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

Sport Falls Victim to Politics

The intrusion of politics into sport has left Albanian teams torn over whether to take part in Serbian or Kosovo leagues.
By Belgzim Kamberi

Many people remember the notorious football match between Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb in 1990, when Serb and Croat fans engaged in a brawl that was widely seen as the start of the break-up of former Yugoslavia.

Southern Serbia has never witnessed such symbolic violence on the pitch. But here too, sport has become increasingly politicised and is divided on ethnic lines.

The split began under Slobodan Milosevic, when ethnic Albanian teams in the region pulled out of competitions in Serbia, often citing fears over their physical security. These clubs later played their football in Kosovo.

Many Albanian sportsmen from south Serbia had already begun taking part in the parallel sports structures set up in Kosovo while the province was under Serbian rule, competing in unofficial football, basketball, volleyball and boxing leagues.

“We had to hide our equipment from the police and participate illegally in competitions in those years,” said Arsim, a member of Presevo’s Flaka volleyball club, the town’s most successful team and the winner of a championship title in Kosovo.

But a combination of politics and worries over physical danger has also prevented Albanian clubs from engaging in leagues in Kosovo, too.

Players feared traveling there as fighting rocked the entity in the late Nineties. Even when it came under UN administration, many Albanian clubs from southern Serbia felt they could not play there. Some feared the Serbian police might harass them as they crossed over into Kosovo.

Since the Nineties, competitive sports among Albanians in southern Serbia have largely ground to a halt.

Albanians in the region experienced hard times in that decade. During the war in Kosovo in 1999 and in the following two years, 11 were killed in south Serbia. More than 6,000 were forced from their homes.

Tension ran high, too, after NATO troops entered Kosovo and Serbia’s armed forces were redeployed in the mainly Albanian south Serbia communes of Presevo, Medvedje and Bujanovac in Serbia.

An armed conflict quickly flared up between Albanian insurgents in the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedje, and Bujanovac, UCPMB, and Serbia’s security forces.

Sport suffered from these years of crisis and conflict. Albanian clubs today still face a dilemma over whether to participate in competitions in Serbia, or confine themselves to Kosovo. “We can’t allow this situation to go on much longer,” said Orhan Ymeri, secretary of the Organisation for Physical Culture in Presevo. “The status quo must be changed. Sport is being held hostage by politics.”

Albanian public opinion in southern Serbia largely opposes clubs taking part in Serbian leagues.

A member of Presevo’s Flaka club told IWPR that many fans were far from thrilled when his club briefly joined the Serbian volleyball league a few years ago.

The club registered with the Ministry of Sports of Serbia in September 2001. It then entered the regional league of Leskovac, where it participated in the 2002/2003 season.

“You have betrayed the national interest by accepting Serbia as your state,” one Albanian fan told this player at the time.

Bekim Haliti, the coach of Flak and founder of the club in the early Nineties, defends the move to switch from the Kosovo to the Serbian league system.

“The situation was different by then,” he said, referring to 2001, after the fall of Milosevic. “We had a warm welcome and we never had any incidents from the public.”

The club has since ceased participation in the Serbian league, not because of popular pressure, but because of lack of money. The local authorities halted funding.

“Funding was stopped because they said we were a private club,” Haliti said, adding that it would resume playing in the Serbian league if fresh funding became available.

“Security is the most important issue stopping clubs from participating [in Serbian leagues],” Rexhep Adili, coordinator for sports in Bujanovac municipality, told IWPR.

This town boasts 18 sports clubs, almost all of which are now divided on ethnic lines. Serbs play in the old ones that grew up in the Yugoslav era, while Albanians have since formed their own.

The local BSK football club, which in the Eighties had players from both communities, is now purely Serbian. “We offered them some coaches and managers but they didn’t accept,” said Adili, who also manages the Albanian Ternoci club.

Adili is not against integrating Albanian clubs into Serbian leagues, but says security remains a concern. “Football is especially difficult, as incidents are difficult to prevent on the open fields,” he explained.

He backs the integration of indoor sports such as chess and basketball clubs, as a trial, “These have joined Serbian leagues as a test, so we can see what happens.”

At the same time, he said, Albanians in south Serbia have a right to take part in Kosovo competitions as well.

“Why should Kosovo Serbs have the right to compete in the Republic of Serbia and Albanians be denied the right to participate in Kosovo?” he asked.

Sports officials in Kosovo happily accept their ethnic kin from southern Serbia as players. Ismail Kosumi, head of the sports department in Kosovo’s ministry of culture, youth and sports, says Albanian clubs from the Presevo valley should participate in whichever leagues use Albanian, which obviously includes Kosovo.

“If Albanian clubs from the Presevo valley request to join Kosovo leagues, they will be welcomed,” said Kosumi. “The only problem I see is the existence of border checks between the Presevo valley and Kosovo.”

Serbian officials, on the other hand, oppose Albanian clubs in Serbia taking part in Kosovo’s league tables.

“Any participation from clubs from southern Serbia outside the system of the Republic of Serbia is a breach of Serbia’s integrity and will be considered illegal,” Mica Markovic, of the Governmental Coordination Body for southern Serbia, told IWPR.

Serb officials deny there is are “security issues” preventing Albanian clubs from joining competitions in Serbia. “There will be no security concerns, because they will be taken care of by members of the ministry of interior,” Markovic said.

He insisted the whole issue had been pumped up by Albanian politicians from south Serbia “who plan to attach this region to Kosovo”.

Albanian politicians are divided on participation in Serbian sports. Some local leaders in south Serbia publicly condemned Albanian clubs joining Serbian leagues, so angering local Albanian athletes who felt they were being used.

“The politicians have already joined Serbia’s political system but they want to prevent us from joining Serbian leagues,” one former football player from Presevo complained to IWPR.

Bujanovac mayor Nagip Arifi says it is time to take political issues out of sport. “Some clubs have already joined in the Serbian leagues and others will follow,” he said.

In spite of the mayor’s reassuring words, the likelihood is that sports in south Serbia will remain a tangled and complex question, reflecting the region’s deep political and ethnic divisions. It is not even a question of inducing the Albanians alone to end their boycotts.

“While the Albanians wonder whether to join Serbian leagues or ones in Kosovo, Serbs from Presevo don’t take part in [mainly Albanian] local competitions,” Ymeri remarked.

Belgzim Kamberi is a journalist from south Serbia.

This article is part of a special issue produced by journalists from South Serbia who attended an intensive two-day workshop in Nis, organised by IWPR in October 2004, with financial support from the British Embassy in Belgrade.

The training session is a component of the Serbia Inter Ethnic Media Training Project which aims to bring together local Serbian and Albanian journalists.

The package of articles is intended to shed light on the specific problems of this much neglected region.