Political Footballers XI: Midfield Zvonomir Boban

Some of the leading Liberal International Relations theorists hold that wars are created by militaristic and undemocratic governments and rulers for their own gain.  Kant famously wrote in, ‘Zum Ewigen Frieden’ that:

‘…under a nonrepublican constitution, where subjects are not citizens, the easiest thing in the world to do is to declare war.  Here the ruler is not a fellow citizen, but the nation’s owner, and war does not affect his table, his hunt, his places of pleasure, his court festivals…’.

Another of the key tenets of Liberal IR theory is that people, when they apply their reason, will work together to pursue the common good, providing the right incentives and systems of governance exist.  If more can be gained by co-operating, more often than not people will co-operate.  In this way war will no longer be an option, as the citizens themselves always suffer the most during times of war, they have to fight and die.

The logic of co-operation works both ways.  When the incentives encourage people into other actions co-operation can be stalled, prevented, and rivalries created or exploited.  The country formally known as Yugoslavia that came together at the end of World War I, was an artificial nation.  Many nations were created by bringing together different groups of geographically proximate people, some have learnt to live and work together, and some have been torn apart once again.  Yugoslavia brought together Slovenes, Croats, Serbs and Montenegrins in 1918, a country that was created after a war, was to later rend itself in war.

Tito & a pipe. A Wikimedia Commons image

Under Marshall Tito Yugoslavia was a nominally socialist nation, when he died in 1980 the nation was left without a unifying leader.  The disparate regions saw an opportunity to assert their long-dormant nationalism.  The Croatians felt that the Serbians had been privileged during Tito’s reign, to their own detriment, and recognised the chance to redress the balance.  The Serbs saw an opportunity to move into the leadership vacuum.  The incentives were pointing people away from co-operation and into conflict.

Nationalist elements across Yugoslavia were gaining strength and influence.  Football lends itself easily to tribal, regional and national shows of defiance and might.  Fan groups elevate the ‘us’ and denigrate the ‘other’.  To be a ‘fanatic’ of one team is to reject all others.  It has been well documented that Serbian career criminal and paramilitary leader Željko Ražnatović, otherwise known as Arkan, drew members of his organisation from the ranks of Red Star Belgrade supporters.  Their identity shifted naturally from Red Star defenders to Serbian fighters.

It is unfortunate that football has become a focal point of violent imagery and actual conflict.  In many ways though this was inevitable.  Thomas Hobbes wrote that the natural state of humans was one of constant conflict and competition.  In the absence of an all-powerful ruler, or Leviathan as he put it, anarchy is the natural consequence.  To be part of a crowd in a football stadium is to separate oneself temporarily from other forms of rule, and return to Hobbes’ ‘natural state’.  Behaviour changes, encouraged and cosseted by the crowd.  Thoughts usually unexpressed are given free reign.  Racism, violence, homophobia, all forms of cruelty are explored.  Each stadium has its own rules for fan behaviour, usually unwritten codes of conduct that are understood and conformed to.  Ritualised chanting and singing, the imagery of flags and banners, the uniforms of club shirts and scarves.  A football stadium is a pageant of medieval warfare.

Photos of Red Star Belgrade fans – for your own sake, turn the sound down before you play this, the music is awful… Seriously.

In Belgrade in the 1990s the Red Star Ultras groups were encouraged, and funded, by the club to organise the choreography of flags and songs to be displayed on match days.  One memorable event during the war was a game in 1992 between city rivals Red Star and Partizan Belgrade.  Normally fierce internecine encounters characterised by violence, the actions of the Red Star Ultras during this game instead brought the rival fans together.  Instead of abusing and fighting each other they joined in mutual hatred of another ‘other’, specifically Croats.  The Red Star fans first unveiled a banner saying, ’20 miles to Vukovar’, then another stating ’10’, then finally ’Welcome to Vukovar’ in reference to advances made by the Serbian army (Fowler:2004).  Other banners showed other towns and other battles won.  The stadium was united.  Arkan came out from his VIP area high in the stands to receive the applause and adulation.

Two years earlier on the 13th May 1990, Red Star were playing away from home in a Zagreb still Yugoslavian but rapidly becoming Croatian.  Nationalist sentiments were particularly strong in the Dynamo Zagreb stadium.  Simon Kuper writes that at the beginning of the 90s many Croatians didn’t feel particularly Croatian, as a consequence of being Yugoslavian for nearly 50 years (Kuper:228).  Yet some Dynamo fans and certain sections of the Croatian intelligencia did feel Croatian, and were determined to ride the nationalistic wave to its conclusion.  The Dynamo fans group, the Bad Blue Boys, would make up a large part of the Croatian military, just as the Red Star Ultras would in Serbia.

There is a plaque outside the Dynamo ground that is quoted as reading:

To the fans of this club, who started the war with Serbia at this ground on 13th May 1990’.

This translation of the plaque is misleading, fans didn’t start the war, but early skirmishes of the full-blown conflict did take place here.  In other versions the plaque says, ‘All Dynamo fans, for whom the war began on 13 May 1990 in Maksimir Stadium and who lost their lives for their country’ (Djukic/Dubinski:40).  This translation is closer to the truth of the war’s origins, but is quoted less than the first version.  I do not know which offers the most accurate translation of the actual plaque.

The reason for the plaque, and claims of starting a war are related to Zvonomir Boban’s flying kick on a policeman who was beating a fallen Dynamo fan during a pitch invasion.  Boban’s kick became famous as did the fighting that continued inside the ground, outside the ground and then throughout the whole country.  Boban’s flying knees and boots may have potent value as an image, but it was an initiator of nothing, just another step on the path to conflict.  Just as the actions of another citizen of the Balkans in 1914, Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, did not start World War I, Boban’s kick did not start the war but instead was a consequence of the political climate of the day.

Boban was born in the southern part of Croatia, a ‘notoriously patriotic’ (Kuper:232) area of the country, close to the Bosnian border.  While the war was tearing his country apart, and members of the Dynamo BBB fans group were fighting for their freedom, Boban was lucky enough to go and play football in Milan.  He signed for AC in 1991.  His kick on the policeman though has become iconic for Croatians, even though the policeman on the receiving end turned out to be a Bosnian Muslim who said he, ‘totally understood’ Boban’s attack on him (Kuper:2007).  This iconic kick happened close to the beginning of his career and made him a Croatian national hero, but he was to stand out as a footballer in other ways.  Firstly his footballing ability, an energetic midfielder with an eye for a pass and the occasional goal.  He was part of the Milan team that won Serie A four times, the Italian Supercup 3 times and the Champions League once, in 1994.  Boban was a key part of that 1994 side that beat a Barcelona team containing Guardiola, Koeman, Stoitchkov, Romario and Begiristain, 4-0 in Athens.

Zvonomir Boban in a cricket sweater

Boban also stands out for his more intellectual pursuits.  He is a voracious reader, and says he grew up on Chekhov and Dostoevsky, his first book was “The Little Prince” by Antione de Saint-Exupery, and he ‘adores’ Jose Luis Borges.  He once said before a Croatia game against Italy that if the match were between classic literature from the two nations, Italy would triumph with ease, ‘Dante, Petrarch, Leopardi… it wouldn’t be a contest’ (quoted in Kuper, 2007).

After he retired from playing, he completed a history degree, writing his thesis on Christianity in the Roman Empire.  He has also become a sports journalist, writing for newspapers and commentating on Italian television.

After he left for Milan and Italy his country continued to cleave itself into new, old nations in drawn-out bloody conflicts over 10 years of fighting.  In Serbia Arkan, like Kant’s worst nightmare, profited from the power vacuum.  He used the popularity and prestige of Red Star to try to create a wider political influence throughout Europe (Fowler:2004).  His paramilitary force fought to control oil, alcohol and cigarette companies, and he grew wealthy while ordinary Serbs suffered (Fowler:2004).

While there were financial gains to be made from warfare, the incentives for those in power were to foster division and hatred instead of co-operation and peace.  Freedom for a country was worth fighting and dying for, for some people.  For others self-enrichment was the goal.

Hobbes described the three basic causes of conflict between humans as being, ‘gain, safety and reputation’, all of these combined in the former Yugoslavia.  Though for many ordinary people life conformed to something else Hobbes wrote, ‘Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short…’.

Boban gets a place in the Political Footballers XI due to his iconic kick, and the conflict it will forever be associated with.

Go here to read the other articles in this series: Political Footballers XI


Dubinsky, Alex & Djukic, Slavoljub (2001) ‘Milošević and Marković: a lust for power’.  McGill-Queen’s Press.

Fowler, Dave (2004) ‘Football, blood and war’ in The Observer.  http://observer.guardian.co.uk/osm/story/0,,1123137,00.html

Kuper, Simon (1996) ‘Football against the enemy’. Phoenix, London, UK.

Kuper, Simon (2007) ‘Political Football: Zvonomir Boban’ on Channel4.com.  http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/sports/political+football+zvonimir+boban/1205847.html

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