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

YouTube video

One of Özkan’s videos shows FK Sarajevo supporters holding a banner—“Stara Ljubav, Novo Proljece” (“Old Love, New Spring”)—wielding flambeaux and singing before a match with Slavija, from Republika Srpska (Serbian Republic), one of two autonomous republics in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The supporters’ networks of Bosnian Muslim, Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Serb sides in the 16-team Premijer liga and in lower divisions hurl invective toward so-called Ustaše (Croatian nationalists), Cetnici (Serbian nationalists) or Turci (“Turks,” referring to Bosniak or Bosnian Muslim teams), the latter in homage to an Ottoman past. Muslims are denigrated as “al-Qaeda.” Serbs are de facto fascists.

But more lurks behind the use of such slurs than simple nationalist or ethnic impulse, according to Özkan. First, “swearing cultures” predominate in central Europe and Turkey. People swear at each other as part of daily parlance. “It’s very common that they express their wish to have sex with the other fans’ mothers,” Özkan says of the terrace language. “They are very hardcore.”

Further, in Sarajevo, among the Horde Zla (Hordes of Evil) of FK Sarajevo and the Maniaci of Zeljeznicar, hostilities between supporters of the derby rivals cannot be characterized in ethnic terms. Nor is it an issue of resentment between rural dwellers and teams from the capital: a conflict between periphery and core, in anthropological categories.

Zeljeznicar crossing

Rather, the animosity appears to come, in Özkan’s preliminary judgment, from club histories. As railway workers did elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia, those from the Grbavica district of Sarajevo established Zeljeznicar (meaning “railway worker”) in 1921. With the flowering of the Danube school and Yugoslavia’s footballing successes in the time of Josip Tito, rivals, primarily FK Sarajevo, came to be established with Communist Party backing. Sarajevo raided players from the Grbavica side.

Now, resentments have become entrenched, with Sarajevo viewed as a side of the “establishment,” albeit a previous establishment, and tagged with the moniker pitari, or pie-house owner. Zeljeznicar supporters are košpicari, literally, “the person who eats a lot of sunflower seeds.” This is the person “who wanders around with cheap sports dress, [is] busy with small-scale illegal businesses … [and] also eats a lot of sunflowers since it is very cheap.” Sarajevo plays in Kosevo Stadium, constructed for the 1984 Winter Olympics—an out-of-the-way venue that contrasts with the central district of Grbavica, busy with markets and buregdzinica (pie houses). The auxiliary football pitch at Kosevo became a graveyard during the war. Its surface features white mezars, Muslim tombstones. Özkan continues:

Sarajevo fans go to the stadium as if they are going to holiday; on the other side, Zeljeznicar fans go to the stadium, which is already internalized in their daily lives. The different spatial perception has effects on identity formation. … [U]nlike Turkey, it is almost impossible to meet youngsters with fan scarves or jerseys in Sarajevo daily life. The basic reason behind that is, like in any other Balkan country, football fans are perceived as unemployed, trouble-making, and uneducated, low-cultured persons. One of the basic reasons behind the formation of such an image is “hot” scenes from the stadiums.

Of these “hot” scenes, Özkan remarks in understated fashion that “Bosnian football is not a very quiet one.” Scarves aloft, the singing of the supporters’ groups begins well before match time, security personnel marching along the athletics track and eyeing the banks of fans, waiting for the brightly burning flambeaux to be lit: a tell-tale sign of Balkan football.

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