Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Fever Pitch

IWPR's preview to Wednesday's crucial European Championship clash between Yugoslavia and Croatia.
By
Football has often been a harbinger of things to come in the former Yugoslavia and many in the Serbian capital believe that tomorrow night's match here between Yugoslavia and Croatia may open yet another chapter in the country's on-going disintegration.

The game, a crucial qualifier for the 2000 European Championship, is the first clash between the national team of what remains of the rump Yugoslav state and an independent Croatia, and will inevitably generate deep passions. But in this rarefied atmosphere it is also a critical political barometer and an opportunity for Serbs to vent their anger against the Belgrade regime. And it will be for this that most political analysts and journalists here will be watching.

In this football-crazy part of the world, it is difficult to underestimate the impact of matches like these. Indeed, many analysts date the beginning of the wars of Yugoslav dissolution to a game which took place in Zagreb in May 1990 just after Franjo Tudjman and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) swept to power in democratic elections.

That game, played between two of the former Yugoslavia's leading clubs--Dinamo of Zagreb (since renamed "Croatia") and Belgrade's Crvena Zvezda ("Red Star"), erupted in violence as rival supporters clashed with each other and the police. Fighting spilled onto the streets of the Croatian capital and helped to poison the political atmosphere between the two republics.

Despite residual bad feeling between Serbs and Croats from the 1991-92 war, analysts do not expect a replay of the violence. Rather, they anticipate a series of protests against the rule of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the 55,000-seat stadium.

Pre-match tension began to rise last Wednesday when an independent newspaper reported that the Federal Ministry of Sport had bought up the last 20,000 tickets for the match. The bulk purchase cost four million dinars--about 340,000 German marks. This is an enormous sum for a country that is devastated by war and lacks the money to meet wage and pension bills or even pay the salaries of those who were conscripted to fight. The ministry meantime refuses to say how it intends to pay for the tickets or what it will do with them.

Despite the risks of probing such matters, local journalists allege that the Novi Sad oil company Naftagas had ordered more than 12,000 tickets. Naftagas is dominated by the Yugoslav United Left (JUL), the political party of Milosevic's wife Mira Markovic.

On hearing the news, Democratic Party leader Zoran Djindjic accused the government of being scared of its own people. "They fear that the Yugoslav fans will use the match to demonstrate what they think about the regime, the SPS [Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party of Serbia] and JUL have decided to buy half of the stadium in order to bring in their own supporters," he said.

The regime in turn responded to Djindjic's comments via Tanjug, the official Yugoslav news agency, which reported: "It is no secret that the Alliance for Change [the opposition coalition which includes the Democratic Party] intends to take advantage of the match between Yugoslavia and Croatia to pressurise the regime."

Tanjug pointed to the protest rally scheduled to take place on Thursday at which opposition leaders intend to demand Milosevic's resignation and the formation of an interim government. Serbia's state-run media has already started to discredit the Alliance coalition by referring to it as "The Alliance for NATO". It meantime alleges that the opposition has deliberately decided to hold the rally tomorrow as a mark of respect for Bill Clinton who will be celebrating his birthday then.

Since the Yugoslavia-Croatia match will inevitably be a highly charged event, many in Belgrade fear that the regime will use it to precipitate violent incidents either inside or outside the stadium after the match as an excuse to ban the rally--Clinton's birthday or not.

Grujica Spasovic is editor of the Belgrade independent daily Danas.