Why Serbia still cannot condemn racism
The town of Krusevac was chosen to host the match by the Serbian football association, the FSS. It knew the game would sell out, not because there was much enthusiasm in the rest of Serbia for the match, but because there is so little else to do in Krusevac.
Except for the local football team – owned by the son of the controversial tycoon Miroslav Miskovic – there is nothing much in the town: a few bars, two companies and lot of unemployed people.
If the events of the last week are surprising, that is why. Krusevac is not known to host football hooligans or any group of extremists. If it is known at all, for most Serbs, it is as a town you pass on the road to the ski resort at Kopaonik.
There was another reason for the football authorities not to expect trouble. Extremist fans in Serbia historically have had little interest in the national team – unlike in Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia or Montenegro. Instead they have gravitated to the Belgrade clubs – Red Star and Partizan.
However, what happened on Tuesday has left both teams facing disciplinary action from Fifa, the sport's international governing body. England's black players were subjected to racist abuse during the game, and the midfielder Danny Rose was also targeted with monkey chants after he was sent off at the final whistle for kicking the ball into the crowd.
Missiles were thrown at the players and violent scenes erupted after the match, with members of the Serbian team and coaching staff allegedly assaulting their English counterparts, including the assistant manager, Steve Wigley, and the goalkeeping coach, Martin Thomas.
At the root of the problem are the contradictions in Serbian society, faced as it is with the demands of EU membership which have demonstrated, once again, that Serbia's institutions still do not understand the meaning and importance of adopting international standards.
Here in Serbia, people like to think that we are unique in every way. We have our own culture, history and way of life. We have our sense of importance in world history. Nikola Tesla pioneered the use of alternating current in electricity and thus helped to create the 20th century as we know it.
Since the overthrow of our strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, the Butcher of the Balkans, in October 2000, we have stood at the entrance of the EU, asking ourselves what we need to do as a society to be part of a political grouping that we feel we belong to both geographically and culturally.
We've been taught by our leaders that the EU is something which belongs to us. That it is waiting for us and that it will make available billions of euros.
And from the beginning of that process, we have been told that to join the club we need to implement new ways of thinking and understanding.
We have been told: yes, we understand the importance of your history but you must try to cultivate your institutions and organise the life of your people; adjust your priorities to EU standards.
We have been told too we must confront our recent past: reconcile with our enemies from the region, arrest warlords, promote tolerance and understanding, and open institutions to marginalised groups and ethnic minorities.
We have to fight corruption and organised crime, implement civil control over the army and state security agencies, and try those involved in war crimes in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Football – and attitudes associated with football – cannot be exempted from the issues confronting us.
The only kind of support that the FSS cares about is the sort that is delivered in a thundering voice with continuous singing and chanting, because in that kind of atmosphere our team seems to have one more player on the pitch, and victory for the nation is secured.
That has meant a wide acceptance that we should do everything we can to win, even if it means intimidating and infuriating the opposing team with monkey chants – rationalised as acceptable because "this is only a football game".
It is precisely this that saw ordinary supporters – the normal men in Krusevac who went to the stadium with their children like fans everywhere in Europe – become "extremist" supporters. Because that is what has come to be regarded as normal.
The reality is that our institutions have never really wanted to confront the root causes of hooliganism and violence at sporting events, because extremist fans with nationalist attitudes became institutionalised in Serbian society in the 1990s.
The Delije – or "heroes" – the Red Star "ultras", were infamously co-opted under the command of Arkan, the former head of the supporters' club, into the paramilitary Tigers who carried out war crimes in Bosnia, including ethnic cleansing, at the behest of nationalist politicians and officials.
After the wars from the breakup of Yugoslavia were over, they became part of organised crime groups. Today they are a reservoir for all far-right organisations and political parties. Hooligan groups were involved in violence on the streets of Belgrade in 2004 when the mosque was set on fire. They were also at the forefront of the burning of the US embassy in Belgrade in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence.
It was members of these groups who in 2010 attacked the police who had tried to secure Belgrade's gay pride march.
But there is a second key issue. If our political institutions have not tried to deal with the phenomenon of football hooliganism, nor have they been able to confront the racism associated with it. Politicians and institutions do not condemn racism – and the related violence – because people will not applaud that. Condemning racism is not regarded as a popular position.
In part that is because – with so few immigrants in Serbia – racism is not seen as a social problem.
When there are initiatives by politicians that mention racism at sporting events, they have tended to be ineffective at changing the general attitude.
It is an attitude that, perhaps, explains why last week's events have been seen in a different way in Serbia to outside. Many Serbs might consider the supporters' behaviour in Krusevac as "provocation" but cannot see it as "racist".
It is a cultural xenophobia rooted in our recent history whose narrative says: we were forced to defend ourselves. We did not start it. We were drawn into a quarrel we did not want from the very beginning. Stop bullying us and you'll see that we are good and civilised people. But don't even try to mess with our pride.
It is how the young men who live for our major football clubs see themselves, as knights and keepers of Serbia's holy values – the Orthodox church, the land of Kosovo and Serbian pride.
How then to solve these issues? What is required, perhaps, is expertise from outside, from European countries like the UK which have been successful in countering racism in sport, to help us to change attitudes in different social groups, from primary schools to universities.
We've seen elsewhere that it has been possible to change the view of sports fans on the issue of racism.
But Serbia is fragile. What it needs is help. Not a new round of isolation.
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