Serb opposition taps soccer fans as a force for change

The Milosevic regime is wary of the expected presence of soccer clubsupporters, no strangers to violence, at protests in Belgrade.

Today, the opposition group Alliance for Change is taking to the streets of Belgrade. As the group leads daily protests in Yugoslavia's 16 largest cities, there may be a viloent wild card in the ranks: Young, often unemployed soccer hooligans. Because of their ability to rally large segments of the population, sports clubs are courted by Serbia's political parties.

Like the majority of young people in Serbia, soccer hooligans are derisive of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and want change. The difference is that unlike most other young people, sports hooligans relish a fight. "Whenever thousands of young men with no future gather for any reason at all, that's going to be a threat for any government, especially one in crisis," says economist Dragan Vucinic, a professor at the University of Belgrade.

Of all the wars that Serbs have fought, none have been as long lasting as the Grave Diggers versus the Delije. These are the nicknames of Serbia's two leading soccer clubs, Partizan and Red Star. Red Star's Delije are also known as Gypsies.

To simply call them sports clubs is like saying the Hell's Angels are fond of motorcycles. For hard-core fans, Red Star and Partizan are a way of life, a total identity. For the regime of President Milosevic, the clubs represent a social threat that must be controlled. A common chant at soccer games is "Slobo ... you betrayed Kosovo."

On the eve of a large rally last month, four leading Delije supporters were arrested to keep them off the streets.

Soccer fans have been a political bellwether in the Balkans. Long before the Yugoslav National Army rolled into Croatia in 1992, ethnic tensions at soccer games had been rising. "In the mid-80s when we went to Zagreb, you could feel the tension in the stadium," says Nenad, a high-ranking Grave Digger fan. In May 1990, police in Zagreb had to intervene to prevent a massacre at a match between Croatian and Serbian teams.

Indicted war criminal Zelko Raznjatovic, also known as Arkan, was once a leader in Red Star before he went on to lead a mercenary army in Croatia and Bosnia. Today he owns the soccer club Obilic.

Both Red Star and Partizan are actually larger sports organizations boasting numerous teams, but no sport in Europe brings out passions like soccer.

"They call us Grave Diggers because we bury our opponents," explains Nenad. The claim can be taken literally. "In 1994, Gypsies [supporters] shot me four times, but they couldn't stop me. I barely survived, but they can't keep me down," says Chegi, for 11 years leader of the Grave Digger supporters.

Grave Diggers have trashed railroad stations, flipped police cars in France, and engaged in countless brawls. "At the Barcelona airport in April 1998, we saw a Croatian plane filled with Greek soccer fans parked next to us on the tarmac.... Four Grave Diggers stormed their plane and beat up the Croatian pilots. The Greek soccer fans on the plane thought the plane was being hijacked," recalls another Grave Digger.

Both clubs date back to just after World War II. Partizan, whose colors are black and white, was originally an Army club associated with high-ranking Communist functionaries in the former Yugoslavia. Red Star was more of a city club that represented latent Serbian nationalism. Its colors are red and white, recalling the Serbian flag.

"Red Star is a synonym for Serbia," says fan Dejan. "All progressive youths root for Red Star."

"We don't need to prove our nationalism because we know we're Serbs," responds Grave Digger leader Aca.

Although leaders of both Grave Diggers and Delije say their clubs are apolitical, the truth is more complex. Both are state-owned moneymaking enterprises and political parties have interests in them. Supporters from both clubs accuse each other of being entangled "in the system," and members of both clubs participate in opposition demonstrations, although without official support.

"Over the last two years, they saw how strong our organization was and there were attempts by virtually every major party to exploit our fans for their own purposes. But we fought that and won," says Chegi.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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