Eastern European football is renowned for its hardcore fansWest Brom 4ever/Wikimedia Commons

Content Notice: This article contains discussion of violence and warfare.

Rivalries are intrinsic to the sport of football, whether they are located in Merseyside, Manchester, Madrid, or Milan. When longstanding enemies clash, we often witness the stands radically reinvigorate themselves with all the passion and intensity that converts a single game of ninety-odd minutes into a clash with enduring reverberations beyond the field. Support shifts itself into instances of outright hostility, as fans are faced with the prospect of falling short to their bitter adversary. A win must be attained by any means necessary, for a defeat becomes synonymous with outright condemnation. As we approach the North London derby, it’s only right that we reflect on what is arguably one of the most intense rivalries in the world: Dinamo Zagreb vs. Red Star Belgrade, otherwise known as the “match that started a war”.

Red Star Belgrade was formed during the final year of the Second World War, when a group of players, students, and members of the Serbian United Anti-fascist Youth League decided to establish a “Youth Physical Culture Society” that was to become one of the most successful clubs in the Balkans. Red Star won both the European Cup and now-discontinued Intercontinental Cup in the same year of 1991. They also boast an impressive 32 national championships, 25 national cups, and two national supercups across Yugoslav and Serbian competitions.

“The clash took place just weeks after Croatia’s first multi-party elections in almost fifty years”

Dinamo Zagreb was similarly established in the aftermath of the war, eventually growing to become the biggest club in Croatian football: winning 22 Prva HNL titles, 16 Croatian Cups, and six Croatian Super Cups since 1945. Both Red Star and Dinamo were once housed under the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, subsequently competing in the Yugoslav First League until its dissolution in 1992: shortly after one of the most violent football riots in history.

The “Dinamo-Red Star riot” took place on 13 May 1990 at Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb, Croatia, then part of Yugoslavia, between the Bad Blue Boys (supporters of Dinamo Zagreb, named after the 1983 Sean Penn film) and the Delije (supporters of Red Star Belgrade, derived from the Serbian word delija that means “brave, hero”). The clash took place just weeks after Croatia’s first multi-party elections in almost fifty years, in which the pro-Croatian independence candidate Franjo Tudjman won the majority of votes, leading to over sixty people wounded, stabbed, shot, or poisoned by tear gas.

The confrontation was no doubt politically motivated, as Tudjman’s pro-independence stance saw him in direct dispute with Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, the notorious head of the Serbian Communist Party. An already tense series of events was itself supplanted by a media campaign waged from Belgrade claiming that the Serbians in Croatia lived under the threat of genocide. Such propaganda served only to stir up ethnic tensions, as many Serbs in Croatia already saw Tujdman’s unapologetic Croatian nationalism as a form of creeping fascism. The football match that took place just six days after the election thereby served as an ideal opportunity for many Croatian fans to vent their frustrations against the team that represented Belgrade in a dispute motivated by partly nationalism, partly sporting fervour.

“Although the intense and inflammatory environment that gave way to the riot has largely subsided, the bitter antagonism between the Croatian and Serbian sides remains indefinitely”

Initially provoked by the Bad Blue Boys throwing stones, the Delije began to tear up the stadium and eventually made their way towards the Dinamo fans, chanting Serbian nationalist slogans such as “Zagreb is Serbian” and “We’ll kill Tudjman”. Meanwhile, the Bad Blue Boys at the north and east stands attempted to storm the pitch, but were quickly pushed back by the Serbian police. Yet within minutes, the situation got out of hand, as the Dinamo supporters forced their way through to the Red Star fanbase ready to attack. Among the Delije that day was its ultra leader Zeljko Raznatovic, who would go on to lead a group of paramilitaries called the Tigers, killing an estimated 3,000 people over the course of the Yugoslav wars. He was later indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for crimes against humanity.

Several Dinamo players remained on the pitch amidst the turmoil, despite Red Star players leaving for the locker rooms. Dinamo’s captain Zvonimir Boban was infamously caught kicking a police officer for allegedly mistreating a Dinamo supporter. The Bad Blue Boys came to Boban’s defence, shielding their captain as the riot coalesced into utter chaos. Boban himself was suspended by the Football Association of Yugoslavia for six months, consequently missing the 1990 FIFA World Cup. Remembering the clash, Boban stated that the derby “reflected everything that had been going on in our society and everyday life. Yugoslav football reflected Yugoslavia”. The event would ultimately come to symbolise the beginning of Croatian resistance against Serbia, and to this day there is a sign on Dinamo’s stadium with a dedication that reads: “to the supporters who began the war with Serbia in this ground on May 13, 1990”.


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The riot marked the beginning of the end for the Yugoslav First League. By the close of the 1990–91 season, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, going on to form their own respective football league systems. The subsequent Yugoslav wars that raged thereafter would become one of the deadliest conflicts in Europe since the very war that gave rise to the football sides, with an estimated 140,000 thousand losing their lives and a further two million consequently displaced.

Although the intense and inflammatory environment that gave way to the riot has largely subsided, the bitter antagonism between the Croatian and Serbian sides remains indefinitely. Indeed, if we are ever to see Dinamo and Red Star come face-to-face again, the chances of a less than pleasant affair are almost certain, as the memory of the past remains etched not only in the memorial within Stadion Maksimir, but also in the minds of those fans passionately cheering in the stands.