Bosnia | ‘Joyful fandom’ & the flares of Sarajevo (w/ podcast)

The magnesium torches, or flambeaux, held aloft, then hurled onto the pitch, signal the beginning of another FK Sarajevo–FK Zeljeznicar derby … probably kicking off five minutes later than anticipated. “It is regarded intrinsically as a great honor,” writes Özkan, “for fans to light flambeaus and to halt the game for a while.” (

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina | In a programmatic introduction to a 1997 collection of anthropological essays, Entering the Field: New Perspectives on World Football (Berg), editors Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti establish the anthropologist’s role as that of “credible witness” to human events.

The anthropologist of football, unlike the sports journalist, must go deeper than the game. She or he must see the 90 minutes, in Harry Pearson‘s terms, as “the Kernel of … the Game,” discerning human motives and emotions to conjure an authentic representation of “reality.”

The fundamental aim of [anthropology] is to investigate classifications, of which there [is] no shortage around the game. Played to clichés, reported on in similar fashion, football’s followers and critics have always attempted to compare, compartmentalize and classify. Anthropology has to try to decode presumptions and prejudices, and go amidst the “natives.” Such research requires pursuit of the “imponderabilities of everyday life,” of which football contains a multiplicity. Such fieldwork is, as a consequence, usually an extremely personal and traumatic experience, but an essential one if anthropology is to be differentiated from other subjects. From this experience the anthropologist becomes a knowing presence capable of understanding on the basis of minimal clues … that “a great deal of what is important to observe is unspoken.” (3)

Özgür Dirim Özkan, 31, in fieldwork among supporters’ groups in Sarajevo since Feb 07 and on the Bosnian Football Culture website, has examined football as but a small part of a society that, in the Western frame, implies little but ethnic-riven conflict and a constellation of indecipherable place names. Özkan’s preliminary findings in concentrating on supporters of FK Sarajevo and FK Zeljeznicar offer nuance to this picture.

His intent to study football, as part of the Ph.D. course at Yeditepe University in Istanbul, in itself signaled to his research subjects that his would be a different approach from that taken by Western journalists or ethnographers. He says on the Dec 4 podcast:

Bosnians are sick and tired of foreign researchers who are just focused on war and ethnic categories, who only see ethnic differences—whatever relates to the concept of “ethnic.” And when they hear that somebody from a foreign country is not only interested in war, conflict, etc.—for example like football, or music, or cinema, any other sphere in the cultural life—they appreciate it … because they see that this guy is interested in us, not in ethnic warfare. That’s why my job here has been very easy since the beginning.

Özkan recognizes that Bosnian football, unlike other spheres of cultural life, offers a place in which nationalist discourse—what Özkan calls “old language”—inflamed by memory of the 1992–95 Balkan conflict can survive. “Football increases ethnic tension. It is the only public sphere where you can observe this ethnic tension between the ethnic groups,” Özkan says. The observation bears superficial similarity to sectarian conflict surrounding Glasgow Rangers and Celtic, for which the phrase “90-minute bigot” has been created to caricature supporters who sing sectarian anthems during matches but for whom religion has little place in daily life.

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