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

But even such signs of heat might confuse a newcomer. Acknowledging hooligan acts and fighting, Özkan nevertheless adds that watching Bosnian football among Bosnians “is not dangerous.” Fundamentally, in Özkan’s view, Bosnian football, while not politicized, features a political dynamic: polarities, a contentious dynamic and a context for argument. Thus the negative perception of supporters in Bosnian life, not unlike the English “yob” of an earlier day. The supporters are not seen as political or rebellious or countercultural. They are seen as criminal.

Another twist to the Bosnian story lies in the general disregard domestically for the national team of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The leadership of the football federation has been branded a “mafia” by the primarily diasporic fan group, the Fanaticos. And support at home is fragmented, with many having the view that the federation has been set up along ethnic rather than professional lines. Many attending a World Cup qualifier between Bosnia and Serbia-Montenegro in Oct 05 in Belgrade—at which Serbia advanced to the finals, 1–0—were from Republika Srpska, the Serbian section of the fragmented modern Bosnian state.

Our reality is unique in the world,” said Munib Usanovic, the federation’s general secretary, in 2005. “More fans from Bosnia will support Serbia-Montenegro than their own country.”

Scarf weather | Özkan, left, a founder of the Ankara Gençlerbirligi fan group Alkaralar (Red and Blacks), compares scarves with a member of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Fanaticos. (© Dirim Özkan)

Özkan envisions, in the future, a program in which football facilitates intercultural communication among groups in Bosnia rather than serving as a divider. Such an idea falls under the banner of “joyful fandom,” which Özkan has advocated as a supporter of Gençlerbirligi in Ankara, sometimes planning friendly matches with fans from rival clubs.

[F]ootball is a very joyful thing. When you play football with another person you cannot throw a stone at him in the next match, you cannot swear on his mother in the next match. It’s a collective game. When you play this game side by side with another person you know him better. You are playing together. You are running for the same team together, you are running for the same game together.

The discovery has been made on the multicultural men’s team at the University of Illinois–Chicago (Philip Hersh, “Fanning Flames of Unity,” Chicago Tribune, Dec 9). The side advanced to the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I quarterfinals on Dec 9 before losing, 1–2, to the University of Massachusetts. UIC integrates Bosnian Muslims, Christian Serbs and a Croatian assistant coach within a large diasporic community in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas. Amateur leagues in these areas feature teams with Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian orientations, although there is some mixing.

Özkan offers friendship, rather than rivalry, as the best statement of football’s essence.

Related reading

One of the best-known Bosnian writers with football leanings is Aleksandar Hemon of Chicago. British novelist Zadie Smith had a unique encounter with the “big, bald, handsome, mountain of a man with a passion for Soccer” (see “On the Road: American Writers and Their Hair,” part 4, “Chicago: Aleksandar Hemon,” read at Neal Pollack’s Timothy McSweeney’s Festival of Literature, Theater, and Music, 26 Jul 01). “You talk to me of these various opportunities,” Hemon tells Smith while driving and discussing the writer’s life.

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