Bosnia has again failed to send a club to the group round of one of the European competitions. What is going wrong in the Balkan country?
By Manuel Herrera Crespo (PhD student in history at KU Leuven)
The modest FC Vaduz, which plays in the second division of Swiss football, was the first Liechtenstein team ever to qualify for the group stage of a European competition. A feat in which FK Ballkani, the first Kosovar club, also succeeded. For the Bosnian clubs, however, it is still waiting for that one moment. HŠK Zrinsjki Mostar was eliminated for the second time in a row on penalties in the third round of qualifying. After a great thriller in the stadium of Slovan Bratislava, the Bosnian club was unable to cash in on its 1-0 lead from the first leg. But why is it that clubs from a country that the Red Devils trembled just a few years ago with players like Miralem Pjanić, Edin Džeko and Asmir Begović fail to qualify for European football? Despite the necessary portions of misfortune, the answer must also be sought in the tangle of ethnically organized clubs and the aftermath of the Bosnian civil war in the early 1990s.
Unlike its football players, Bosnia & Herzegovina’s ethnic-torn history is much less known. The country that was part of the Yugoslav Republic until 1992 is today divided by three distinct identities: Bosnian Muslims – also known as Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Croats. In order to properly represent the complexity of the country, I will take you to the city of Mostar, located in the southwest of the country on the banks of the Neretva River. The city is also home to HŠK Zrinsjki Mostar and FK Velež Mostar who were eliminated in the preliminary rounds of the Conference League by Slovan Bratislava and the Hamrun Spartans from Malta respectively.
Nazis vs Communists
When President Tito came to power in 1945, he sought to promote the so-called “brotherhood and unity” of the new Yugoslav Republic. He implemented such discourse to discourage nationalist tendencies from promoting a multi-ethnic ideal. The head of the game was HŠK Zrinsjki Mostar football club. The club had maintained close ties with Croatian nationalists during World War II and had participated in the football competition organized by the Independent State of Croatia, essentially a fascist puppet state of Nazi Germany.
The dissolution of Yugoslavia and the outbreak of the Bosnian Civil War in 1992 generated enormous repercussions for football in Mostar.
Result: Zrinshki was not allowed to participate in the new football competition. FK Velež Mostar, on the other hand, would become the epitome of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia during Titos rule. The club had long had ties with the communist party and had to bring unity in ethnically diverse Mostar. The red star, which refers to communism, can still be found on the club’s emblem today.
The dissolution of Yugoslavia and the outbreak of the Bosnian Civil War in 1992 generated enormous repercussions for football in Mostar. Velež, the squad of Yugoslav nationalism and Tito, paid the price for his inclusive communist identity. In 1993 Bosnian Croats converted the stadium of Velež into a detention center for Bosnian Muslims and a few months later Zrinsjki Mostar played his home games in the same stadium. A symbolic blow to Velež and his identity. During the war, Bosnian football transformed into a projection screen for ethnic tensions and nationalist violence. That transformation has never been undone.
Modric in Bosnia
Despite the end of the violence in 1994, Velež did not return to his home ground until 2000. Today, the two clubs share the stadium in a tense atmosphere that still resonates through the boardrooms, supporters’ areas and on the hallowed turf. Velež’s inclusive nature means that today the club mainly attracts Bosnian Muslims as supporters but also as players. Zrinsjki, on the other hand, is a club with a Bosnian Croat identity. As a result, the club often maintains good ties with Croatian clubs. That can provide nice loan players: Luka Modrić scored eight goals in twenty-two games for Zrinsjki in the 2003-2004 season.
Ethnic institutionalization of football clubs is common in almost all of Bosnia. Supporters regularly clash and chant nationalist slogans. Football clubs hardly work together, which makes it particularly difficult to build infrastructure and organize youth work in a country that is experiencing economic difficulties.
Diaspora in football
In addition, the Bosnian civil war generated a huge diaspora with repercussions within football. For example, consider Miralem Pjanić. Born in northeastern Bosnia in a town with mostly Bosnian Serbs, he fled to Luxembourg in 1992 at the age of two. He went through the youth series at FC Metz and he even once played for the Luxembourg U19. Such stories can be found all over Europe and prevented local talents from playing for Bosnian clubs for a long period of time. Football talent born in the 1990s, like Pjanić, rarely played for Bosnian clubs. The large transfer fees, necessary for infrastructural improvements, did not materialize and larger European clubs looked with disdain at football in Mostar or Sarajevo.
This brief insight into the history of Mostar and its clubs highlights the intertwining of politics and football in an area where ethnicity and identity still shape the state structure. Bosnian clubs were not merely subject to the vagaries of political conflicts, but were important and symbolic weapons within those conflicts. This history still matters. The disadvantage that Bosnian football has been struggling with for several decades can certainly be placed within this context. Still, the Conference League brings new hope for the European dream of Zrinjski or Velež, among others. Although it is looking forward to the 2023/24 season.