Croatia vs. Turkey: Remembering the Mostar Football Violence of 2008

As Croatia and Turkey face off at the European championship, Albinko Hasic takes a look back at the football violence that erupted in Mostar after the last time the two teams met in 2008. 

As the last seconds elapsed, Croatia’s Euro 2008 dreams were over. Falling like Icarus, only seconds before being on the precipice of greatness. Slaven Bilić went from player to player, trying to console them, as tears flowed down their cheeks like the many waterfalls in their native land. Turkey were through. The comeback sultans had done it again. In a quarter-final match for the ages, Croatia’s Ivan Klasnić scored in the 119th minute to put his team ahead. With only seconds until the final whistle, a long-ball from Turkish keeper Rüştü Reçber found Semih Şentürk who, somehow, put it in the back of the net past Stipe Pletikosa. A shaken Croatia were now forced into the stress of do-or-die penalty kicks. They never recovered from Şentürk’s last-gasp goal. It was over before it started.

At the very same moment in the very same city, wild celebrations in one half, and bitter despair in the other. Mostar, a deeply divided city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was both celebrating and mourning the moment. The city’s East side, comprised mostly of Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) lit up in crimson red from the flares, engulfed in smoke and joy. The city’s West side, comprised mostly of Bosnian Croats first reacted in shock, silence, and then, an outcry of anger. Taking to the streets, the two sides met resulting in what else, violence and destruction. The city paid dearly as people who claimed to love it above all else, made it the unlucky recipient of pent-up anger and aggression.

The ugly situation was reminiscent of a bloody time in the city, and indeed, the country’s history. In the 1990s, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s independence from Yugoslavia resulted in ethnic politics boiling over into ultra-nationalist sentiments, which led to conflict and even genocide. Mostar, the city known for its iconic 500-year old Stari Most (Old Bridge) couldn’t escape the violence. Its bridge, much like its identity, was destroyed, falling into the cold Neretva river that flowed beneath it. Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats, who had once helped each other build mosques and churches, intermarried, and were friends, became bitter enemies. Even footballers like Japan’s national team manager Vahid Halilhodzic found themselves engulfed in the violence, suffering gun shot wounds.

As the war came to an end, the social situation in Mostar never really changed. The old battle lines stood. “That is their part, this is ours,” became the universally understood sentiment among both sides.  A separate school system, teaching different versions of history was established, and the city’s football clubs stood aligned with ethnic politics. A Cold War-style atmosphere of suspicion and quiet resentment reigned supreme.

FK Velež Mostar, the celebrated Yugoslav Cup-winning club that always represented the “people,” became known as a Bosniak club, as Croats boycotted any sort of involvement with it. HŠK Zrinjski, a pre-socialist Yugoslav side, was resurrected and became the club of the city’s Croats, along with Velez’s former stadium, pod Bijelim Brijegom. Derbies between the two have almost always been bloody and a reason to act on bigoted and hateful sentiments and old scars. This season Zrinsjki won the title, while Velez have been relegated from top flight football. Today, tensions in Mostar are high, more than ever.

In 2008, the much-anticipated quarter-final between Croatia and Turkey was only another reason for violence and unwarranted destruction. It was always going to be that way, no matter what the result.  Someone had to be eliminated one way or another. For the Bosnian Croats, a reason to support their “mother” nation, and for Bosniaks, a chance to support a Muslim country — but more importantly, a spoiler for their neighbors. That hot summer night in Mostar, after the referee’s final whistle and Croatia’s elimination from the tournament, Mostar paid dearly: Countless shop windows broken, public objects destroyed, police men and women attacked and blood spilled. All over, football and national pride. Only neither side’s nation was playing.

Some eight years later, Turkey and Croatia meet in the European championship once more, as part of group stage play. As the minutes count down to the finish of the match, both sides of the city stare out at one another as suspiciously as ever. This is Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the citizens of the same country are not feverishly awaiting the result of their own country’s national team (which did not qualify) but the result of two foreign countries doing football battle hundreds of kilometers away. For the sake of the city of Mostar, perhaps a draw will be a win for everyone.

Cover photo credit: Reuters/Dado Ruvic

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Albinko Hasic

Albinko currently resides in the U.S working in the legal industry. Originally from Bosnia and Herzegovina, he studies history and also contributes as a freelance football writer across a variety of mediums including his own blog. He can be found on Twitter @albinkohasic.