The World Cup’s Collision Between Pride and Politics

Written by: Marija Markovic

Written in November, 2022

As countries currently battle it out on the global soccer stage for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, clashes between the multitude of fans is something to be expected. Disputes may revolve around the score, or a questionable yellow card, but oftentimes it is for reasons involving politics. It is not surprising that an event as immense as the World Cup presents itself as an opportunity for different ethnic groups to make political statements or refer to political situations, as nations compete to be the best at the world’s most popular sport. On Sunday, November 27, 2022, Serbian goalkeeper Milan Borjan of Canada experienced two inappropriate mockings from Croatian fans, who held up banners and chanted, referring to his refugee past, during a group stage game between Croatia and Canada. FIFA has officially addressed the situation by launching an investigation on the Croatian fanbase as of November 29, 2022, as many called for punishment for those fans’ actions. On December 7, FIFA fined the Croatian Football Federation due to their fans’ “use of words and objects to transmit a message that is not appropriate for a sports event.” It is clear that tension still exists between Croatian and Serbian people, and it too must be controlled in order to prevent another eruption of ethnic tension.

In order to accurately understand the significance of the situation, one must acknowledge what previously occurred in Yugoslavia. In regards to this situation, the two inappropriate references aimed at Borjan descend from Croatian-Serbian relations from World War II up to today.

When Borjan, an ethnic Serbian, was just eight years old, he and his family were forced to leave Knin (now modern day Croatia) during Operation Storm in 1995, eventually settling in Canada. Today, he represents the Canadian National Team as goalkeeper and is also goalkeeper for Serbian SuperLiga club Red Star Belgrade.

The first mocking can be seen in a viral video from the match, capturing Croatian fans yelling “Borjane, Ustašo” as he runs to receive the ball for a goal kick. The fans were referring to him as a member of the Ustaše, a fascist and ultranationalist group that is most known for working alongside Nazi Germany in World War II. The Ustaše performed some of the most violent war crimes in history, mainly against ethnic Serbs, but also Romas and Jews. The main goal of the group was to enforce Croatian nationalistic ideologies, striving for a “Greater Croatia,” similar to Nazi Germany’s desire for a “purely German” state. With the Serbs being Orthodox Christian, and the Croats being Catholic, the Ustaše aimed to exterminate those who were different, their largest target being the Serbs. Viewing Orthodox Christianity as incompatible with their desired regime, and as a factor of Serbian identification, the group pursued both extermination and forced conversion to Catholicism as their ultimate goals against them, with a fervent anti-Serb sentiment. During their ruling, it is estimated that between 300,000 and 400,000, some reports stating even up to 750,000 Serbs, were murdered throughout their genocide, however this is still widely debated in discourse today. In addition, the Ustaše managed to eliminate nearly the entire Jewish population within Croatia at the time. Unlike the Nazis, who commonly used gas chambers, the Ustaše frequently manually and sadistically murdered their victims, raising concerns from even the Nazis. As stated by The Holocaust Education & Research Archive Team,  some victims were “blinded by having needles stuck in their eyes, [and] flesh was cut and then salted. People were also flayed, had their noses, ears and tongues cut off with wire cutters, and had awls stuck in their hearts. Daughters were raped in front of their mothers, [and] sons were tortured in front of their fathers.” Dead bodies were inhumanely disposed of: dumped in pits, burnt to death in Orthodox Churches or furnaces, and even left for pigs to eat. Their most notable concentration camp was Jasenovac, which became the third largest concentration camp during the Second World War. Victims recall Jasenovac as being “the Auschwitz of the Balkans.” 

Borjan responded to the fans by making the “three finger salute” with his hand in the air, which represents the Holy Trinity of the Orthodox Church: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and continued playing the match. Many claim it is a reference to the Serbian Army, however it is simply a sign of religious identification.

To understand the next part of Borjan’s mocking, it is vital to note the fall of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Throughout this time, the Balkan nations were descending into a number of different conflicts, often bloody and ethnically dividing. What is unique about Yugoslavia is the fact that the countries were all united by a common language (with slight differences in dialect), yet differing religions. These differences often were the reasons for conflicts to escalate, and were high contributors to the overall disintegration of the country. These conflicts are clearly still present today, as seen by the Ustaše chants.

As a country, Yugoslavia officially came to be shortly after World War I, unified as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Slovenia were the six republics making up the federation. Despite there being physical borders between states, different ethnic groups existed past them. World War II was a period of Axis power control, apparent by the Ustaše regime. However, when World War II concluded Yugoslavia became re-established.

Fast forward to 1980, where Josip Broz Tito, the former Yugoslavian leader, passed away from gangrene. Tito attempted throughout his presidency to promote brotherhood and unity between the republics, so his death created an absence of integration between the various ethnic groups. Consequently, the 1980s were years of substantial rises in ethnic nationalism within Yugoslavia as the country suffered economically. Heavily under debt and dealing with trade complications with the West, it was evident that some regions of Yugoslavia were struggling more than others. Thus the possibilities of secession and war between the groups became increasingly more likely. The northern Yugoslav region economically flourished, often taking the resources of the southern region, stemming from the existing rising nationalism between the Serbs and Croats. This only further mounted tensions. It is demonstrated in international relations that conflict between economies can lead to poor relations, thus a vicious cycle of economic strain and nationalism played out.

It was only a matter of time before the existing conflicts between the ethnic groups erupted in war. In 1990, as Yugoslavia was slowly beginning to dissolve, each republic had their own political elections, this occurring for the first time in years. Croatia voted for Franjo Tudjman as their new president, and pushed for Croatian independence from Yugoslavia. However, there were numerous regions of Croatia with Serbian majorities that feared history would repeat itself again. One of these regions, known as the Serb Republic of Krajina to the Serbs, is where Borjan is from. These fears within the populations heavily derived from the last time Croatia was independent—during the Second World War, where Croatia was governed by the Ustaše.

The next part of Borjan’s mocking involves Croatian fans holding a banner of John Deere, a tractor manufacturing company, with the words “Knin 95” written on it, and the company’s slogan “Nothing Runs Like a Deere” changed to “Nothing Runs Like Borjan,” referring to his family’s forced displacement from Knin in 1995 by the Croatian Army.

Borjan was born and lived in Knin, Krajina’s self-proclaimed capital, for eight years until his family was forced to flee in 1995. These Serb-majority regions rejected Croatia’s independence, viewing themselves as Serbian, and wished to be united with the Serbian state. Because Croatia had numerous regions of significant Serbian majority, Serbs in both Serbia and Croatia were not willing to have Croatian independence occur so easily as these elections went on. Ethnic hatred between the two nations grew, and both sides eventually began to engage in force against one another. This gave rise to the 1991 Croatian War of Independence, with Croatia officially declaring independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991. UN intervention in 1992 led to an ultimately unsuccessful ceasefire, and the war went on until 1995, taking the lives of thousands of people on both sides throughout this period.

What is relevant for Borjan in this context is one of the most consequential events of the War: Operation Storm, also known as Oluja to the Serbs, in 1995. What Human Rights Watch describes as “an offensive [from the Croatian Army] to retake the Krajina region,” ethnically cleansing Serbs and forcing over 200,000 Serbs to flee Knin and other parts of Krajina, this operation forced Borjan and his family to leave birthplace Knin and resettle elsewhere, eventually settling in Canada. In the weeks following the offensive, many in Krajina continued to flee as the Croatian Army was “looting, burning, and killing” as “[the Croatian government] allowed it to continue with impunity.” Thousands of innocent civilians escaped via tractor in refugee convoys, as the Army slaughtered hundreds, giving them no choice but to leave, and destroyed Serbian buildings, churches, and homes. To this day, many of the ethnic Serbs in the region are unable to return to their homes and/or are unable to receive Croatian citizenship, with “only 3,000 of the estimated 200,000 Serb refugees” successfully returning. Thus, when observing the banner, “Knin 95” refers to his family’s departure from the city during Operation Storm, and “Nothing Runs Like a Borjan” is an inappropriate mention of the circumstances his family was forcefully put under.

In Croatian views, Operation Storm was a geopolitical success, as they were able to secure their borders and obtain the independence they had been looking for. This, though, came with the cost of the lives of many civilians, as hundreds of thousands were murdered or were forced to change their lives by leaving their home.

Borjan also revealed in a press conference after the match that his phone number was leaked to the public prior to the game, resulting in over 2,500 messages from Croatian fans who had sent him hate messages. He has reacted rather calmly, stating that those fans “should work on themselves and their families, because they obviously have some frustration, so they come here to vent.” He gave kudos to the Croatian players for behaving professionally. Croatian player Bruno Petkovic also supported Borjan in a press conference by explaining his experience of also being a target of hateful messages from oppositional fans.

Serbian-Croatian relations are evidently still strained, however, since the war, both countries have put in efforts to improve them. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and former Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic have met on multiple occasions to strengthen friendliness between the two countries, such as focusing on improving border security, minority rights, and searches for missing persons from the Yugoslav Wars. However, tensions still persist, with Croatian authorities frequently claiming that the Serbian government was meddled with its own internal affairs during the 1990s, and Serbian authorities contending that Croatia has not sufficiently acknowledged and apologized for their crimes in both World War II and the Yugoslav Wars. Both countries clearly had and continue to have deep grudges against one another.

Aside from FIFA’s fine on the Croatian Football Federation, no further action has been done. It is necessary to acknowledge these types of fan behavior, because events like the World Cup should be an opportunity for the world to come together. It is a sports competition, but it is also a symbolic competition of national identity which should be represented to an adequate extent, not crossing the lines of politics. Being one of the world’s most viewed live events, xenophobic behaviors such as these disrupt the beauty of the game, and promote the inclusion of global affairs into an event that should be centered around the celebration of soccer and national pride.

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