Balkans football.

A topic not directly connected to Arsenal but it’s current and troubling for a lot of people, not only in Croatia and has a former Arsenal man at the heart of it.

With the incidents in stadiums and around it, wherever ex-Yugoslav teams go, it is becoming an issue across the whole of Europe.

I’m from Croatia.

When you mention my country to football lovers, they will instantly think of Modrić, Šuker, Mandžukić, Eduardo, and other great footballers we had throughout history who play at the moment. The rest of the public will think sea, tourism, but also war and, the focus of my ranty blog today, football-related ‘incidents‘.

Every time Croatia (or any ex-Yugoslav country) plays a qualifying match, there’s some incident. The biggest one for us in the current European Qualifiers was in Milano, Italy.

Our ‘fans‘ (I don’t get how you can call yourself a fan and deliberately harm those you support) organized a massive pyro show, threw flares on the pitch and shouted various racist and nationalist chants. All that while our team had Italy on their knees and were just waiting to finish them off.

The match was interrupted, and the UEFA punishment that came later was a part-stadium closure for the home match against Norway plus a fine.

At the end of March, Croatia played at home against Norway.

It was played in Zagreb, on our biggest (and ugliest) stadium, with one part closed. The tickets still didn’t sell out (it holds 25k), but a decent-sized crowd gathered. There were rumours going around that there will be flares once again but nothing really happened. There were some firecrackers and the ‘usual‘ chants.

Even our FA, NHS, president Davor Šuker, the former Arsenal striker, was ‘proud of the fans‘ for acting in a civilised manner.

Take that last phrase with a caution. There were some chants. Although there was no ‘killing’ nor ‘monkey sounds’ or anything like that (at least not that I heard), there were some controversial chants that, sadly, many Croats don’t see like that.

The most popular and most controversial chant is ‘Za Dom’, which is translates to ‘For Homeland‘, and is connected to Ustaše (ustashe), a Croatian fascist and ultra-nationalist organization from 1930’s/40’s.

It was their call to arms.

There are some indications that the chant itself was used centuries before but ustaše are the first association that comes to mind.

UEFA, of course, know all about it, and they took note. They are very cautious and have zero tolerance for things like this. You remember that banner about Gay Gooners from Bayern fans, and how UEFA made them close a part of the stadium because of ‘one small banner’.

Zero tolerance for any kind of discrimination, as it should be.

So, this week the punishment for ‘just a few chants and fire crackers’ came – a fee, and completely closed stadium for our next home match which is the biggest home match in the group stage – Italy, to be played in Split, on the coast, with thousands of tourists and even more Croats who are waiting for a competitive match there since 2011.

To make things even more controversial (I swear, it’s like Mexican telenovela in Croatian football), things are heating up between our two biggest cities/stadiums/clubs – Zagreb and Split, Maksimir and Poljud, Dinamo and Hajduk.

The thing is, Croatian national team plays almost all of their competitive matches in Zagreb, and the stadium is usually half empty (no half full optimism crap in Croatian football). Our biggest club, Dinamo, can’t fill the stadium even when tickets are free. They usually have around 500 people in 35k+ stadium in league and cup matches. HNS insists on playing all matches there.

Hajduk and Poljud stadium on the other hand have a much bigger attendance for every match. The stadium is beautiful, it’s located on the coast in a big city, fans who’d come to watch Croatia would be louder and the stadium would be 100% full.

For all those positive points of Split and Poljud, Croatia played only four official matches there. To be honest, those four weren’t as big as those that Zagreb gets (Italy 1995, Denmark and Slovenia 1997, Georgia 2011).

Sure, there were some friendlies in between (like Brazil), but people want to see a ‘real’ match, an important and crucial one. Naturally, Split and whole Dalmatian region were hoping they would get the Italy match. It’s on the coast, there will be lots of tourists, the conditions will be amazing. So when the decision came a few weeks ago that the Italy match will also be played in Zagreb, people in Split got extra angry.

There were furious comments, articles, messages from Hajduk’s supporters club Torcida. Earlier this week,  however, it looked like it had all worked.

Šuker (newly elected into UEFA executive committee) and HNS announced that they suddenly changed their minds and that the match against Italy would be played in Split. Everyone was equally excited and surprised with that decision.

Then it all became clear on Wednesday night.

The UEFA punishment for chants against Norway was announced – a closed stadium for our next match.

People got even more angry.

You simply cannot not think that Šuker knew about the punishment and decided to give Split this match, ‘throw them a bone’.

He is now highly ranked in UEFA, so I dare to say it’s impossible he heard nothing about this huge punishment. And the way he and HNS changed their minds all of a sudden.. VERY suspicious.

Naturally, Split and Poljud announced that they won’t be hosting the match, that it would be humiliating for the fans in Dalmatia. I agree with them.

No competitive match for four years, and now one in front of an empty stadium? No, thanks.

Some say it is an excessive punishment for a few minute-long chants and no flares or fights or anything like that.

In UEFA’s eyes, and anyone looking at it realistically, it’s like when a player gets a one or two match ban for collecting a certain number of yellow cards throughout the season. We had incidents at almost every match, both home and away, so this is the punishment for all of it.

Split will suffer, Croatian fans from all over the coast will suffer, and, most of all, our players will be left alone against a tough opponent where chants and support would make a huge difference. All because of a few stone-age idiots that can always be found among the crowd.

If you look around the rest of ex-Yu countries, there’s a theme everywhere. While we were ‘proud of fans’ for behaving against Norway, the match in Montenegro against Russia was suspended due to fights in stadium, ugly chants and, worst of all, a flare hitting Russian goal keeper Akinfeev.

Not long ago there was that awful drone incident in a match between Serbia and Albania, that was named ‘high risk‘ and didn’t even allow Albanian fans inside the stadium!

Rigorous moves are taken before each and every match in these areas but the idiots always stand out and ruin it all for the rest of us, and for the players.

For how long? What else should be done? No one knows, yet.

HNS identified those who threw firecrackers and chanted horrible songs against Norway and they will probably sue them and ban them from stadium, just like they do every time there are some incidents.

But, as you can tell, it keeps happening.

People need to change, and it’s hard to expect that in these areas.

The Balkan mentality is a horrible thing.

Sadly, that mentality isn’t only among the fans.

Those running Croatian (and Balkan) football are not much better. They are one of the main reasons why Croatian supporters do all of this.

Fans are unhappy with the situation here, the fact that only one club and one city has it all, that only a few of the richest people have all the influence and make all the decisions (the very popular Zdravko Mamić).

There are no people watching league matches. There are barely 25k people watching one of the most exciting national teams today.

The situation is awful.

And there are no indications it will change any time soon.