Regional league mulled in the Balkans

They turned football stadiums into battlegrounds and then fought

real wars.

Now, nearly 20 years after the wars ended, the Balkan states are

mulling the formation of a joint football league, hoping to give a

new life to the once-thriving competition.

UEFA is considering the league that would comprise the former

Yugoslav states – Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Slovenia and

Macedonia – plus maybe Bulgaria and Hungary.

The idea, which has triggered a lot of controversy in the

region, is to try to improve the quality of club football in the

Balkans, which has dramatically deteriorated in independent leagues

since the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in 1991.

The main concern is security in the stadiums with ethnic

tensions still ripe and with UEFA accusing Serbian and Croatian

hooligans of being among the most notorious in Europe for violence

and racial outbursts.

After all, the Yugoslav wars were initiated on the football

pitch when Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade fans clashed in the

Croatian capital during a league match in 1990, and later joined

paramilitary forces to fight each other in real battles.

One proposal tabled at a recent meeting between local and UEFA

officials is that visiting fans would initially be banned from

traveling to the regional league matches. The formula has worked in

a joint basketball league that has been played for years without

major fan troubles.

But many fear that football, the most popular sport in the

region, is altogether different – a matter of national pride, the

sense that has often resulted in violence in the Balkans.

A major test of whether such national emotions could be put

under control is a World Cup qualifier between Croatia and Serbia

on Friday in Zagreb – the first encounter as independent states

between the bitter Balkan rivals.

Fearing clashes, the Croatian and Serbian football associations

imposed a travel ban on Serbian fans. The ban will remain in place

for Croatian fans when the two national teams meet in the return

leg in Serbia later this year.

UEFA – which has twice in two years warned both countries that

in case of continued fan trouble, their teams could be banned from

international competitions – said it will keep a close watch on the

Friday match at Maksimir, the same stadium where the 1990 fan

rioting took place.

Many think that the idea of a regional league – reportedly to be

launched as early as 2015 – is highly premature, mainly for

security reasons.

”For now, the most important thing is to eliminate violence

from the stadiums in the Balkans,” Serbian FA president Tomislav

Karadzic said. ”Only then we could start thinking of a regional

league.”

Vahid Halilhodzic, a former Bosnia international and ex-coach of

Dinamo Zagreb, agreed.

”It would only be an opportunity for right-wing extremists to

express their frustrations,” he said. ”Wartime emotions are still

high, and football should stay out of it.”

Others say such a unified competition would bring fans back to

the now near-empty stadiums, attract foreign sponsors, and

radically boost the quality of football in the region.

”The joint Balkans league would lead to a higher quality of

football, it would attract more interest with football fans and the

financial gains for clubs would be bigger,” Dragan Dzajic, former

Yugoslavia star winger and now Red Star Belgrade director, said.

”That being said, I don’t think that it will happen in the near

future.

”The prospect of fan violence is often used as an excuse for

the people who are opposed to the idea of a joint competition. I

myself am not sure as to which way it would go, but I can see that

others do it with no problems. Take basketball, for example, it

attracts huge crowds and is played indoors, that makes it even

harder to organize when it comes to security.

”The decision has to be made high up, by politicians. They say

they want reconciliation, so here is their chance.”

Those who support the joint league say it would prevent stars

such as Croatia’s Luka Modric of Real Madrid, Serbia’s Nemanja

Vidic of Manchester United or Bosnia’s Edin Dzeko of Manchester

City from permanently leaving their countries and joining rich

foreign clubs.

The former Yugoslavia league produced such clubs as Red Star,

which was European champion in 1991. But since the start of the

Champions League in 1992, the former Serbian powerhouse has failed

to qualify for the last 32 in the competition.

Even when they make it to the elite European competition – which

has happened only seven times in the Champions League’s 20-year

history – the former Yugoslav teams suffer with poor results.

Dinamo Zagreb, now the most successful club in the region, was

responsible for the region’s last win at that level, beating Sturm

Graz 3-0 back in 1999.

UEFA President Michael Platini in 2009 said he was neither for

nor against the regional league concept. With his efforts to dilute

the hegemony of west European clubs in the Champions League, he is

apparently prepared to green light a Balkan league.

If UEFA negotiates the joint league, it would lead to direct

Champions League and Europa League berths for its most successful

sides. That proposal, however, could be another stumbling block,

because each Balkan country seeks to have its own clubs in the

major competitions.

”We cannot go back,” said Davor Suker, the former Real Madrid

striker who has become the president of Croatia’s FA. ”We all have

our countries and we all want to be winners and have our teams play

in Europe.”

Red Star fans, who vehemently oppose the joint Balkan

competition because of their hatred for the Croats, recently

displayed a huge flag with a crossed out map of the former

Yugoslavia, reading: ”No to the Regional League.”

Dinamo Zagreb fans – the Bad Blue Boys – share the hatred, this

time for the Serbs, and have a warning: ”If someone wants another

war, let’s have the league!” said Damir Kusic, a Dinamo fan.

Marko Drobnjakovic in Serbia and Darko Bandic in Croatia

contributed.