Former Yugoslav states mull joint league
They turned football stadiums into battlegrounds and then fought real wars. Now, nearly 20 years after the wars ended, the Balkan states are mulling the formation of a joint football league, hoping to give a new life to the once-thriving competition.
Uefa is considering the league that would comprise the former Yugoslav states – Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Macedonia – plus maybe Bulgaria and Hungary.
The idea, which has triggered a lot of controversy in the region – and is sure to alert the Old Firm who covet a move to England – is to try to improve the quality of club football in the Balkans, which has dramatically deteriorated in independent leagues since the bloody break-up of the former Yugoslavia in 1991.
The main concern is security in the stadiums with ethnic tensions still rife and with Uefa accusing Serbian and Croatian hooligans of being among the most notorious in Europe for violence and racial outbursts.
After all, the Yugoslav wars were initiated on the football pitch when Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade fans clashed in the Croatian capital during a league match in 1990, and later joined paramilitary forces to fight each other in real battles.
During the game in Zagreb, Dinamo’s then 21-year-old captain Zvonimir Boban saw a home fan being brutally beaten by police. He jumped on a police officer and hit him with a kung-fu-style kick, knocking him down and allowing the fan to run away.
Against this backdrop the thought of the rival clubs coming together to play each other in regular league matches may seem far-fetched. But one proposal tabled at a recent meeting between local and Uefa officials is that visiting fans would initially be banned from travelling to the regional league matches. The formula has worked in a joint basketball league that has been played for years without major fan troubles.
But many fear that football, the most popular sport in the region, is altogether different – a matter of national pride, the sense that has often resulted in violence in the Balkans.
A major test of whether such emotions could be kept under control is a World Cup qualifier in Scotland’s group tonight between Croatia and Serbia in Zagreb – the first match between the bitter rivals as independent states.
Fearing clashes, the Croatian and Serbian football associations have imposed a travel ban on Serbian fans. The ban will also cover Croatian fans when the two teams meet in the return leg in Belgrade later this year.
Uefa – which has twice in two years warned both countries that, in case of continued fan trouble, their teams could be banned from international competitions – said it will keep a close watch on tonight’s match at Maksimir, the same stadium where the 1990 fan rioting took place.
Many think that the idea of a regional league – reportedly to be launched as early as 2015 – is highly premature, mainly for security reasons.
“For now, the most important thing is to eliminate violence from the stadiums in the Balkans,” Serbian FA president Tomislav Karadzic said. “Only then we could start thinking of a regional league.”
Vahid Halilhodzic, a former Bosnia international and ex-coach of Dinamo Zagreb, agreed. “Wartime emotions are still high, and football should stay out of it,” he said.
Others say such a unified competition would bring fans back to the now near-empty stadiums, attract foreign sponsors, and radically boost the quality of football in the region.
“The joint Balkans league would lead to a higher quality of football, it would attract more interest with football fans and the financial gains for clubs would be bigger,” said Dragan Dzajic, former Yugoslavia winger and now Red Star Belgrade director. “That being said, I don’t think that it will happen in the near future. The prospect of fan violence is often used as an excuse for the people who are opposed to the idea of a joint competition. I myself am not sure as to which way it would go, but I can see that others do it with no problems. Take basketball, for example, it attracts huge crowds and is played indoors, that makes it even harder to organise when it comes to security.
“The decision has to be made high up, by politicians. They say they want reconciliation, so here is their chance.”
Those who support the joint league say it would prevent stars such as Croatia’s Luka Modric of Real Madrid, Serbia’s Nemanja Vidic of Manchester United or Bosnia’s Edin Dzeko of Manchester City from leaving their countries to join rich foreign clubs.
The former Yugoslavia league produced such clubs as Red Star, the European champions in 1991. But, since the start of the Champions League in 1992, the former Serbian giants have failed to qualify for the last 32 in the competition. Even when they make it to the elite level – which has happened only seven times in the Champions League’s 20-year history – the former Yugoslav teams don’t fare well. Dinamo Zagreb, now the most successful club in the region, were responsible for the region’s last win at that level, beating Sturm Graz 3-0 in 1999.
Four years ago, Uefa president Michel Platini said he was neither for nor against the regional league concept. With his efforts to dilute the hegemony of west European clubs in the Champions League, he is apparently prepared to give a Balkan league the green light. If Uefa negotiates the joint league, it would lead to direct Champions League and Europa League berths for the most successful sides. That proposal, however, could be another stumbling block, because each Balkan country seeks to have its own clubs in the major competitions.
“We cannot go back,” said Davor Suker, the former Real Madrid striker who has become the president of Croatia’s FA. “We all have our countries and we all want to be winners and have our teams play in Europe.”
Red Star fans, who vehemently oppose the joint Balkan competition because of their hatred for the Croats, recently displayed a huge flag with a crossed out map of the former Yugoslavia, reading: “No to the Regional League.”
Dinamo Zagreb fans – the Bad Blue Boys – share the hatred, this time for the Serbs, and have a warning: “If someone wants another war, let’s have the league!” said Damir Kusic, a Dinamo fan.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 20 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North