Boban's mythical kick murals (Photo: Dario Brentin)
Boban's mythical kick murals (Photo: Dario Brentin)

Did a game of football start a war?

Teaching historical causality using the 1990 “Maksimir riots”

When do conflicts start? And what causes them? The biggest questions historians face revolve around historical causality: we are often unsure of the exact factors explaining the way events transpired.

It can be even harder to teach your students this ambivalence, and show them that there can be multiple plausible explanations of major historical developments. This is especially true when the current debate is dominated by heavily competing narratives, possibly evoking emotional responses from your students.

In the vortex of conflict

Historian Dario Brentin tackles the concept of historical causality in his learning activity “A game of football that started a war?”, using the example of the riots at Maksimir football stadium in Zagreb and their supposed role in the dissolution of Yugoslavia. On May 13th 1990, the Croat nationalist fanbase of Dinamo Zagreb violently clashed with the Serbian militant followers of the visiting Red Star Belgrade. Many Croats regarded the riots as the inevitable precursor to the violent clash between the nations soon after, but this has been contested by historians. Beside teaching students the difference between cause and consequence, the learning activity also serves to introduce students to the topic of the Yugoslav wars and excellently showcases how football rivalries were interwoven with the ethnic hostilities in the region. By assessing a news article and debating opposing positions of the debate, students learn to understand historical causality and formulate arguments for different positions.

As Dario Brentin himself puts it in our earlier article: “The ‘Maksimir riots” present a unique opportunity to introduce students and pupils to the wider political context of late socialist Yugoslavia through the history of a football game.”

Debating the past

The activity can be done within a single lesson of 50 minutes and is best suited for more advanced students (ages 16-18). The learning activity starts off with an introduction to the Yugoslav Wars and the Maksimir riots by the teacher, aided by the video and PowerPoint presentation provided within the Teacher Materials. Afterwards, the students break out in groups and study a news article on the topic. Aside from the English article, the activity provides suitable substitutions in German, French, Spanish, Italian and Dutch. Divided in two groups, students will discuss and prepare arguments for two opposing viewpoints on the Maksimir riots: one group will argue the riots were the catalyst for the eventual Yugoslav wars, while the other group will argue they were a mere symptom of wider political and social conflict. Not only will students learn valuable lessons on Yugoslav history and causality, they will also train their analytical, presenting, and debating skills. 

While the lesson plan is originally conceptualised for lessons taking place in the non-(post)Yugoslav space, it can be expanded within the wider curriculum that deals with the period of the 1990s and in particular the Yugoslav wars of dissolution when taught in the post-Yugoslav space (i.e. Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Northern Macedonia).

Respecting different viewpoints

Even though we may never determine the exact causes and consequences of historical events, this learning activity engages students to think about these debates in an innovative way, while also honing several useful skills. But above all, by learning to understand different historical causes for watershed events such as the Yugoslav Wars, students will be able to value different points of view. As students learn to respect other people’s perspectives, we will help them grow to become open-minded and socially inclusive citizens.

Find out more

Access the educational resource “A game of football that started a war?” on Historiana.

Want to know more about the Maksimir riots? Click here to read the article Dario Brentin wrote to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Maksimir riots on May 13th, 2020. An extended version of this article is available on The Balkanist.

Read more on Historiana website

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Boban's mythical kick murals (Photo: Dario Brentin)
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