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Yugoslavia World Cup 2014: What If Yugoslavia Had Stayed Together?

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What if the South had won the American Civil War? What if Archduke Ferdinand had never been shot in Sarajevo? What if Pearl Harbor was not bombed and the United States hadn’t entered World War Two? What if the Soviet Union had won the Cold War? Alternate histories are an interesting game to play in the study of international history. One could go on forever on these subjects, creating scenarios in one’s mind over scotch in the local pub. Here is one more, a scenario very pertinent to modern history: What if Yugoslavia had not fallen apart in the 1990s?

As a football fan it is hard not to bring this particular alternate history to mind (The Guardian mentioned it 7 years ago), especially during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Half a world away and twenty years removed from the violence in the Balkans, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina proudly represent independent nations on the green fields of Brazil. Both teams had monumental tasks in their first matches but can hold their heads high—Croatia fell victim to some questionable refereeing in their first match against hosts Brazil, while Bosnia put up a good fight before ultimately coming up short against an Argentina backed by Messi’s brilliance.

But the Balkan flavor of the 2014 World Cup does not end with the big names of Luka Modric and Edin Dzeko. They are merely where it begins. Take the unforgettable finish to yesterday’s meeting between Ecuador and Switzerland as an example.

 

 

Ecuador went up early through a headed goal by Enner Valencia and Switzerland were left looking lost through the first forty-five minutes, facing a 1-0 deficit at half-time. Switzerland needed a spark, and it came from the region many have termed the “powder-keg of Europe”—the Balkans. Just two minutes after coming on as a half-time substitute Admir Mehmedi capitalized on some poor Ecuadorian defending to level proceedings at 1-1. Mehmedi himself is an ethnic Albanian, born in Gostivar, Macedonia (in the northwest corner of the country, near the Kosovo border) in 1991, before moving to Switzerland at the age of two.

Then came the best finish to any of the matches so far. Ecuador looked to have a chance in the third minute of stoppage time when Valon Behrami dove in to block the shot, before gaining control of the ball. Behrami then orchestrated the counter attack, taking the ball across the half way line and setting up the play that eventually gave another second half substitute, Haris Seferovic, the chance to net the winner for Switzerland and settle the final score at 2-1.

Valon Behrami is an ethnic Albanian, born in what was then Titova Mitrovica (now just Mitrovica, a city has seen sporadic ethnic clashes between Serbs and Kosovars since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 and subsequent sovereignty in 2012) in present-day Kosovo before moving to Switzerland at age five. Meanwhile, the goal scorer Seferovic was born in Switzerland in 1992 to Bosnian parents who emigrated in the 1980s. What is especially remarkable is that of Switzerland’s World Cup squad of 23 players, an astounding 8 have some Balkan connection:

 

Granit Xhaka: The Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder was born in Basel in 1992 to Albanian parents.

Valon Behrami: As discussed above, the Napoli midfielder was born in present-day Kosovo in 1985 before emigrating to Switzerland in 1990.

Blerim Dzemaili: The 28 year old Napoli midfielder was born in Tetovo, current day FYR Macedonia to an Albanian family before emigrating to Zurich at age 4.

Xherdan Shaquiri: Bayern Munich’s star winger was born in Gnjilane, Yugoslavia (now present-day Kosovo) in 1991 before emigrating to Switzerland a year later.

Haris Seferovic: As discussed above, the Real Sociedad striker was born to Bosnian Parents in Sursee, Switzerland in 1992.

Mario Gavranovic: The twenty four year old FC Zurich forward was born in Lugano to Bosnian Croat parents who emigrated from Gradacac (now Bosnia-Herzegovina) in 1988.

Josip Drmic: The young Bayer Leverkusen striker was born in Lachen Switzerland in 1992 to a Croatian family.

Admir Mehmedi: As discussed above, the Freiburg striker was born in Gostivar, Macedonia in 1991 to an Albanian family before emigrating to Switzerland in 1993.

 

Sports Illustrated wrote an enjoyable article on the Bosnian team in the run up to the World Cup and I would argue that the story of Switzerland’s Balkan contingent is equally enthralling. Certainly it begs the question: what if Yugoslavia had not fallen apart and lost such athletic talent? Obviously sport has a nature vs. nurture element to it—would these footballers have been able to work their way up through the less developed youth systems in an intact Yugoslavia? How much of their progress was aided by having access to modern training facilities in Switzerland? Would they have chosen to represent a Yugoslavian team over the team of their adopted homeland (if their families had even emigrated in the first place)? And what about all the other variables that life throws at us, so far out of any individual’s control?

I argue that they would have had a fighting chance—after all, Yugoslavia was a respectable team before the dark days of the 1990s. They were semi-finalists in the World Cup twice and Quarterfinalists once, in 1990. And who can forget that strange twist of history—because of the wars Yugoslavia was disqualified from the 1992 European Championships after qualifying and was replaced by Denmark . . . the team that went on to win the tournament.

Twenty years on the reverberations of the conflict spread beyond just the teams qualified for this World Cup. The current captain of the Serbian national football team (which did not qualify) is Chelsea right back Branislav Ivanovic, one of the best defenders in the world today. Tiny Montenegro, a country of just over 650,000 and the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut, boast two Premier League players on their squad and gave England a run for their money during qualification for the 2014 World Cup after narrowly missing out on a spot in the 2012 European Championships in a playoff to the Czech Republic. And I won’t even count Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic—the mercurial striker who is currently one of the world’s best—since his Bosniak father (and Croatian mother) emigrated from the former Yugoslavia in the 1970s, long before the collapse. But, if an intact Yugoslavia had fielded a team in 2001 when Zlatan first made his debut for Sweden, might he have opted for the country of his parent’s birth? We will never know, but it’s worth a thought.

This year’s favorites may be Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Holland, and Spain to name a few but—if only for a moment—imagine the possibilities in this World Cup if modern history had taken a different turn.

Stadion Crevna Zvezda/Red Star Stadium, Belgrade, Serbia – Red Star Belgrade

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The Red Star Stadium is as intimidating as the name sounds. Unfortunately, this post is not about a match, but I hope to attend one here soon, since the Belgrade derby between Red Star and Partizan is one of European football’s most storied derbies. It was being renovated during my visit in 2008, and it now boasts a capacity of 55,538. One can only imagine what the atmosphere would be during a sell out. The stadium was completed in 1963, and from 1964 to 1998 the capacity was an amazing 110,000. Now, with under soil heating and a new pitch, it is slowly entering the category of a truly modern stadium.

It is a fitting stadium for the most successful Serbian club, as Red Star remain the only Eastern European side to lift the European Cup (It happened in 1991). Below is a write up of my visit to the stadium when I acquired the team’s shirt, an excerpt from a larger piece of travel writing. As you read the write up and peruse the pictures, feel free to take in Serbian folk Singer Boban Zdrakovic’s “Marakano”, a cult song amongst Red Star fans.

Bombed Out in Beograd:

My father had been right—Belgrade is not a pretty city. The grey façades of communist era architecture were drab as ever, even in the gentle light of dawn. Their paint was pealing, neglected after communism’s unceremonious fall. The streets were empty, as I wandered looking for lodging. After doing a loop around the city—and having found all hotels full—I ended up back near the train station settling on the drab Hotel Astoria—I wasn’t about to shell out for the luxuries of Hotel Moskva. After leaving my passport at the reception desk so that it could be registered with Serbian police—old habits die hard apparently—I headed up to my small room. It seemed that whoever had given the hotel three stars must have been here at least twenty years ago. The rotary telephone in the dreary little room, which had the stupendous view of the backside of an apartment block, was proof of it.

I fell onto the bed for a little rest since it was only eight in the morning and I had already been walking for a few hours. Lying on my pillow, I had a vague feeling that something wasn’t right—I just couldn’t relax and drift away into dreams. After a few minutes I sat up to look around and confirm that everything was alright. Obviously, it wasn’t. On my pillow, next to where my head had been lying, there was a small worm. I don’t know how it got there, but I jumped up and ran my fingers through my hair madly, making sure that there was no insect infestation. Luckily, there were no more worms but this was too much for me this early into my stay in Beograd. I decided to leave the bed and go outside on a search for the Red Star Belgrade stadium, the Marakana. After receiving directions from the lobby I set out, ignoring the receptionist’s warning that it was a forty-minute walk. After all, walking is healthy!

In the streets the signs were not transliterated from Cyrllic. I conjured up all my memories from previous jersey hunting experiences in Macedonia, where Cyrillic is also the official alphabet. Walking uphill from the hotel the bombed out remnants of the former Yugoslav interior ministry, destroyed by NATO in the bombing campaigns 0f 1999, met my eyes. I assumed that it had been kept in its half-destroyed state as a reminder of America’s aggressions against civilian Belgraders. As I took pictures, I wondered what would happen if someone should find out I was an American? Later, in a café by the train station before leaving, I read that the building would soon be built into a luxury hotel by an Israeli company—another move to erase the memories of Yugoslavia and inch toward the EU.

Walking away from the destroyed building I followed the road up to the Slavija square, home of the first McDonald’s in Eastern Europe as well as mass protests after the United State’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence in February of 2008. I headed up a typically communist tree lined boulevard—like so many, it was beautiful in its own special way. I opted against riding one of the ubiquitous trams, deciding that walking was a better way to take in the city. Soon I was on the side of a highway, the only pedestrian in sight. The loneliness was strangely nerve-wracking, with the fresh memories of bombed out buildings in my head.

Continuing up the road for another ten minutes, cars buzzing by me at high speeds under the summer sun, I found a clearing in the development, and across it was the gigantic Marakana stadium. I headed to the walls of the stadium. All over the walls graffiti was scribbled, imparting a number of different things—some I couldn’t understand, and others I understood immediately. “North Storm” and “Chemical Boys RS” were cryptic at best, while graffiti scrawled in blood red paint read “Kosovo Srbija”. A reminder to all that Red Star Belgrade fans—and I’m sure many others—will not forgive the loss of their cultural homeland of Kosovo, ripped away by a West led by the United States.

I took a deep breath and continued along the curved outer wall of the stadium. It was a continuous curve, and as such I couldn’t see more than three feet ahead of me at any time. My paranoia was such that I expected someone to jump out at anytime and ask me what I was doing snooping around a stadium in the middle of July, with no games being played. I played out the scenario—I would be asked why I was there, and where I was from, and somehow they would learn that I was American and then . . . well, it wasn’t worth thinking about because it wasn’t going to happen! Finally, I made it around to the front of the stadium. Ahead of me was graffiti depicting a knife wedged in something. I couldn’t understand it, but I took it as a warning of some sort all the same.

Walking through the gates, I looked down into the stadium, where the word “Delije” was written into the seats behind the goal, white seats making out the letters among the sea of red seats. This was the name of the hard-core group of supporters who, in this stadium, were recruited as a paramilitary group to terrorize the minorities of Yugoslavia during its bloody downfall[1]. In the end though, as the final chapters of Yugoslavia were being written, it was Red Star supporters who led the “revolution” against the fanatical Serb president Slobodan Milosevic and took the initiative to attempt and steer Serbia away from its isolation[2].

Finding the fan shop and, after asking the lady at the counter who their best player was, I purchased a number thirteen Tutoric shirt. When I arrived back in Turkey I learned that he had followed me back, transferred to a mid-level side in the Turkish Super League.

That night I wandered the streets of Belgrade, looking for an underground bar written up in my guidebook. Apparently, it had been a place for dissidents during the Milosevic years. While getting lost in the Belgrade night I stumbled upon Shaharazad Hookah café, off of a main street in a dark alley. It seemed inviting and I decided to take a chance and recreate the feel of Istanbul. I walked in and was immediately bombarded by the Middle Eastern décor and advertisements for Efes Pilsen—Turkey’s famous brew.

I took a seat and ordered a hookah—mint as usual, smoking it as the lights dimmed and Serbian girls dressed in belly dancing outfits came out. As the girls moved their hips seductively—looking customers in the eyes and encouraging them to buy more drinks—the irony of Serbian girls dressed in Turkish dress didn’t escape me. After a while, I caught a glimpse of the men one seat over drinking arak, the Arab version of the anise-flavored Turkish Raki. I think one of them realized I had been looking at him, so he initiated conversation

“So, where are you from,” started the heavy-set Arab man next to me.

“Istanbul,” I answered, not wanting to let off the whole truth in a sensitive part of the world, figuring that here there would be no ill feelings towards Turks in this “Oriental” establishment.

“Ahh, Istanbul is a beautiful city,” He told me in thick accented English, looking into the distance, playing the movie reel of his past in his head.

“You’ve been there?” I asked, and he nodded in affirmation.

“Many times.” He ordered me some Arak and I asked him what he was doing here. He explained that his son owned the place, and that he came here with his Arab friends. I asked him where he was from, expecting to hear Cairo.

“I am from Baghdad,” he said. I was surprised, to say the least.

He could read my emotions and continued, “I was the ambassador to this country, but after the Americans invaded my country . . .” he trailed off, assuming that I got the picture, not wanting to go into too much more detail.

I sat back, dumb-founded, as a beautiful Serbian girl in front of me motioned with her hands at a bald Englishmen to our left, dancing. I was relieved to have dodged a bullet—who knows how he would have reacted to me as an American. The fact that he was drinking alcohol proved that he was of Saddam’s mold, that is to say secular, and a far cry from the Islamists vying for the tattered country’s heart. We continued watching the girls belly dance over another glass of the firewater—we got great service once the waiters saw whom I was talking to. After finishing my drink, I shook hands with the former ambassador and stumbled out into the warm Belgrade night, with both head and heart heavy. My guidebook told me that there were good clubs on the shores of the Danube, where the vodka flowed.


[1] Foer, Franklin. How Soccer Explains The World. Harper Perennial, New York: 2005, 21.

[2] Ibid., 29.

The Bombed Buildings of Belgrade Bring the Past to Life:

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The Modern is Destroyed, but the Past Remains Alive and Well:

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And the Modern Side of Beograd:

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Approaching the Marakana:

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I Don’t Need a Dictionary For This–Perhaps a History Book Instead:

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The Ultras Have Left Their Mark(s):

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Belgrade Sprawled Out In The Distance:

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I can Understand “Serbia” and “Kosovo”:

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The New Pitch Being Installed:

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The “Delije” Section:

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Now, One of These Shirts Hangs In My Closet:

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