Short of outright war, few events inspire as much political unrest and outrage as an ill-timed soccer match.
As the legendary Spanish midfielder Luis Suarez once said, “The border between soccer and politics is vague. There is a long list of governments that have fallen or been overthrown after the defeat of the national team.”
The greatest soccer showcase on Earth – the World Cup – is no stranger to political tensions. Like the Olympics, the World Cup pits the finest athletes of one nation against the finest athletes of another – regardless of alliances, embargoes or wars. The pitch is neutral territory where foreign policy rhubarb is supposed to be set aside.
But it doesn’t always work out that way.
Soccer has helped shape the course of European history. At the 1934 World Cup in fascist Italy, Mussolini picked the referees. The host nation won. In 1938, Sweden beat the German team. Two years later, Hitler invaded Norway. And in 1950, the United States beat heavily favored England 1-0 – arguably the greatest upset since the Revolution itself.
In Latin America, soccer is rarely “just a game.” In 1969, the World Cup qualifiers ignited a six-day war between Honduras and El Salvador. In 1994, Colombian defender Andres Escobar scored against his own team at the World Cup in the United States. Shortly after the team returned home, Escobar was shot 12 times outside a nightclub. Michael Corleone would be so proud.
So it continues with soccer and politics today. In October 2004, for the first time since the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, the newly-independent nations of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia-Montenegro met on the soccer field.
Some international prankster no doubt thought it would be funny to put these two countries in the same qualifying group for the 2006 World Cup. So, more than 500 fans from each nation traveled to the match-up at Germany’s Olympic Stadium.
During the 2004 game, Bosnian fans, still a tad miffed about the genocide from the 90s, held up signs saying, “We have 250,000 reasons to hate you.” The contest ended in a 0-0 draw.
Earlier this month the two teams met again in Belgrade, with the Cup hopes of both teams clinging to the outcome. If Serbia-Montenegro won, it would go to the tournament. If Bosnia won, it could still qualify.
At the game, any pretense to civility was soon set aside.
In the parking lot, tailgating cars were draped in black flags with skulls and crossbones – the symbol of the Chetniks, a menacing Serbian militia group. Bosnians from the Serb-dominated east chanted the names of Serbian war criminals. Muslim fans from Bosnia hoped both for a win and to get out of the stadium alive. It was not your typical Cornell-Brown encounter.
The event quickly plunged into violent chaos. Security and police officials were overwhelmed. Chairs and rocks were thrown in the stands. People were trampled in the aisles. Six Bosnians were hospitalized in critical condition, some with stab wounds.
The Bosnians did not fare well on the field either. Despite a desperate and daring performance, the footballers were unable to break through Serbia’s defense. Mateja Ketzman put his team ahead early, launching a strike past Bosnian goalkeeper Kenan Hasagic in the first 10 minutes. It was all the home team needed as Serbia-Montenegro held on for the 1-0 victory and automatically qualified.
The streets of Belgrade were flooded by post-game rioters. Thousands of celebrating Serbian fans shot guns in the air and lit flares in the streets. In Banja Luka, Bosnian Serbs had to be physically restrained from destroying Muslim shops. Even in Sarajevo, Bosnian flags were wantonly torched. One could almost hear Slobodan Milosevic cackling from his cell in The Hague.
The Bosnians went home with thoughts of refugees, genocide and missed corner kicks mixing in their heads.
Politics have a funny of way of creeping into everything – especially sports. In the collective U.S. memory, the “Miracle on Ice” is perhaps the single defining moment of the Cold War. Just this week, a basketball superstar announced she was gay to the public and a college football coach was forced to apologize for racially insensitive remarks.
Yet, sports also have a habit of making people forget about politics, at least for 90 minutes or so. The media will forget this game in a few weeks. Serbia will forget the riots and go on to compete against the best in next year’s World Cup.
Unfortunately for the Bosnians, “ethnic cleansing” is a difficult thing to forget.
Oh well. There is always 2010.
Kyle Sheahen is a Sun Senior Editor. The Ultimate Trip will appear every other Friday this semester.
Archived article by Kyle Sheahen