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

Posted By John Turnbull On 10 December 2007 @ 01:54 In Balkans,Podcast,Teaching Resources | 3 Comments

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.” (www.themaniacs.org [1])

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina | In a programmatic introduction to a 1997 collection of anthropological essays, Entering the Field: New Perspectives on World Football [2] (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 [3] 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 [4] and FK Zeljeznicar [5] 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.

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 [8] (Croatian nationalists), Cetnici [9] (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 [10] (Hordes of Evil) of FK Sarajevo and the Maniaci [1] 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.

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 [11] has been branded a “mafia” by the primarily diasporic fan group, the Fanaticos [12]. 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 [13],” 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 [14] (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 [15],” 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 [16] of Chicago. British novelist Zadie Smith [17] 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 [18],” 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.

I say this to you: can I still play football three times a week? Can I still play football three times a week? You look at me with your monk’s face, full of an infinite pity, yes, but without understanding, loosened from the realities of this life like a boat that has slipped its rig and floats in the bay. Because you know the truth as I know it. The aesthetic, political, journalistic, academic opportunities afforded a writer in these United States of America—all of them are sadly incompatible with playing a game of football, three times a week.


  • Meho Kodro, after only four months on the job, was fired as Bosnia’s national-team coach in late May 08. Waving banners that said “Association Out [19],” fans on Jun 1 attended a charity match hosted by Kodro in lieu of a friendly later the same day against Azerbaijan. State TV reported that only a dozen tickets had been sold to the Bosnia-Azerbaijan match in Zenica.
  • New Bosnia coach Meho Kodro, a former national-team captain, named several foreign-based players [20] who had boycotted earlier games to the squad for a 31 Jan 08 friendly versus Japan.
  • In an attempt to bring eight boycotting players back into the international fold, Bosnian football authorities on Dec 17 fired coaches of the national team and all age-group sides [21]. “All players are invited to accept calls by coaches, who will alone be in charge of call-ups, and we expect support by fans, media and public in creating a positive climate,” read the NFSBiH statement.

3 Comments (Open | Close)

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

#1 Pingback By Pitch Invasion · It’s in the (inter)net! (December 15) On 14 December 2007 @ 13:43

[...] Anthropology, ‘joyful fandom’ and the flares of Sarajevo (The Global Game) [...]

#2 Pingback By The Global Game | Books | In Chicago midfields, Hemon discovers transcendental soccer nation On 30 November 2009 @ 21:00

[...] a lot of rivalries which reflected the political conflict that culminated in the war. [Ed.: See 10 Dec 07 for an anthropological approach to the Sarajevo–Zeljenicar [...]

#3 Comment By zeljeznicar fan On 14 December 2012 @ 09:03

i saw many right things in Ozkan’s analyze but i think it’s impossible for football to facilitate intercultural dialogue.try to go among the ultrafans during a match against a club with which there’s a rivalry based on national membership and you will see why.

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URL to article: http://www.theglobalgame.com/blog/2007/12/among-the-flambeaux-anthropology-joyful-fandom-and-the-flares-of-sarajevo/

URLs in this post:

[1] www.themaniacs.org: http://www.themaniacs.org/

[2] Entering the Field: New Perspectives on World Football: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1859731988?ie=UTF8&tag=theglogam-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1859731988

[3] Bosnian Football Culture: http://bosnianfootballculture.blogspot.com/

[4] FK Sarajevo: http://www.fksinfo.com/

[5] FK Zeljeznicar : http://www.fkzeljeznicar.ba/

[6] Image: http://www.theglobalgame.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/ggpod11.mp3

[7] Play Now: #podPressPlayerSpace_1

[8] Ustaše: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usta%C5%A1e

[9] Cetnici: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yugoslav_Army_in_the_Fatherland

[10] Horde Zla: http://www.hzsa.net/

[11] football federation: http://www.nfsbih.ba/

[12] Fanaticos: http://bhfanaticos.com/

[13] Our reality is unique in the world: http://football.guardian.co.uk/News_Story/0,,1590019,00.html

[14] Alkaralar: http://www.alkaralar.com/

[15] Fanning Flames of Unity: http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/chi-uic-soc09dec09,1,7937863.story

[16] Aleksandar Hemon: http://www.randomhouse.com/nanatalese/hemon/intro.html

[17] Zadie Smith: http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth257

[18] On the Road: American Writers and Their Hair: http://eyeshot.net/zadie1.html

[19] Association Out: http://sports.yahoo.com/sow/news?slug=reu-europebosnia&prov=reuters&type=lgns

[20] named several foreign-based players: http://uk.reuters.com/article/worldFootballNews/idUKL1662860520080116

[21] fired coaches of the national team and all age-group sides: http://soccernet.espn.go.com/news/story?id=491897&campaign=rss&source=soccernet&cc=5901

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