Former Yugoslav nations tackle extremism in sports


Stronger co-operation between countries, broadening the reach of cultural information and having athletes deliver the message can help influence younger generations.

By Ivana Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 06/05/13


Regional organisations sponsored an initiative to stop racism at a football match in Bosnia and Herzegovina last October. [BAAP/FairPlay-VIDC]

Organisations, teams and officials across the region are working to curb nationalistic extremism among sport fans through improved awareness of the dangerous intersection of extremist ideologies and sports.

While the conflicts of the 1990s are in the past for the nations of the former Yugoslavia, the nationalism that fueled them remains alive in Balkan society, and can be seen on display by fans at sports events, especially football matches.

"Racism, nationalism and discrimination is now an issue in football in former Yugoslavia. This was not the case when we started with our initiative some 10 years ago. There was the culture of denial of any problems of racism in football," Michael Fanizadeh, a project leader with the Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Co-operation, told SETimes.

"Now the football associations in the region take the issue of racism and nationalism seriously, also some clubs have been very active," he said.

In October, the umbrella organisation Football For Equality worked with groups across the region to hold events aimed at halting racism.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the group collaborated with the Sport Association of the City of Mostar and the Balkan Alpa Adria Project to sponsor activities at a match between FK Velez Mostar and NK Travnik.

Players from both teams, the referees and fans displayed red cards that said "Show racism and nationalism the red card." The teams entered the field carrying a banner saying "Stop discrimination."

Alexander Rakowitz, leader of Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Co-operation projects in the former Yugoslavia, noticed the difference between athletes and sports fans who grew up during the war years and those who came of age after the conflicts.

"War generations were closed and didn't have chance to see how the rest of the world or even Europe supports their teams, which is a key point for young generations," Rakowitz told SETimes. "I truly believe that in some 15 years there will not be those who are going to the sport matches in the name of nationalism. And our goal for the next 15 years is to have such matches where will not be any group that comes to spread chauvinism."

Rakowitz said the institute successfully connects with young athletes, but finds it difficult to influence fans directly, "because [they] have their own isolated world and rules according to which they live."


Croatian fans celebrated a victory against Serbia in a World Cup qualifying match on March 22nd in Zagreb. [AFP]

Serbia sports broadcaster Milojko Pantic said curbing hooliganism among fans is a crucial task for states.

"States should make lists of hooligans who initiate incidents and ban their entrance to the games, and this is very easy to manage. There are numerous successful examples for this abroad, such as in England," Milojko told SETimes.

Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Co-operation's projects include regional youth football tournaments and workshops that create positive interactions and allow for exchanging ideas on the best ways to overcome nationalism and intolerance. Activities are held in co-operation with the national football associations.

"The most important benefit for the participants is the intercultural and international exchange," Fanizadeh said. "These enable exchange of best practices, partnerships, friendships, networking, co-operation and participation in further events and activities within the framework of the fight against nationalism and discrimination. Additionally the diminution of stereotypes through the personal contact and knowing each other is happening."

Nenad Vukosavljevic, from the Centre for Nonviolent Action, an NGO based in Belgrade and Sarajevo, said the attitude of athletes has a crucial bearing on youth and their value systems.

"Sport and sportsmen especially enjoy great reputation in society, and for numerous young people they are ideals and they could have great influence on them, both, positive and negative. So, when it comes to the recent match in Croatia, it was good that football players had fair play, but it was not good because they didn't make public distance of extremists who shouted what they shouted," Vukosavljevic told SETimes.

Former boxing champion Nenad Borovcanin, now a state secretary with the Serbian Ministry for Youth and Sport, told SETimes that athletes can help suppress extremism and violence at sports venues by the way they conduct themselves publicly and by sending the message to fans that they should respect their opponents while supporting their own team.

Borovcanin said the ministry has started a campaign called "Fair play is victory," which gathers famous sports figures to teach children about sportsmanship.

"Our initiative this year was declared for the year of tolerance in sport. Also, the government of Serbia is forming the National Council Against Violence in Sport, which is working on the draft of the plan against violence," Borovcanin said.

Bogdana Opacic, researcher at the Centre for Study in Cultural Development of the Republic of Serbia, said the mindset of youth can be changed only by improving their access to culture, which could be done through the educational system.


Former boxing champion Nenad Borovcanin, now a state secretary with the Serbian Ministry for Youth and Sport, says athletes can set an example for sports fans to follow. []

"According to recent research we have had, students of finishing years in high schools of Serbia see themselves as patriots, i.e., positive nationalists who like their own people but respect others. The biggest intolerance they feel for Albanians, Roma and Croats. The biggest deflection students have is for the possibility that people of other nationalities take leading positions in the country or live permanently in the country," Opacic told SETimes.

The 2014 World Cup qualifier between Croatia and Serbia on March 22nd in Zagreb, was the first match the two national football teams have played against each other since 1999. It passed almost without incident, which was a mutual signal of reduced nationalism. There were some nationalistic chants among fans, but there was no violence, and there was fair play on the field.

While tight security prevented violence at the match, part of the audience briefly sang, "kill the Serb."

"It is unacceptable that anyone calls for killing and to not have reactions for that," Vukosavljevic said. "We were witnesses of very similar situation in Belgrade when BiH and Serbia played football a few years ago, and [posters that read] 'Knife, Wire, Srebrenica' appeared in the audience. Sports arenas simply reflect what a small group or even a good portion of the population thinks."

Sinisa Tatalovic, a political science professor who teaches in Belgrade, Zagreb and Podgorica, told SETimes there is reason to be optimistic in the aftermath of the Serbia-Croatia match.

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"There were some improper messages in the audience," Tatalovic said. "But if we compare this with some other Croatia team matches, we'll notice that here was even less extremism messages than during games with some other teams, which gives encouragement. …The important positive sign is the attitude of sportsmen, as well."

Tatalovic added that improving co-operation between countries is a solution for reducing extremism. That process, he said, begins with politicians, while it goes slowly among citizens.

"Extremism has withdrawn and used to appear when politicians need it, especially in the periods of pre-election campaigns," Tatalovic said. "But, public, media and political elites should be aware of nationalism's danger and should work preventively, should work on strengthening of political culture which contains national and regional tolerance, but also should judge each attempt of spreading nationalistic passions since nationalism always causes nationalism."

What should be done to reduce extremist or nationalist activities at sporting events? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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