In the midst of an otherwise uneventful weekend from Arsenal’s point of view, Friday’s match between Serbia and Croatia gives us a chance to examine the role of football in helping societies and countries address their rifts. Sadly, in many cases, we’ve seen how nationalism and racism draw their life’s blood from otherwise trivial sports. Friday, however, saw one of the late 20th century’s deepest and bloodiest conflicts played out in a football match that culminated in a poignant, optimistic embrace between two men who had once been bitter, ferocious rivals, an embrace that signifies both the power of football to foment hatred or to inspire reconciliation.
First, my own personal backstory. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s as a friend to a number of Croatian friends, boys whose fathers had left the former Yugoslavia to come to America for economic, if not political reasons. I was therefore fed a fairly steady diet of pro-Croatian propaganda. I believe there’s even a yearbook photo of me holding up a banner that says the rough equivalent of “Viva Croatia.” If I can find it, I’ll post it. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, that I met my first Serb. I was thankfully wise enough by then to listen to his version of history and to weigh what he said against what I had heard over the years. In what some may call the Rashomon effect, it was amazing to see how his version of events differed from the accounts of my Croat friends—an experience that convinced me, not for the last time, to consider each version of a story as just that: a version, an aspect of the truth, but not necessarily the truth itself. I came away convinced that each side had its grievances; each side had its crimes. I won’t wade too much further into the history for I am not enough of a historian to do so.
However, I am enough of one to know that whoever oversaw the draw for the World Cup qualifiers would have done a better job to have secretly separated Croatia and Serbia before the draw to ensure that they would not face each other, at least in the first round. If this strikes you as unfair machinations, consider the consequences to players and fans from two new countries still raw from a civil war still barely twenty years old. Thankfully, both teams agreed to keep away fans out to minimize hooliganism, riots, and worse. As it was, it didn’t take long for Croatia’s fans to start inflammatory chants—one of “Vukovar”, a reference to an ethnically Croatian town on the Serbian side of the border that was destroyed during the war, and a later chant that said, simply, “kill the Serbs.” Those in the stands, which likely included those old enough to remember, if not to have participated directly in the conflict, carry a heavy emotional burden—anger, guilt, pride, shame—that exemplifies the worst elements of sport’s power to inspire. In their case, they see sport not as a proxy for war, a calmer, more peaceful way to settle differences, but as a direct extension of it.
By contrast, the players, most of them too young to have experienced the traumas of war first-hand, went about the business of playing with subdued dignity, and all of them shook hands respectfully after the game—the Serbian players had even gone so far as to applaud Croatia’s national anthem. All of the attention, however, was on the two coaches. Croatia’s Igor Stimac and Serbia’s Sinisa Mihajlovic had gone head-to-head as players long ago, both getting sent off in the last Yugoslav Cup in 1991. Each man had become a symbol of nationalist pride, turning football matches between their teams into pitched political battles in which the final score might matter less than who injured whom. Despite their intense rivalry and nearly two decades of not speaking to each other, the two men shared an embrace at the end of the game that suggests that the animosity and tribalism that plunged the former Yugoslav republics into decades of bloodshed might someday soon be consigned to the annals of history—not to be forgotten by any means, but to be rued and remembered for what they were and for what they tell us about what we risk becoming when we forget our essential humanity. The ability of these two men, who had said some awful things about each other, to set aside generations of inherited hatred and years of violence tells us a lot about the power of sport to reconcile.
It’s a big part, in fact, in why sports exist in the first place. Why should tribes or nations send their best and brightest off to become cannon fodder when a simpler, less-destructive option is available? Whether it’s American Indians playing lacrosse or Celtic clans exchanging feats of strength, sports can go a long way to alleviate the strife that all too often exists between cultures, rivals, and even enemies. We may not love the international breaks, but it’s at times like this that it’s worth remembering why sports exist in the first place. Yes, they’re entertaining, and yes, we develop skills that once were important for survival—strategizing, hunting, throwing, etc.—but when two foes can meet up on a pitch, look each other in the eye, and actually hug, that says something pretty deep. It’s deeper than I can explain, so I’ll leave it at that. ‘Til next time.