Regional league mulled in the Balkans
They turned football stadiums into battlegrounds and then fought
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
”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
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
”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
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
”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
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