Bosnia: Historic Match Marred by Violence

Though ruined by crowd violence and lousy football, this week's "friendly" game between Bosnia and Yugoslavia was a step forward for both countries.

Bosnia: Historic Match Marred by Violence

Though ruined by crowd violence and lousy football, this week's "friendly" game between Bosnia and Yugoslavia was a step forward for both countries.

While the historic football match between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Yugoslavia, played in Sarajevo on Wednesday night, reflected the very worst of the ethnic bigotry and violence that plagued the Nineties, there were also signs that many want to put the past behind them.

The largely Serb Yugoslav team defeated their Bosniak-dominated opponents by two goals to nil in a poor match officiated by a Croatian referee.

The game and its aftermath was marred by ethnic tensions, suggesting that ugly nationalist fervour remains a serious problem, but the relatively low level of violence as well as some of the surprisingly mature post-match comments and criticism in both countries proved how much attitudes and relations have improved since the end of the war.

"The behaviour of some of the fans on both sides was disgraceful," Sarajevo cab driver Esad Hadzic told IWPR. "Last night I was personally ashamed because Bosnia has always treated its visitors with warmth. That was not the way to welcome a guest - whoever he may be.

"However, there are many more tensions and incidents at some of the domestic games, not to mention infamous English fans and their clashes," Esad added. "It seems that football brings some evil out of people, so I guess we somehow passed this test."

According to UN officials, 19 local policemen were injured - two of them seriously - while trying to prevent clashes between the rival fans. In addition, at least two Yugoslav supporters were beaten up after a mob stopped a car bearing Montenegrin registration plates and took the passengers out. "Such attitudes have no place in modern society," said UN spokeswoman Kirsten Haupt.

The local police, whose professional performance was highly-praised by the UN International Police Task Force, arrested at least eight Bosnian fans.

The cause of the tension was obvious. Bosniaks blame Serbia for initiating and participating in the war in Bosnia, in an attempt to divide the country and establish a "Greater Serbia".

These tensions have ensured despite the fact that since the end of the Bosnian conflict in late 1995 - and especially after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic five years later - the two former Yugoslav republics have significantly improved bilateral relations.

As a result, the two national teams played each other for the first time since the early Nineties at a tournament in India in 2001, far away from die-hard extremists.

As last Wednesday's game was the first post-war encounter to be played on home turf, many analysts dubbed it "an historic event" which would mark a new chapter in relations between the two sovereign states.

However, it turned out to be a grim experience, thanks to lousy football, miserable weather and the incidents during and after the match.

Groups of fans attempted to provoke one another, with Yugoslav supporters chanting names of Bosnian Serb leaders and indicted war crimes suspects Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, and Muslims responding with cries "Allahu'ekber" (God is great). The exchange of insults threatened to turn into a serious clash after the match, a possibility prevented by local police.

Most of the players behaved professionally and ethically, although the Bosnian media on Thursday criticised Yugoslavia's internationally renowned defender Sinisa Mihajlovic for provocative nationalist behaviour - including his use of the three-finger Serbian victory sign.

But it was not all bad news. The following day's media coverage appeared to be less interested in exploring and exploiting the aforementioned incidents than analysing the game itself and assessing the performance of the two teams ahead of their upcoming European Championship qualifiers.

Football aside, the general public in both Sarajevo and Belgrade appeared to blame small groups of crazed fans for once again giving both countries a bad name. "Sport must be seen separately from politics, but I don't think it will be possible until a new generation come along with a new way of thinking," said Dejan Radulovic, a salesman from Belgrade.

Janez Kovac is a pseudonym for a Sarajevo-based journalist. Daniel Sunter from Belgrade contributed to this report.

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