall of a regime.

Arkan; The Football Match That Broke Yugoslavia's Back - The Battle of Maksimir

“There were many sides to it, many many sides.”

– Herr Donald Trump

Seventy two years after what the world would’ve hoped as the defining victory against fascism and mass xenophobia, grown men and women with Nazi and Confederate flags, anti-semitic banners and semi-automatic weapons, were out on the streets of Charlottesville, turning a peaceful protest against the Unite The Right rally into a grotesque show of violence, which included driving a car into people, even murdering one. The second weekend of August got darker with every second of footage emerging from Virginia, and you couldn’t help but stop to think, where have we failed, as humans?

When asked about the incident, Herr Donald spoke a language that you heard and understood just fine, but couldn’t comprehend in the context of his sentences. His words were dripping with hate and xenophobia, sentiments appropriated by mankind for centuries in the name of patriotism and allegiance.

“A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language.”

– Noam Chomsky

Chomsky, born to Jewish parents, was 17 when the Allied Forces were bringing an end to the second World War. It was liberation to the scale which you suspect would’ve fuelled his already ignited spark for linguistics and philosophy. He would go on to pioneer what he termed as ‘Universal Grammar’, believing that all humans share the same linguistic structures, across caste, creed and race. Noam Chomsky’s framework for social communication would’ve been a cornerstone for Tim Berners Lee and his fidgety set of engineers at CERN, while releasing World Wide Web in 1991.

The onset of the nineties was as volatile a phase in world politics as it has ever been, and there wasn’t a better time to lay the groundwork for centralised sources of information from across the globe. Like the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 had symbolised the Iron Curtain for the communist Eastern Bloc, its bricks turning to red dust was a devastating signal of their loosening grip on Europe and the Soviet Union. The football followed in the shadow of their political path. Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s military-drilled and mechanical USSR team came up against Rinus Michels’ free-flowing, expressive Netherlands in the finals of Euro 1988, casting perfect reflections of their political ideologies. Communist parties were under the cosh around the world, and Marco van Basten’s impression of Rembrandt heralded a change in the world order.


The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was sitting over half a dozen states, all of them bursting at the seams to move out of the federal umbrella, the wave of nationalism turning into a tsunami. Zvonimir Boban and Davor Šuker began their international football careers in the dull blue jersey of Yugoslavia, in dressing rooms which quelled any jokes about invading France with unsuspecting contempt. The Yugoslav president, fearing the disintegration of his country, lay forth a plan to include the Serb-dense areas inside Croatia and the other republics as part of Greater Serbia. In all his haste for administrative security, he missed the clash of ethnic and religious ideologies he was about to unleash. Serbs are largely Orthodox Christians, Croats are Catholic and majority Bosnians are Muslims. The area had already endured a long tryst with proselytism, right from the days of the Ottoman Empire, when most civilians were forced to embrace Islam. During the fascist regime, Croats had forced any Orthodox Christians in their area to convert to Catholicism. It was a nation fighting an internal battle for centuries, and Milosevic had just thrown a half-lit cigarette into this roomful of gunpowder.

The footballing heritage in eastern Europe, especially Yugoslavia, goes as long back as high-pitched, fist-waving communist politics. Internationally, they were quick to carve their niche, with some shiny bronze medals as souvenirs from their trip to Uruguay for the first ever World Cup. Over time, Yugoslavia grew obsessed with, and modelled themselves, on Brazil, promoting free-flowing football and going to the extent of naming Red Star Belgrade’s stadium as ‘Marakana’. Despite not holding a candle to the gold haul of the South Americans, their record at major tournaments was worth respect. Three Olympic and two European Championship silvers were no mean feat for any country, let alone one that didn’t sit at the high-table of the royal footballing nations. Their admiration for Brazil was respected and returned, as the Yugoslavs were the chosen opponents for Pele’s farewell match in 1971. Perhaps the men in canary shirts saw a connection beyond the lines of barb-wired borders.

“Yugoslavia were what Brazil would have been had they been European, self-doubt suppressing imagination and bringing to the surface the cynicism that has always underlain the technical excellence. Self-doubt, in fact, is the defining characteristic of Serbian football: they are Europe’s most consistent chokers.”

– Wilson, Jonathan.

Behind the Curtain: Football in Eastern Europe

But, the mention of Yugoslavia in a footballing context will mostly involve only passing glances at their national team. It’s a prelude, an overture, like the first page of a Rachmaninoff piece, pulling you fast into the grandiose opera that is their domestic football in the modern era, and it’s a story like no other, rising and falling with their governments. After emerging victorious in the World War, the communist party struck hard upon teams which were in operation during the fascist regime, creating the space for new, state-backed clubs to take shape. Among them, was Partizan Belgrade, representing the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), and named after Yugoslav Partisans, a communist military group that fought in the second World War. Across town, another club was slowly rising back up from the ashes of the war. Sportski Klub Jugoslavija, abolished in 1945, gave way to Fudbalski Klub Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade), bequeathing their fans, colours and stadium, thus giving birth to one of the most intense football clubs and supporter factions the world has ever seen.


Passionate as it was, the tension between Red Star and Partizan – or their rivals from Zagreb, Dinamo – never crossed the threshold of civility in a Yugoslavia with only one political party, the League of Communists, led by Marshal Josip Tito. There was no scope for brazen nationalism, and the ethnocentricity that was such a defining part of the ideological fabric for Serb nationalists, federalists or Croats, never got the voice worthy of public ears for the first forty odd years of existence. Josip Tito governed by one rule: Yugoslavia was a Federal Republic, and it was going to stay that way.

As he breathed his last in May 1980, the shackles his party had cast on every single socialist state under its shadow, were getting undone. It would take another nine years for the voices to grow loud enough for an opposition to stand up to them, but it finally happened and the touchpaper was lit.

Franjo Tuđman was a decorated historian and an expert wordsmith, his writings fuelled the fire that was the Croatian Spring Movement in the early 1970s, ending up with his imprisonment. Respected and revered, he chose to live a low-key life befitting a learned professor, until coming head to head with the Communist Party at the dusk of the 1980s. The Soviet Republic was crumbling and Tuđman – an ex-president of Partizan Belgrade, a club he single-handedly turned into a symbol of socialism – oversaw the formation of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) in 1989, ready to take on the big boys with the red-flags.

He was fighting against Serbian nationalism, a sentiment and a narrative built ever since the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Kosovo was lost, allowing the Ottoman Empire to rule for nearly five centuries, but Miloš Obilić, a Serbian knight, managed to slay the leader of the opposition. It was exactly 600 years since, and Serbia was in another fight to keep a hold on their governed territory. Red Star, modern symbols of the nationalist sentiment, needed to channel the spirit of Miloš and looked towards Željko Ražnatović, commonly known as Arkan.

It was a phase where the nationalists had taken their defiance to the stadiums and terraces, and banter and  #respect weren’t going to cut it against separatist states who were fighting tooth and nail for independence. Arkan, leader of the Serbian Volunteer Guard, a trained soldier, and a name highlighted with fluorescent green on Interpol’s most wanted list from the early 1970s, was Serbia’s chosen savior against the invaders, leading the biggest group of Red Star ultras, named Delije (Serbian for bravery), into stadiums like he would lead his troops into a battle. He was their Miloš. It was war, it was bloody, it was the genesis of Partizan vs Red Star as we know it today.

Explode (verb) – burst or shatter violently and noisily as a result of rapid combustion, excessive internal pressure, or other processes.

Every chemical reaction has a threshold, every volcano has a fault-line. In the tug-of-war that was the political situation of the Socialist Federalist Republic of Yugoslavia, the rope broke in 1990. It all started with Croatian and Slovenian delegations walking out of the annual congress of the League of Communists, effectively calling an end to the all-Yugoslav party and making a multi-party election imperative.

Franjo Tuđman and HDZ won the elections in Croatia – their first since 1913 – in late April that year, and were now ready to form a new independent government in Croatia. It was a turn of events with extraordinary timing, preceding Red Star Belgrade’s visit to Dinamo Zagreb by a mere two weeks. Waging what was increasingly resembling a lost war, for Arkan and his Delijes, this one last battle to fight, one final roll of the dice. It was time to take out the swords.

Painting of Knez Lazar’s night before the Battle of Kosovo, dated 1870, by Adam Stefanović.

Around 3000 members of the Delije ultras traveled to Zagreb for the match on 13th May, 1990. It was the second last league match of the Yugoslav first division season, but rarely has mathematics been relegated to such a sideshow when the top two teams of a league come together. The people traveling from Belgrade didn’t care for the league title, for this wasn’t Arsenal vs United. This was about a country, its land, and the people it governed. Football, once again, was the messenger for a wider dialogue.

In a matter of poetic justice, the match was held at the hallowed Maksimir Stadium, torched down in 1941 by young students in protest towards fascist leaders ordering separation of Serbians and Jewish presence at the venue. Dinamo Zagreb had their own set of firebrand ultras – the Bad Blue Boys (BBB). They named themselves after the famous Sean Penn movie and hailed from parts of Zagreb where houses fell down like ninepins. When push came to shove, members of the BBB would change into army green and mounted rifles, ready to defend their territory.

Amphitheatres, arenas and stadiums make for staggering public platforms – there are few other places in a city where you can conglomerate tens of thousands of people inside a concrete structure resembling a cauldron. On 13th of May, it was a war zone at the Maksimir.

Hours before the scheduled kick-off, there were shattered windscreens and broken cheekbones on the roads leading up to the main entrance. The players strode out for warm-up to the cacophony of “We will kill Tuđman” and “When you’re happy, slaughter a Serb with a knife”. When they looked up, stones were flying between stands. You would suspect there must’ve been a few men in synthetic t-shirts and shorts questioning their life decisions.

A potential title-decider had turned into a ticking time bomb, and the Delijes, sat in the visiting fans section of the South Stand, seemed to have heard the final click. Arkan must’ve been a fan of Sun Tzu, for he lived by ‘Attack is the best form of defense’ all his life, never more so than on that afternoon. Breaking apart chairs and fences like they were made of cardboard, the men in red and white made their way towards the Dinamo fans, ready to kill and obliterate. The boys from Zagreb wouldn’t sit still either. The Zagreb Police Force could only stare powerless like deer in the face of a pack of tigers as the BBB stormed the pitch in an effort to get to the Delijes.

Most of the twenty-two footballers, the to-be warriors that afternoon, had gone back to their dressing-rooms, fending and ducking from all the granite and steel flying around against gravity and rationale, maybe even whispering a quiet prayer. Only three of their brethren remained on the pitch, all of them from Zagreb. The local police, for long suspected to be controlled by the Serbs, caved in to the pressure and attacked the BBB ultras, most of them locals too.

Boban would have a glittering football career, full with a Champions League winner medal and a World Cup bronze, but none of them make what he’s remembered most for. Helpless, watching the violence towards his own men by uniform-clad cowards who were supposed to protect them, he let loose and landed one on police officer Refik Ahmetović. He became a hero for the Croats and the BBB before his left leg could even come back down to the ground from meeting the chin. Boban played all his football like a warrior, and that day, without men to dribble past or a ball to smack, he still was one.

“Here I was, a public face prepared to risk his life, career and everything fame could’ve brought, all because of one ideal, one cause: Croatia.”

– Boban later told CNN

The Zagreb police came back reinforced, now armed with water cannons, ready to stall the riot that became of what was supposed to be a football match. They opened their hoses to the crackle of knuckles hitting bone and steel crashing on concrete. It was the beginning of a seventy minute Royal Rumble between a few thousand people, all fighting for their nation, ethnicity, and government. With torn shirts and broken fingers, fans were waded into the stands and then out of the stadium, to the whirring sound of chopper-blades airlifting Red Star’s players out of the patch of grass that had more blood than chalk. Looking at the footage, Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic would’ve been agonisingly cramped in his office chair, curling up and taking rushed gulps of his single malt, possibly resigning to what looked like an imperative fate for his country and its governing body.

The aftermath of this day of unabashed hysteria was everything it had promised. Led by Tuđman and the Croats, all the republics sitting under the Yugoslav umbrella managed to break away and form their own governments within the next few months. Red Star Belgrade would go on to miraculously win the Champions League one year later, in one fitting final blowout before watching their nation turn to debris. Yugoslavia, outside favorites for many at Euro 1992, never made it to the tournament, as a United Nations sanction prevented them from sending a national team due to an ineffective government. Their replacements, Denmark, given all of 10 days to prepare, returned with the trophy. The world was chipping away at the Soviets, finally making it crumble, with fire, flags, and football.

‘Kick it hard’ would’ve been the dictate to Boban as he was changing to training gear in the dressing room on the afternoon of 13th May, 1990. He abided, but instead of the ropey white net held on by wooden bars, it was the country which he belonged to, and the country he was governed by, which bulged and burst, in the most spectacular and violent fashion. The BBB later erected a statue outside Maksimir Stadion, which reads “To the fans of this club, who started the war with Serbia at this ground on May 13, 1990”.

“When a game matters to billions of people it ceases to be just a game. Football is never just football: it helps make wars and revolutions, and it fascinates mafias and dictators.”

– Kuper, Simon.

Football Against The Enemy

Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.