Dissolution of Yugoslavia 101: The Football Match That Triggered the Civil War

''To all supporters of Dinamo, for whom the war began on 13 May 1990 at Maksimir Stadium, and ended with the laying down of their lives on the altar of the Croatian homeland!''

Bad Blue Boys Supporters' Group Memorial, Zagreb

It is well known that football matches provide national unity and solidarity, nourish national feelings, and create emotional bonding against a common opponent. In the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, where six socialist republics were formed, inter-republic football matches were always more important and highlighted by the media. However, no match has been as loud as the Dinamo Zagreb – Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) football match, which would be played on May 13, 1990, and has not been marked as a breaking point in history. Therefore, this article will consider the historical match of Dinamo Zagreb – Red Star, also known as the Maksimir Riot, as the beginning of the series of events that will bring the end of Federal Yugoslavia and will therefore examine the rise of nationalism that plunged the country into a bloody civil war.

Maksimir Riot 1990. Photo by Renato Brandjolica via Jutarnji List. https://www.jutarnji.hr/naslovnica/kako-su-bbb-i-i-boban-obranili-maksimir-13.-5.-1990.-3113117

Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) was a Federation consisting of the Socialist Republics of Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Nations within the Federation lived under a supranational "Yugoslav" identity, scattered almost all over the territory of Yugoslavia (Bora 80). Socialist Yugoslavia, which was founded by Josip Broz Tito in 1945 based on equality and fraternity of people, began to disintegrate on May 4, 1980, the date of Tito's death, and was exhausted by the 1990s. The economic depression that started to deepen before Tito's death brought along ethnic conflict. During the 1980s, the republics that formed the federation with the powers given by the 1974 constitution began to act almost independently from the center in the economic and political field. The economic crisis, which was tried to be solved with reforms, did not help, and as a result, nationalist discourses began to increase rapidly in the federation. The political protests that started in Kosovo in 1981 spread to other republics over time, and the wave of nationalism began to slowly absorb SFR Yugoslavia. At this point, it is possible to see that Tito's death also means the death of the existence, system, and functioning of Socialist Yugoslavia. This collapse would be revealed with a football match, and the federal structure would be buried in the pages of history. (Bora 37)

Flag of Yugoslavia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialist_Federal_Republic_of_Yugoslavia#/media/File:Flag_of_Yugoslavia_(1946-1992).svg

The provocative nationalist rhetoric given mutually by both Serbian and Croatian politicians was the main reason for the first Maksimir Riot and then the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The ultra-nationalist Slobodan Milošević, who was elected as the President of Serbia in 1989, worked on the ideal of "Greater Serbia" which included Croatia, throughout the 1990s. Milosevic, who consider Croatia as an extension of the fascist Ustaša state in World War II, called the Croats "fascist vampires" and carried out ultra-nationalist policies (Bora 124). On the other hand, the election of nationalist Franjo Tuđman as the President of Croatia in the presidential elections held in Croatia in April and May 1990 was perhaps the most important event that triggered the Maksimir Riot (Brentin 994). Saying 'Thank God my wife is not a Jew or a Serb.' in one of his speeches, Tudman mutually fueled nationalist feelings in Yugoslavia with Milosevic.

Photo by Renato Brandjolica via Jutarnji List. https://www.jutarnji.hr/naslovnica/kako-su-bbb-i-i-boban-obranili-maksimir-13.-5.-1990.-3113117

Just in such an environment, as the tension between the Croats and Serbs increased, the football match between the Dinamo Zagreb team and Red Star meant more than a match. Before the match, which was scheduled to take place at the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb, a fanatical tribune group of fans Bad Blue Boys of Dinamo Zagreb, faced Red Star's tribune group Delije, i.e. "Brave Men". By chanting "Zagreb Is Serbian!" Red Star, trying to provoke Dinamo Zagreb's sides, ignited the fuse of events (Wilson 210). At this point, it is necessary to say that ultranationalist Serbs, i.e. Četniks, have taken over the Red Star Tribune. So much so that the leader of the Tribune was Željko Ražnatović (Arkan), who would commit massacres in the Bosnian War. Arkan was a wanted criminal by Interpol who had been imprisoned in Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands, West Germany, and Switzerland for many crimes but managed to escape them all. When he returned to Yugoslavia, he got his new position; he was the head of the Serbian paramilitary forces. The fact that Arkan was brought to the Delije stands made the atmosphere very tense. A storm was brewing.

Against the supporters of Delije, who provoked the Croats by singing nationalist songs, the Bad Blue Boys also sang their nationalist songs and soon got into a quarrel with Delije. The two groups, who threw stones, iron, and tribune seats at each other, came out of the stands in a short time and jumped into the field. The chaos stretching from the stands to the field grew as the police intervened with armored vehicles and fire trucks. Dinamo Zagreb football player Zvonimir Boban kicked the police officer after he saw a police officer beating a Croatian fan. This kick became sacred and made Boban a hero for the Croats. Even if the kick was thrown at the Bosniak police, it actually has a symbolic meaning to the Serbian oppression and the Yugoslav administration. For Croatia, a country that was already aiming to declare its freedom and secede from Yugoslavia, this legendary kick was enough to mobilize the masses. Moreover, Boban's statement about the events after the match had transformed him into a political leader rather than a football player. Once again, football went hand in hand with politics.

Zvonimir Boban. Photo by Renato Brandjolica via Jutarnji List. https://www.jutarnji.hr/naslovnica/kako-su-bbb-i-i-boban-obranili-maksimir-13.-5.-1990.-3113117

This match did not decisively draw Yugoslavia into war but fed the seeds of hatred that had already been thrown between the nations within Yugoslavia. It also ignited the fuse for the Croatian War of Independence, which would begin about a year later. Football did not leave politics again, the rule of Yugoslavia was collapsing, and socialist Yugoslavia was mingling in the dusty pages of history.


  • Birn. “1990 Football Riot Becomes National Myth in Croatia.” Balkan Insight, 22 May 2018, balkaninsight.com/2016/05/13/1990-football-riot-remains-croatia-s-national-myth-05-12-2016.

  • Bora, Tanil. Yugoslavya - Milliyetçiligin Provokasyonu. Birikim Yayinlari, 2021.

  • Mills, Richard. “Commemorating a Disputed Past: Football Club and Supporters’ Group War Memorials in the Former Yugoslavia.” History, vol. 97, no. 328, 2012, pp. 540–77. Crossref, doi:10.1111/j.1468-229x.2012.00564.x.

  • Wikipedia contributors. “Arkan.” Wikipedia, 21 July 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arkan.

  • Wikipedia contributors. “Franjo Tuđman.” Wikipedia, 4 Aug. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franjo_Tu%C4%91man.

  • Wilson, Jonathan. Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football. New Ed, Orion Publishing, 2006.

Author Photo

Umut Açıkgöz

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