In Chicago midfields, Hemon discovers transcendental soccer nation

The other one, which I supported, Zeljeznicar, which means “the railroad worker,” was founded in the ’20s. It was a union club founded by railroad workers. This is the mythology around it. It was more of a grassroots club, let’s say, more [connected] to people. It was smaller, more modest and of course we always played better football. So there was that rivalry. But it was not divided in Sarajevo along ethnic lines. Within Yugoslavia in the late ’80s and early ’90s there were 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–Zeljeznicar derby.]

One of the first conflicts in the war was at a game between Red Star Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb in Zagreb, where somehow local police got involved, and the players got involved. It was a mass fight. … But there were no ethnic divisions between clubs.

GG: How strong was your attachment to clubs in Sarajevo and the former Yugoslavia?

AH: I am a “railroad worker,” Zeljeznicar. They have blue and white stripes on their jerseys like Deportivo La Coruña. The other one, Sarajevo, had claret shirts. I grew up near Zeljo stadium. When we were kids and we didn’t go to the games, we could hear the roar when they scored and we would always know the score. I would go to games when I had money, but when I was a kid I had no money. We would linger around the stadium. Once or twice we jumped the fence and got in. But it was hard and risky. Kids would fall and break their arms. Sometimes they would let the kids in at halftime. If you lingered at the stadium and waited, a good member of the security personnel would let the kids in, open the gates and let us in so we could watch the second half.

A 1905 photograph demonstrates how long players have plied Chicago midfields. According to Dave Litterer, Pullman Car Works, a national power with both men’s and women’s sides, and Original Wanderers contested the first association football match in the city in 1893. The National Soccer League was founded in 1920. (SDN-004083, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum)

GG: Speaking of the Granta essay, what are the cultural complexities of football in Chicago? In Toronto, for example, ethnic identities have been preserved, but you write about a potluck, a mixing bowl of ethnicities and playing styles.

AH: These are pickup games. People show up at a certain spot, and whoever was there would play. So it was not exclusive in any way. Some of the games German organizes, there would be five or six teams of 11 people. It was really hard in some of the games when we lost in 15 minutes, to whoever scores two goals. Most of the time, in fact, unless you had a good team … unless you were on the winning team you would linger on the sideline and wait to play. And you would just hang out with people.

In city leagues many teams are organized along ethnic lines. It’s not necessarily a racist thing. It’s just that people have played together and then they form a team. They put money together, and they might have a coach, and they might have some semiprofessional players and so on. So … the National League, one of Chicago’s top leagues, was dominated by a Syrian team for a few years in the ’90s.

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