Regional soccer league mulled in the Balkans

They turned soccer stadiums into battlegrounds and then fought

real wars.

Now, nearly 20 years after the wars ended, the Balkan nations

are mulling the formation of a joint soccer league, hoping to give

a new life to the once-thriving competition.

European soccer’s governing body is considering a 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 controversy in the region, is to

try to improve the quality of club soccer in the Balkans, which has

deteriorated since the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia in

1991.

The main concern is security in the stadiums with ethnic

tensions still ripe, with the Union of European Football

Associations accusing Serbian and Croatian hooligans of being among

the most notorious in Europe for violence and racial outbursts.

The Yugoslav wars were initiated on the soccer field 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.

One proposal made during a recent meeting between local and UEFA

officials is that visiting fans initially would be banned from

traveling to 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 soccer, 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 – their first meeting as independent

states.

Fearing clashes, the Croatian and Serbian soccer federations

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

for Croatian fans when the two national teams meet in another

qualifier in Serbia in September.

UEFA has twice in two years warned both countries that in case

of continued fan trouble, their teams could be banned from

international competitions. UEFA said it will keep a close watch on

the Friday match at Maksimir Stadium, where the 1990 fan rioting

took place.

Many think that the idea of a regional league – which could be

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

security reasons. The Balkans also have been one of the areas where

there have been accusations of match-fixing,

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

from the stadiums in the Balkans,” Serbian Football Association

President Tomislav Karadzic said. ”Only then we could start

thinking of a regional league.”

Vahid Halilhodzic, a former Bosnian national team player and a

former 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 boost the

quality of soccer.

”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.

Those who support the joint league say it would prevent the

departure of stars to high-revenue clubs, such as Croatia’s Luka

Modric (Real Madrid), Serbia’s Nemanja Vidic (Manchester United)

and Bosnia’s Edin Dzeko (Manchester City).

While the former Yugoslavia league produced powerhouses such as

Red Star, which was European champion in 1991, the separate leagues

have struggled. Dinamo Zagreb, now the most successful club in the

region, was responsible for the region’s last Champions League win,

3-0 over Sturm Graz in 1999.

UEFA President Michael Platini in 2009 said he was neither for

nor against the regional league concept. If UEFA approves a joint

league, it could lead to direct Champions League and Europa League

berths for its most successful clubs. That could become an

obstacle, 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

forward who is 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 a joint Balkan competition

because of their hatred for 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 to this report.