It’s not just a football club…

Posted on August 4, 2012

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The wait is finally over. Of course, this is a wait that never really began due to the European Championships, but the football season is back! Men, rejoice! Women, also rejoice! If you don’t like football, nevermind! Exclamation marks!

So today was the opening day of the Bosnian Premier League, so like any self respecting Mostari I headed out to Vrapcici to see the almighty Velez Mostar open their season against Radnik Bijeljina. Go on, I dare you pronounce that (it’s something like Bee-yell-eena). Admir gave me a lift out there, picking up a number of hitchikers on the way as is the norm, and the 1,000 (or so) piled into the stadium. I had headed out there alone, but just before I entered I happened to bump into who else but my landlord and my bosses uncle! What a surprise! Thank lord I did, as they had water, I had chewing gum.

Velez took the lead early through young upstart Mirza Cemalovic, and one thing become clear very quickly. The standard of football is not good, and it isn’t helped by teams trying to play like Spain. I’ll criticize Spain for their keepy-ball tactics, but at least they eventually pass it forward. This was sideways pass after sideways pass, until someone got bored and lumped the ball out wide, inevitably giving away a throw in. The football was poor, so much so that the highlight of the first half was without doubt the shouts and reactions of the middle aged Bosnians around me. (a personal favourite was someone asking the name of the Bijeljina keeper, to which someone a couple of rows back shouted ‘Not Buffon’). The half time whistle went, the score was 1-0.

As the second half kicked off, the Velez hardcore fans started throwing toilet paper at Not Buffon, and the game was halted. Of course it wasn’t just toilet paper but flares as well, and there in lies the problem with football in the Balkans. Each time has a hardcore group of supporters, and they almost inevitably cause trouble at every game. These hooligans have no interest in watching the game, they are only there to do something and to sing and to get as much attention as they possibly can. In reality, its quite sad, and I can only send these fools my condolences. I love Mostar, and I love Bosnia and the Balkans, but football hooliganism is among the most ridiculously pointless things in the world. The game was eventually started after the stand behind the goal was evacuated, and Velez quickly made it 2-0 thanks to substitute Anel Hebibovic, a short stocky youngster who looked head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of creativity and a desire to actually play. A third quickly came, again from Cemalovic, and the game was over. A good 3-0 win to start the season for Velez, but time will tell whether this season amounts to anything more than the usual mid table mediocrity.

It wasn’t always like this however. FK Velez Mostar were the towns only legal team during the Yugoslav days, and were a fixture in the Yugoslavian top division. Their glory years were the early 70s, with successive 2nd place finished in the league between 1972 and 1974. They also famously knocked Derby County out of the UEFA Cup the next season. They also won the Yugoslav Cup in 1981 and 1986, no mean feat at a time when clubs such as Red Star Belgrade, Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb were at the height of their powers. FK Velez were a very popular team at the time, and came to be the football representative for all of Herzegovina. At this time they also played in the stadium located at Bijeli Brijeg, which is in Mostar and has a capacity of 25,000.

This all changed, as with many things in Bosnia, with the war. For obvious reasons, the war put a stop to all sport, and with Mostar being so bitterly divided Velez were essentially kicked out of Bijeli Brijeg, as it lay on the Croatian side of the town. The historical Croat team in the town, Zrinjski, were re-established, and they took over the stadium, buying it out for the next 100 years or so. By buying it out of course, I mean taking it over. Velez were shunted to the outskirts of the city, to Vrapcici, where they find their home today. Since the establishment of the independent Bosnian league, Velez have floundered whilst Zrinjski have flowered, and the rivalry between the two is fierce. Both support bases have grown increasingly mono-ethnic as well. This isn’t particularly unusual for Zrinjski, but it is for Velez. I don’t mean to sound harsh on Zrinjski though, as they themselves were banned between 1945 and 1992 for being a part of the Prva NHL, founded in the second world war by the fascist Ustashe, during Titos crackdown on nationalism. Not just football clubs indeed.

It has taken 20 years for Bosnian football to regain some sort of footing on the international stage, and the national side are now more competitive, and looking at the groups for the World Cup qualifiers are in with a chance of qualification. Domestic football however, much like all of the Yugoslav republics, has stagnated and is in a comatose state. The best thing that could happen would be for an Adriatic league to be established, so the quality would improve and maybe even reach the Yugoslav levels. The one thing stopping this however, is those damn hooligans, and their toilet paper. It’s a problem I can’t see being sorted out.

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