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Croatia, European football and politics

Slaven Bilic during his time at West Ham. (Source: Wiki Commons, Author: joshjdss)
Roar Guru
25th June, 2016
4

“It’s unbelievable what those people are doing. The majority of the fans are telling them not to do it. Some of them are there on a mission.” – Slaven Bilić, former Croatia manager, Jun 17, 2016.

It should have been better for the team. Much better, in fact. A decent collective of football players from Croatia, putting a more than decent showing at the European Football Championship, should have done much to satisfy supporters.

But politics back home was creeping over, a slimy hand moving into Croatian football like an old Balkan menace. Old curses were asserting themselves.

Much of this lies in the response of some Croatian supporters, the army of disgruntled citizens who have made their way over to France and taken their grievances with them.

On the surface, nothing should be troubling to them, certainly in terms of their team. Nabbing a victory over a highly fancied Spain, and qualifying with skill for the knockout stages, has, if anything, been a greater point of irritation.

While the show ponies strut their talents against rival teams, the supporter has the free will to engage in other matters. In the case of Croatia, supporter and disgruntled citizen have become one.

Prior to the ultimately victorious clash with Spain, The Independent noted that Croatian supporters were fomenting some strategy for attacking the referee. Information was subsequently passed on to the French police.

A run of disturbances had already taken place in the match against the Czech Republic, which ended 2-2. Flares were thrown on the pitch, resulting in disciplinary proceedings being instituted on June 18.

In the words of Nikola Kajkić, president of the Croatian Police Union, “We have information that the same people that caused trouble in St. Etienne will try the same, and even try to attack the referee in 30th minute of the match.”

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Croatia’s own coach, Ante Čačić, went so far as to claim that this noisy minority had compromised his team’s match. “These are not Croatian fans. They are terrorists.”

Why such spectacularly disruptive fuss? As a broader object for disturbance, bringing domestic problems to light in an international tournament. In recent years, Croatian football has been plagued by such cases.

A qualifying game against Italy in Milan in 2014 saw a temporary suspension after the San Siro pitch received a bombardment of flares. Prior to the match, a Swastika had been carved into the pitch, resulting in the docking of one match point.

June has been a nightmarish month for Croatia’s political scene, supplying aggravated supporters with more material. In mid-June, the Croatian government collapsed. Prime Minister Tihomir Oresković faced a no-confidence motion backed by 125 MPs.

Prior to that, it had been revealed that the Vice Prime Minister’s wife, Ana Šarić Karamarko, had received 60,000 euros from a lobbyist for the Hungarian energy company MOL. An entire rotten hierarchy was thereby exposed.

To use domestic corruption and disappointments as a means of political theatre for a football match may seem riddled with selfishness, but it attests to the great power that football exerts over life. Where domestic life fails, football is the commanding medium of expression, its replacement, its consolation. Never mind the fact that the players have a job to do.

As in other instance in history, political machinations can be seamless things. Many Croatian supporters claim that the NHS (Croatian Football Federation) is unduly influenced by powers associated with the club side Dinamo Zagreb. That particular influence has been far from healthy.

In truly sordid fashion, the federation’s vice-president, Zdravko Mamić, was charged with embezzling money from that club when chief executive. Damir Vrbanović, the federation’s executive director, has been charged as an accomplice.

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The amoral arithmetic here is simple enough. Both have asserted their influence and links via Dinamo Zagreb to pull the strings of the national team. Self-interest has triumphed over the broader team’s national interest. Adding this up, and football violence, or at the very least protest, assumes a clearer shape.

This tournament has not been a calm one. The football hooligan has made his renewed appearance, this time more dedicated and trained. There are allegations of national support and backing for the cases of violence from Lille to Marseille.

Politicians are feeding their opinions into the contest, having confused the competitive spirit with a tribal one. Unrest is a permanent concern. Sadly, the footballers have not been left to their own, pitch-bound designs. We await the knockout stage with some trepidation.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com