Balkan athletes were prepared to die fighting Nazism and fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, but some prominent sports figures now champion nationalism.
By Filip Rudic, Sven Milekic and Mladen Lakic
As the former Yugoslavia began to fall apart during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, many prominent athletes started to openly embrace nationalism.
It was a striking reversal for Yugoslav sports stars, given anti-fascist sportsmen who had taken a stand against Nazi-backed fascism before and during World War II were previously revered by Yugoslavs.
One such committed anti-fascist sportsman was Bozidar ‘Bosko’ Petrovic. In the mid-1930s, Bosko was playing for the Yugoslavia football club but he heard that Belgrade Sports Club, BSK, was to play a football match in France. He immediately cancelled his contract and joined BSK.
But the rising football star, who had also played for the Kingdom of Yugoslavia’s national team, did not have sports in mind when he decided to go to France in the December of 1936.
The Spanish Civil War had broken out that summer and Petrovic was more than just an athlete – he was vehemently anti-fascist and a trained pilot. As soon as he arrived in Paris, he said goodbye to his stunned teammates and crossed into Spain using a forged passport under the name of Fernando Garcia.
After he was killed in combat the following year, Petrovic’s image was used on the International Brigades’ recruitment posters, according to the Association of Retired Army Pilots and Paratroopers of Serbia.
Petrovic was one of many Yugoslav athletes who supported the fight against Europe’s rising far-right. But their successors in countries established after Yugoslavia’s dissolution seem to prefer rightist ideologies.
In 2013, Australian-born Croat football player Josip ‘Joe’ Simunic led some 20,000 fans in chanting the Croatian fascist Ustasa movement’s slogan, Za dom spremni (Ready for the Homeland).
He was not reprimanded by his manager or by the Croatian Football Federation and was only criticised locally by certain media outlets. Support for Simunic among the Croatian public was sharply divided.
FIFA gave Simunic a 10-game suspension, preventing him from attending the World Cup in Brazil in 2014. The Croatian court fined him 660 euros, but only for causing public disorder rather than for hate speech.
The current mood in Croatian sports is in stark contrast with the historic actions of sprinter Boris Hanzekovic, who risked his life to support the then illegal anti-fascist Partisan movement in Zagreb after the Nazi-backed Ustasa came to power in 1941.
Hanzekovic, a former representative of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia’s national team and holder of many records, refused to join the Nazi-puppet Independent State of Croatia’s national team.
For this and his links with the Partisans, Hanzekovic was arrested and sent to Jasenovac concentration camp in 1944, where he was shot dead during an attempted break-out.
Club managers’ influence
Sociologist and former director of Belgrade’s Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory Bozidar Jaksic says that the rise of nationalism among athletes is not only influenced by broader society, but also by the heads of sports clubs and associations.
“You can expect anything where people like [Partizan Football Club’s president] Milorad Vucelic are in charge,” Jaksic told BIRN.
During the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, Vucelic was a member of President Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialist Party and general director of Serbia’s national broadcaster, RTS, which was then known for disseminating warmongering propaganda against other nations.
In 2012, power in Serbia was seized by the Progressive Party, which derived from Milosevic’s ultranationalist ally, the Serbian Radical Party. They forged a coalition with the Socialists, and have been governing Serbia since. Under their mandate, Vucelic steadily made his way back into public life, becoming president of the state-owned Partizan club in 2016.
The link between sports and politics in former Yugoslav states is strong, with hooligan groups causing nationalist incidents on a regular basis.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s nationalism became the dominant ideology of various fan groups, including those of the largest Serbian and Croatian clubs – Red Star and Partizan from Belgrade, Dinamo from Zagreb and Hajduk from Split.
However, nationalism spread among athletes as well, which was starkly evident during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Notorious war criminal Veselin Vlahovic, a professional boxer before the war, was sentenced by a Bosnian court to 42 years in prison for committing numerous war crimes, including murders, multiple rapes, and torture.
Dubbed the ‘Monster of Grbovica’, Vlahovic killed Goran Cengic, a former handball player from Sarajevo and member of Yugoslavia’s national team, who unsuccessfully tried to save his Bosniak neighbour from being executed by Vlahovic in 1992.
The Hague Tribunal and Bosnian courts have handed down more than 10 guilty verdicts against former professional athletes for war crimes, and local courtsare still prosecuting several football players and karate fighters accused of beating and torturing civilians and prisoners of war, according to the Bosnapress news website.
The war impacted Bosnian football clubs as well. In the town of Mostar in 1993, Bosnian-Croats evicted the local football club Velez, allowing the Croatian club Zrinjski to take over.
Velez players were prominently anti-fascist during World War II. Seventy-seven of the club’s players and officials died in the war and nine were decorated with the Order of the People’s Hero of Yugoslavia.
At the same time, the Bosnian-Croatian Zrinjski team played in the Nazi-backed Independent State of Croatia’s First football league.
Today, Zrinjski fan groups remain committed to far right politics and many recently paid tribute to the war criminal Slobodan Praljak, who committed suicide after his guilty verdict was confirmed during an appeal hearing at The Hague Tribunal in November 2017.
Athletes with right-wing views appear to remain comfortable in the post-1990s Balkan war atmosphere.
Basketball coach and former captain of Serbia’s national team, Milan Gurovic, has a tattoo of the World War II ultra-nationalist Serb Chetnik leader Draza Mihailovic, which led to him being banned from entering Croatia in 2004.
The Chetniks were a Serbian nationalist movement that collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. Mihailovic was executed in 1946 after being found guilty of collaboration and war crimes by the post-war Yugoslav authorities. The verdict was overturned by Belgrade’s Higher Court in 2015.
Another former Serbian national basketball player, Darko Milicic, a self-proclaimed nationalist who maintains that he does not hate anybody, sports tattoos of Chetnik leaders Nikola Kalabic and Momcilo Djujic.
In 2013, Milicic attended an event organised by the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radicals’ Party and expressed support for their leader, Vojislav Seselj, who was at the time in custody while standing trial at the Hague Tribunal on charges of allegedly committing war crimes, for which he was later acquitted.
However, not all prominent active or former athletes promoted nationalist ideas from the 1990s onward.
Croatian light-heavyweight boxer and Olympic gold medallist Mate Parlov, considered to be one of the greatest Yugoslav sportsmen, gave his well-known opinion of nationalism in a 2004 interview: “How can I be a nationalist if I am the world champion?”
However, many inside the sports world say people who openly hold views such as Parlov’s are very much in the minority and that the climate in sports would deter many from making a stand against far-right nationalism.
Former Serb football player Ivan Ergic, whose career spanned from 1999 to 2011, says that “folkloric nationalism” is present among both players and fans.
“It is a mechanism for binding people together through collective euphoria,” Ergic, who played for the Serbian national team at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, told BIRN.
He believes that nationalism among players generally comes from a lack of political consciousness, as they start training early in life and get stuck in an atmosphere of “conformity”.
“When you are inside that collective, there is some peer pressure, and it’s very hard to stand out in any sense,” Ergic said.
Asked about what would happen to an athlete with anti-fascist views today, Ergic said that they would encounter “great problems” because “any form of dissent is difficult”.
Sociologist Jaksic said that such a player would be treated like the basketball player Alen Omic, a Bosniak, who was ‘welcomed’ to the Red Star Basketball team – part of the Red Star multi-sports club – by fans from his own club holding a banner with ethnic slurs against Bosniaks at a match against the Greek club Olympiacos.
“It is to be expected that any anti-fascist today would be denounced in this country,” Jaksic said.
This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight