As the eyes of the world glance toward the state of Ohio, the chosen Swing State in the current race for the White House, Jamie Whitehead looks at how football can bring about social change.
Football is partizan. For many, a religion. Your ground is your church, Sunday morning mass replaced by Saturday afternoon indifference, anger and frustration. Once your team chooses you, in most cases that is it for life. Elections, in any country, tend not to work like this. Just because you voted for one party the previous time out, doesn’t mean to say that you will this time. You change, your priorities change, when it comes to voting, you may not even have your own need at heart any longer.
Since Spain’s ruling under Franco ended in 1975, the political divisions within the country have remained incredibly strained with both the Basque region and Catalonia vying for independence to this day. Catalonia, with its own language and rich and chequered history, states a strong claim for independence within its arguments, and recent weeks have seen the movement gain some serious momentum. Formed in 1981, The Boixos Nois group (Catalan for The Crazy Boys) was formed and took up residence in the Camp Nou’s Curva Sud. The Boixos, a radical Catalan Nationalist and Spanish Sepratist organisation became the foremost group in the struggle to see Catalonia gain independence from Spain. Catalonia, following years of oppression from the Franco regime, finally had a voice.
But as with most socio-political groups, in house fighting became a problem within Boixos Nois. By 1986, the group was infiltrated by right wing fascists and nazis, and the group disbanded and in its place a new group, Cel-Lules Blaugranes (Red and Blue Cells), was formed. Tensions between the two have been rife, and upon the 2003 election of Joan Laporta at Barca, he called for the banning of both groups from the Camp Nou. Ultimatley, he was unsuccessful and the groups still infiltrate certain areas of the Camp Nou, however they no longer can be seated in groups of more than two hundred. The subject of Catalonian independence unites the various supporter groups these days, despite being divided on other political matters. When former Barcelona manager Sir Bobby Robson famously declared “Catalonia is a nation, Barcelona is their army” he certainly wasn’t lying.
The rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid requires no introduction. Like Manchester United and Liverpool in this country, the roots of the rivalry stem far deeper than football. But the recent success of the Spanish national team has seen the tensions between the two somewhat diminish, for a few weeks every other summer, at least due to the two sides providing the majority of players for the recent World Cup and double European Championship wins. Prior to their departure for Austria in 2008, the Spanish players hung a banner outside a government building proclaiming “Una Espana unida” (One Spain united) It was the start of a turning point. One both Spaniards and Catalans could relate. Spain: Champions of Europe. Made in Catalonia. From banners hung in the Camp Nou during El Classicos proclaiming “Catalonia isn’t Spain” to seeing the home grown talent of Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Puyol marching their way to the biggest honours in football. The pride of Spain’s achievement was felt throughout the nation of Catalonia. Spain had achieved the impossible. On three separate nights, football had given a nation torn apart not only by Franco, but more recently recession something to feel proud of. Something to bring them together.
Whereas a group of players successfully managed to unite a country it took only one to tear another apart in 1990. Zvominor Boban, best remembered for his eleven years with AC Milan, has over history, been singled out for the outbreak of civil war in Yugoslavia.
The year 1990 had seen elections which had overturned communist rule of Yugoslavia in favour of a more nationalistic outlook. Ethnic tensions in the country had made a top of the table clash between Dinimo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade an even more emotive occasion than it already was. The political outlook of Dinimo’s Bad Blue Boys, fierce supporters of the Croatian Independence Movement and the Delije, the ultra group of Red Star Belgrade, a nationalist group with Orthodox leanings. It’s interesting to note that in recent years, the Delije (Heros) as struck up friendly relations with groups from other clubs who also support the Orthodox faith, most notably Olimpiacos of Greece and Russia’s Spartak Moscow.
Tensions had been flared leading up to the game in May of 1990. Around three thousand members of the Delije had made the trip to Zagreb, with fighting between rival sets of supporters happening in the streets prior to kick off. The Delije were led by a man known as Arkan, a man being watched by INTERPOL for a series of robberies and murders in the 1970s and 80s across Europe. He was later to be indicted by the United Nations for crimes against humanity, but was assassinated in 2000 before being given the opportunity to stand trial.
Once the supporters made their way into the stadium, the Delije made their way toward the home support to a soundtrack of Serbian nationalist chanting and tearing off advertising hoardings. Incensed, the Bad Blue Boys responded by attacking their (literal) oppressing opposition. The Delije and the Bad Blue Boys became too much for the police to control, and armoured vehicles had to be bought on to the pitch along with tear gas to calm the situation.
Miraculously, the players Dinimo remained on the pitch throughout this altercation. It was at this moment, after seeing a Dinimo supporter being attacked on the field of play by a policeman, Boban snapped, and kicked the offending officer (see photo below). The Bad Blue Boys leapt to their captain’s defence, surrounding themselves as his protectors and bodyguards. Instantly making him a Croatian hero, also earning the reputation of a Croatian Nationalist in Serbia, Boban said later of the incident, “Here I was, a public face prepared to risk his life, career, and everything that fame could have brought, all because of one ideal, one cause; the Croatian cause”.
It was this day, May 13th 1990, which saw what many now call ‘The beginning of the Croatian War of Independence” and in Croatia, is a day marked with celebration. Of course, Boban went on to have an illustrious career, playing fifty one games for Croatia as well as appearing over 175 times for AC Milan. It may not have been the Game Which Changed the World, but it certainly changed a corner of Eastern Europe forever more.
The comparisons with the Bad Blue Boys and Boixos Nous are plain to see, and although not nearly as politically active (intentional or not) the Barcelona support hold Pep Guardiola in as high esteem as the BBB do of Boban in Zagreb.
A politician can always rely on a rock star, actor or even a professional footballer to boost their public profile and perception. But in 1978, Argentina went even further than that. In 1976, Argentina fell from democratic rule to being led under a military dictatorship. As the nation was just two years away from hosting (and winning) it’s first World Cup, this was an opportunity to show the world that the country could live both happily and harmoniously in a dictatorship. And that it did. With pictures beamed across the globe of a united Argentina, as the First Junta robbed, arrested and terrorised the Argentine public before relinquishing power in 1983.
As the world turns its attentions to the Race for the White House, it’s worth remembering this. In Algeria, football matches were suspended during the run up to the election there in May this year. This was due to a fear that anti-government protests could occur within stadiums and supporters could promote opposition parties through the medium of chanting and banners. The week leading up to the election saw all matches in the country postponed, thus preventing any further repeat of The Battle of Zagreb twenty two years ago.
Football and politics will always enjoy a unique relationship. The People’s Game and the Politician’s Way can be used both in harmony and hatred. But, as Europe’s recent Ryder Cup win proved, sport has a power of uniting the divided more than any political party ever could.
Jamie Whitehead is co host of 3for3 and a Producer on the BBC World Service. Follow him on Twitter @jamiewh_