August – September 2013
Haris Idriz from the NGO Mostar Youth Council
No Hate Speech Sarajevo
Vice-Mayor of Pale, Republika Srpska
SFK 2000 Sarajevo
Ivo Andrić School and Milan Pasić the headmaster and PHD student at the Faculty of Sports and Physical Education, University of Belgrade
Stefan and Angelo Kovacevic, University of Belgrade students
Fair Play League Belgrade
When planning the fifth annual Football Beyond Borders tour, we all agreed that we wanted to take FBB in a new direction – to try and push boundaries that we had never pushed before. Thus, the Balkans tour was the first annual tour based in Europe and the first tour to involve female members. Although Europe may not have seemed like a traditional FBB destination, we wanted to travel to the Balkans, a region that has generally been ignored or misunderstood by Europeans, particularly because of its complex modern history of post-1989 conflict and its geographic positioning as the buffer zone between Western Europe and the Orient. The region is still so raw from the wounds of brutal 1991-1995 conflict and the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia twenty years ago, an event which wreaked havoc with national and cultural identities whilst also artificially dividing and separating formerly diverse communities. It is not the most attractive region for travellers and organisations alike, but there is certainly much work to be done, particularly with regards to reconciliation, reintegration and anti-discrimination initiatives. Thus, we planned to take a mixed-gender football team to Bosnia and Hercegovina and Serbia.
In Bosnia and Hercegovina the focus of the tour was around reintegration, working with the country’s once unified ethnic groups: Muslim, Serb and Croat who have been separated since the war. As with previous tours, we would use the universal language of football as our medium, in this case to try and bring together Muslim, Serb and Croat communities in Mostar and Sarajevo whilst also challenging notions of sexism and discrimination in general. In Serbia, our approach was slightly different as it was framed by the racist incidents that occurred at the European under 21 qualification match between Serbia and England in October 2012, where England’s black players were subjected to racist chanting from a certain section of the stadium. The racist actions of a minority of Serbian fans were quickly seized on by the sensationalist British media, and Serbian people were soon being (rather ironically) branded racist, bigoted and violent by right-wing tabloids like ‘The Sun’ and ‘The Daily Mail’. Whilst we acknowledged the problem of far-right nationalism in Serbian football society, we wanted to challenge the overhyped “Serbophobia” that the British media had created. By running workshops and playing football with local young people, we hoped our time in Serbia would give us the ideal opportunity to challenge any deep-seated racism that we did encounter by giving it a zero tolerance policy in all of our activities.
Bosnia and Hercegovia
Achieving our goals in Bosnia and Hercegovina was very challenging as there is such a direct and engrained distrust between different ethnic groups. Nevertheless, on the whole we overcame these obstacles and managed to have a positive impact on the societies we worked with. In Mostar we were hosted by and worked with orphan children from some of the harshest backgrounds in Bosnia, using football as a central tool for workshops to interact with this largely neglected and forgotten section of the population. We also managed to bring together Muslim and Croat children, separated by the dividing line of the Neretva river, to partake in a multi-ethnic football tournament which included the youth teams of two of the biggest rivals in Balkan and global football: FK Velež Mostar (Muslim) and HŠK Zrinjski Mostar (Croat). It was here where we realised just how difficult it was to achieve our goals due to the extremely divided nature of Bosnian society. Whole communities still feel bitterness and distrust towards each other and ultimately, our hosts explained to us that the old nationalist elite do not want this to change. They would rather keep communities segregated and divided, because if they were to reintegrate and form cross-ethnic bonds they could challenge the old elite’s stranglehold on power. In Mostar and throughout this tournament we saw that the perceived differences that separated communities were reinforced and perpetuated by the older generation who refuse to completely move on from the conflict. This realisation only made us more determined to make an impact, and so we hope to return to Mostar to run further multi-ethnic tournaments and workshops in years to come, knowing that these divisions will only be bridged by long-term, sustained activities that encourage cooperation and understanding between the different ethnic groups.
In Sarajevo we also organised a tournament between Muslim and Serb communities promoting anti-discrimination and anti-sexist values. We interacted with all communities, Muslim and Serb, in order to hear stories and perspectives from both sides of the conflict. We were hosted by KULT, a youth-focused NGO whose staff and members gave us an insight into the problems arising from the extremely high unemployment facing youth. With paid employment scarce, discrimination based on ethnicity is commonplace, only adding to the divisions in society. Next, we visited Pale in the Republika Serbska, the capital of the Bosnian Serb army during the war, and played a football match against a local side before being hosted by the vice-mayor. We also visited the Serb populated East-Sarajevo to hold an anti-racist workshop with local youth, which was extremely well received. This kind of activity, run by youth for youth, was quite rare in the area. Our work in Bosnia and Hercegovina gave us an insight into the difficulties and tensions that have persisted in the post-war era. We realised that reintegration, as difficult as it is, seems to be the only way to push Bosnia and Hercegovina forward out of the horrors of the war. Football, as a potent unifying force and tool for reintegration, could be key for the future of society in Bosnia and Hercegovina, and their recent qualification for the 2014 World Cup has the potential to be a massive catalyst for reintegration.
In Serbia, we were hosted by three students from the University of Belgrade, two of which were mature students. Together with them, we organised and ran discussions and workshops on the issue of discrimination and racism with students at the university. These discussions gave us a far more nuanced insight into Serbian society than we had had before, and reinforced our suspicions that right-wing newspapers and media in Britain had been stereotyping the entire Serbian society as racist due to the acts of a small right-wing minority. Nevertheless, we decided the best way to test this theory would be to attend a football match at the home of Red Star Belgrade, dubbed as one of the most far-right football clubs in the Balkans, with many of their “ultras” supposedly being contracted by the war criminal Arkan to fight in the 1991-5 Balkan war and the Kosovo war of 1999. To add to the intensity of the occasion, this match marked the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Maracana, their stadium. Yet even here at supposedly one of the most hostile grounds in Europe, we faced no racism or discrimination, despite our group being made up of a diverse range of ethnicities and backgrounds.
We addressed the problem of racism in Serbian society through workshops with children in both a local school and at a fair play league event. We were able to play a variety of games, including but not limited to football, and we ran our now fine-tuned anti-racist workshops with large groups of children, following an early-intervention model that aims to combat racism and discrimination from a young age. Being allowed such open access to Serbian culture and society was a massive achievement in itself as it is a society that doesn’t have much interaction with the outside world due to the negative perceptions of Serbia in the West and particularly amongst the British public. These perceptions are ultimately fostered by the negative portrayal of Serbia by our press and government. Serbia is desperately striving to be acknowledged and respected globally, and especially within Europe, as a functional and modern society that is not generally racist and that has moved on from the horrors of the war and the horrific acts of the right-wing minority. Sport has a key role in this process, as shown by Novak Djokovic, the world’s best tennis player, who has been a fantastic ambassador for Serbia in recent years. We hope in our own small way to have contributed to this process, and whilstin Belgrade we began to make plans to bring a Serbian student football team to London to play in an anti-racist football tournament, or maybe even to Brazil as part of our project there next year… Stay tuned!