The Democratic ‘Hooligan’? Radical Democracy and Social Protest Amongst Football Fans in Croatia

We are currently witnessing ‘football fan tribes’[1] all over Europe being under ever-increasing scrutiny for their xenophobic, racist, homophobic, violent and/or anti-Semitic behaviour. Particularly recent incidents, such as the violent right-wing demonstrations of ‘Hooligans’ against ‘Islamists’ in Cologne, the death of a Spanish football fan after fights between rivalling sets of fans, the violent scenes in Warsaw during the country’s Independence day and the pitch invasion during the UEFA European Championship qualifying match between the national teams of Serbia and Albania, have only exacerbated the generally bad public image of ‘the hooligan’ as a hate-driven, violent re-offender causing nothing but terror and mayhem wherever (usually) he goes. Understandably, it has thus become more and more difficult to argue that in fact some of ‘their’ practices within the usual repertoire of actions (i.e. chants, banners, demonstrations, petitions, social media, etc.) might also be driven by a progressive impetus and are actually a legitimate form of social protest. As much as all these mentioned incidents and violence in general cannot be approved of, it can also be argued that Croatia and its organized football supporters represent a somewhat more curious and intriguing case. If one looks a bit more closely beyond the ritualized (symbolic and/or physical) violence, these social groups play a much more nuanced, ambiguous and ambivalent role in society than they are ascribed by most media outlets.

Football, fans and social protest

Just a couple of weeks ago the arguably biggest game in Croatian domestic football, the ‘eternal derby’ between Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split, should have taken place in Zagreb. However, minutes before the games, Hajduk players refused to enter the pitch in solidarity with some of their travelling supporters who were not allowed into the stadium, after which the entire set of Hajduk fans decided to boycott the game. Subsequently, the match was abandoned.

Later in the evening, the returning Hajduk team was greeted by more than 8,000 fans at their Poljud stadium in Split as heroes who stood up against the ‘tyranny of Zagreb’ and one man in particular, Zdravko Mamić; but more about him in a few moments. Even the initiative Zajedno za Dinamo (Together for Dinamo), a supporters’ organization of Dinamo Zagreb, expressed solidarity with their fiercest rivals. The media outcry in Croatia was spectacular. What had happened was described as a national shame, a disgrace soiling the sacredness of the eternal derby, the ‘streets’ and the ‘mob’ taking control over Croatian football, etc. The uproar was combined with demands for strict punishment and Thatcher-esque ‘law and order’ policies against football hooligans.

The following interpretations of the incident by club officials could not have been more mutually contradictory. The official Dinamo’s executive director, Tomislav Svetina, stated that the not-played ‘eternal derby’ was ‘one of the saddest moments of our football history.’ e made it clear that the incident was not just a coincidence that happened out of the blue, but rather an orchestrated ‘putsch attempt’ with the goal to ‘create chaos in Croatian football.’ At the same time, the Split based club stood by the narrative that their fans had been prohibited from entering the stadium because they had found themselves on a list of ‘unwanted supporters’ created by Dinamo Zagreb and/or the police. Whilst it would be perfectly legal to disallow fans with a criminal record to enter sporting events, some of the fans who were not allowed entry did not have such a record with the police. The chairman of Hajduk Split, Marin Brbić, explained that he was ‘proud’ of what had happened because Hajduk is a ‘people’s club’, a club of its members and fans and whose responsibility it is to stand by them as they always stand by the club. One might argue that the discrepancy in interpretation derives from the fact that the two clubs in question are run by diametrically opposite football philosophies. This is something I will come back to a bit later in the article.

The ostentatious outrage was partly due to the fact that the incident occurred only several days after a set of Croatian fans almost managed to suspend the UEFA European Championship qualifying match between the national teams of Italy and Croatia. By throwing dozens of flares on the San Siro pitch in Milano, the fans forced the referee to take the players off whilst they engaged in physical altercations with security forces and the police. For most of the national and international media, the incident illustrated yet another irrational and violent act by Croatian hooligans. However, very few asked ‘why’ these people had resorted to such drastic measures, particularly when taking into consideration that the Croatian team was actually playing very well. As pointed out by Aleksandar Holiga, whilst ‘there can be no justification for that kind of behaviour,’ it is important to note that it wasn’t just a random act of ‘mindless hooliganism,’ but an orchestrated ‘cry for attention.’ It was not as random as media outlets portrayed it, but rather a ‘desperate’ attempt to send Croatian football governing bodies a clear message of protest and, even more importantly, to try and create international awareness of the problems that have taken over Croatian (domestic) football.

"Flares and missiles are thrown on to the San Siro pitch as the Italy and Croatia players look on before the game was suspended" (Photo credit: AP/©)
“Flares and missiles are thrown on to the San Siro pitch as the Italy and Croatia players look on before the game was suspended” (Photo credit: AP/©)

That being said, one cannot portray the events in Milano as a legitimate protest without mentioning that, besides endangering other people’s lives by throwing flares and fighting with the police, the Croatian fans also engaged in even more problematic manifestations of dissent. The singing of ‘Za dom – spremni’ and ‘Ajmo Ustaše’ and the waving of several smaller posters with the letter ‘U’ – a symbol of the Ustaše, the fascist Croatian movement and the quisling Independent State of Croatia responsible for the mass murder of Serbs, Jews, Roma and Croatian anti-fascists during WWII – showed the ugly side of an infamous ritualized fan culture at games of Croatian national teams in various sports over the last 20 years. I will not go into detail here, since a lot has been written on the fascist nature of the ‘Za dom – spremni’ chant and the generally problematic Croatian fan culture, particularly in connection to the Josip Šimunić incident last year. The ambivalence in their repertoire of actions was described by Paul Stubbs and Andrew Hodges as ‘paradoxes of politization‘ of Croatian football fans, i.e. the combination of right-wing ideology with popular distrust of new elites and opposition to the crony nature of capitalism involved in football.

The increasingly mafia-esque nature of Croatian football

These two latest episodes of protest only represent the tipping point of an ongoing protest movement that has been forming for several years now. As mentioned, the bulk of criticism coming from football fans of various club affiliations, liberal and left-wing intellectuals and journalists, critical former athletes, etc., is often centred on a single and immensely controversial figure. Zdravko Mamić, the executive director of Dinamo Zagreb and ostensibly omnipotent maximo leader of Croatian football, has been frequently described as the master-puppeteer most responsible for the desolate and chaotic situation in the sport. Recently topping the list of the ten craziest chairmen in world football by a UK football fanzine, Mamić builds his influence on clever institutional design in Croatian football governing bodies and a spider-like network of crony, nepotistic relations with key figures within that field. Furthermore, he has been accused of running Dinamo as a private business, having beneficial private contracts with players, installing family members in significant club positions and using the club for money laundering.

"A Croatia fan holds a T-shirt with a portrait of Zdravko Mamic, the head of Dynamo Zagreb football club, during the match" (Photo credit: AFP/Getty/©)
“A Croatia fan holds a T-shirt with a portrait of Zdravko Mamic, the head of Dynamo Zagreb football club, during the match” (Photo credit: AFP/Getty/©)

Mamić often positions his persona as the bulwark against the victory of ‘street laws’ and the ‘angry mob.’ By exploiting a controversial section of the Croatian law that allows clubs to create lists of so-called ‘troublemakers’ on their own, Dinamo Zagreb has managed to silence critical voices from the stands wherefrom Mamić and other football officials would usually endure a severe amount of banter and defamation throughout each game. As mentioned before, hundreds of football fans have ended up on the so-called ‘black lists.’

The non-transparent practices and shady character of the football governing bodies have ultimately resulted in a deeply problematic decrease of spectators in the Croatian football stadia. The weekend the ‘eternal derby’ should have been played in Zagreb, only about 6,500 people visited five stadiums in the Croatian top division, which is an indication of how disappointed people are with the way football is being organized and run.

But why do football fans in Croatia oppose Mamić to such an extent? Well, first and foremost, Dinamo Zagreb is a citizens’ association that receives generous public funding and should hence have a mode of electing its leadership through a democratic process. Or at least that is the theory. In the case of Dinamo, the elections have been thus far limited to the members of the General Assembly, thereby de facto securing Zdravko Mamić unopposed re-election. At the same time, Hajduk Split is a joint-stock company with a majority of the shares owned by the city of Split, with club members having significant influence through the election of board members and the right to elect their leadership since 2011.

Whilst the protest may seem to be directed at one man, it is actually directed at what Mamić emblematises. Many of the organized football fans associate the following issues with ‘modern football’: the loss of ‘authentic’ identity through the introduction of ‘big business’ and shady tycoons into football, the increasing commercialization and handling of football as an entertainment business, the treatment of football fans as customers or in some cases as enemies, etc.

Democratic initiatives

In comparison to the political activism of organized football fans in Egypt during the Arab Spring or the Besiktas Istanbul fan club Çarşı during the Gezi protests, the social mobilization of football fans in Croatia at first hand seems more benign and driven by the urge to transform football rather than society. Yet, Croatian football fan tribes too have a history of dissent against authoritarianism and oppression. Probably the most well know episode was the opposition of the Dinamo Zagreb fan club, the Bad Blue Boys, against Croatia’s first democratically elected president, Franjo Tudjman, and his handling of the football club as his own personal toy. Whilst the setting on fire of the VIP lounge at their home stadium may have been the most radical step, their famous graffiti in Zagreb saying Da je sloboda i demokracija bio bi Dinamo a ne ‘Croatia’ (If there would be freedom and democracy, it would be Dinamo and not ‘Croatia’) became one of the iconic images emblematising the authoritarian character of Franjo Tudjman’s regime in the 1990s.

"If there would be freedom and democracy, it would be Dinamo and not ‘Croatia’" (Photo credit:
“If there would be freedom and democracy, it would be Dinamo and not ‘Croatia’” (Photo credit:

However, their contemporary engagement in experimenting with new (and old) forms of direct and participative democracy goes beyond ‘just’ football and can be identified as a laboratory of politics with wider social implications. Whilst media and public discourse predominantly focus on the manifestations and articulations of social protest within the stadia, they should go beyond ritualized idiosyncrasies and identify them as only one aspect of football fan mobilizations.

The initiative Zajedno za Dinamo (Together for Dinamo), a supporters’ organization led by more senior fans and aided by some former players, has engaged in a variety of democratising actions and practices raising public awareness of the state of Dinamo Zagreb. Their main fields of engagement are proactive media interventions, the initiation of petitions, as well as street demonstrations against Mamić, whilst they were particularly vocal against the introduction of the ‘law on sport’ in early 2013, which controversially allowed for the creation of the before mentioned ‘black lists.’ The central demand of their endeavours for more accountability was the inclusion of fans in the decision-making process at the club level, which is in line with the participatory model of ‘one member, one vote’ as applied by some clubs in the German Bundesliga and the Spanish Primera División. More than 50,000 people signed the petition initiated by Zajedno za Dinamo demanding fair and democratic elections and for the club to live up to its statute as a citizens’ association. The petition did not yield results.

Their demands for more club democracy were echoed in Split in 2011 when Hajduk fans created a similar initiative. Naš Hajduk (Our Hajduk) was created with a strong agenda of keeping the club in municipal hands in order not to jeopardise its local identity. Perhaps more importantly, the initiative has successfully established a code of good governance (kodex) for club officials on how to run the football club, more or less an ethical behavioural code. As argued by Loïc Tregoures, the kodex is more than just a model for good governance within football clubs, but also a model to fight corruption in other sectors of Croatian economic and social life. Another smaller, albeit even more radical fan group, the White Angels of NK Zagreb demand the introduction of direct democracy into their football club as well as an eradication of all private business interests in football.

These groups may not form a homogenous social movement, but rather have to be seen as an ideologically heterogeneous and loose collective. However, and this is particularly peculiar if one is aware of how deep the ritualized enmity between them is, they are a collective that is prepared to co-operate in their fight ‘against modern football.’ The weekend after the ‘eternal derby’ was cancelled, more than 30,000 protesters gathered in Split demanding not to be vilified as ‘hooligans,’ but to be taken seriously as a legitimate protest movement against the current state of Croatian football.  Their critique of bad governance in Croatian football should be understood as a popular critique of crony capitalism and neo-liberal side effects. As described by Stubbs and Hodges, these are widely perceived as the results of the first wave of privatization after 1991 during which its winners established their positions through ‘insider interests, extreme clientelism, nonmarket based financial sector allocation, and a close link of the state and the government with entrepreneurs and the financial sector.’

Protest along the waterfront in Split (Jakov Prkic / CROPIX)
Protest along the waterfront in Split (Jakov Prkic/CROPIX)

The latest round of social mobilization shows that organized football fans have grown as weary as ‘common people’ who enjoy football of the feeling that football has stopped being a people’s game, has stopped being ‘theirs.’ They demand a radical change and more participation, but whether or not they will succeed remains an open question. Their demands, however, are universal (at least in the football world) and were cleverly summed up by Ivan Lasić, who argued for a nationalisation of Croatian football and concluded his article by modifying the Yugoslav partisan motto: Smrt fašizmu, nogomet narodu! (Death to fascism, football to the people!)

[1] A term coined by the sociologist Srđan Vrcan


Cover photo credit: Cropix/Marko Todorić

Liked it? Take a second to support Balkanist on Patreon!
Dario Brentin

Dario Brentin is a PhD-candidate at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at University College London working on the topic of sport and national identity in post-socialist Croatia. He obtained his Mag. Phil. in Political Science and Eastern European History at the University of Vienna and is currently a University Assistant at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz. He just recently co-edited a special issue of the journal Südosteuropa entitled Football and Society. You can follow him on Twitter @dariobrentin.