Stadium "Grbavica" after the war.
Stadium "Grbavica" after the war.

Shutting down the club… or not!

The influence of politics and ideology on football clubs

The relationship and influence of politics and ideologies in sports can be studied, using the example of the football club FK Željezničar from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their path from a small working-class club to becoming the most decorated club in the country  was accompanied by several political attempts to shut it down. Changes in the political systems, authorities and wars questioned its survival throughout the club’s history. Let’s explore the political and ideological instrumentalization of football in the regional context of Southeast Europe.

Letting the railway workers play

After the First World War, football clubs with national and religious overtones were formed in Sarajevo. Their  owners were generally rich capitalists influential  among the ruling elites. In such an atmosphere, the idea of forming a workers’ club was born, which would gather enthusiasts and football fans regardless of their national and religious affiliation and status in society. In the autumn of 1920, Dimitrije Dimitrijević, a railway employee in Sarajevo, suggested to his colleague, train driver Ludvig Leopold, that they should establish  a football club that would enable all railway workers to train and play. The idea was presented to other workers and soon after adopted.

In mid-July 1921, a request was submitted to the local football authorities to accept the newly formed football club “Željezničar” as a full member. Right at the time when the club management submitted its request, a government employee named Milorad Drašković was assassinated in an unrelated incident. However, the authorities connected the assassination with the proposed establishment of a worker’s sports club and decided to investigate the motives behind the establishment of said club. Their consideration was that the club could be(come) the basis for illegal communist activity. The people involved with “Željezničar” were subsequently forced to prove that they had nothing to do with the Communist Party or the mentioned event.

In order for the club to start its activities, the authorities requested that the club’s rulebook be drawn up with mandatory provisions stating that the club would not violate the state order, furthermore pay the association’s membership fee and play two matches according to official football rules without incident, after which the club would be recognized. On 19 September  1921, the association  finally announced that “Željezničar” had become a full member.

Monitored by the monarchy

In the following years, local  police regularly monitored the work of “Željezničar” and often broke into the club’s premises, searching and questioning players and management. The excuse was always that there was a possibility that illegal communist work was developing in the club and a coup against the state was being prepared. Every activity within the club had to be reported to the authorities.

The lack of its own football field or stadium caused “Željezničar” further financial problems. At that time, football fields and stadia were the property of bourgeois football clubs, which rented venues for training and matches. A practice that brought them extraordinary financial profit. In order to survive and reduce financial losses, “Željezničar” management decided during the 1930/1931 season to build its own venue. This would make the club more independent, as it could also make some money by renting it out. Ultimately, “Željezničar” had to wait another decade for its football stadium.

Going underground

Shortly later in April 1941, the Independent State of Croatia was established, a fascist ally of Nazi Germany, of which the city of Sarajevo was part of. A football league was soon  established that saw clubs forced to re-register under new ideological premises in their respective football association if they wanted to continue their work. Because “Željezničar” didn’t agree the club was disbanded, its property and equipment confiscated and allocated to other clubs that sided with the fascist authorities . During World War II, many members and even players of “Željezničar” joined the Yugoslav Partisan resistance forces, with many of them giving their lives for the liberation from fascist rule.

After the war

After the liberation, “Željezničar” resumed its work in June 1945. Carried by the idea of being a worker’s club whose members participated in Yugoslav Partisan movement, it had all the predispositions to develop its activity and become a successful club.

In its premiere season, “Željezničar” won the Republic championship which enabled them to participate in the First Federal League. Many expected that bright days were finally ahead , but dark clouds hung over it in the form of the new socialist authorities who wanted to create a new representative football team for Bosnia and Herzegovina. That team, ideally based in Sarajevo, would represent the entire republic and compete on a level with much better teams from Belgrade and Zagreb.

Soon after, football team “Torpedo” (which later changed its name to “Sarajevo”, a club that exists until today and can be considered as the main rival of “Željezničar” today) was formed. In order to achieve the set goals in May 1947, the Physical Culture Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina made a decision by which “Željezničar” was forced to give all its best players to “Torpedo”. After exerted pressure, seven players transferred to the newly formed club. The weakened “Željezničar” was relegated from the league and in the absence of manpower and other resources, it was expected that the club would be shut down. The relegation brought new problems. The Physical Federation of Yugoslavia did not want to register the club in the Second Federal League, but in the lower ranks. It seemed that everything was being done so that only one football team could survive in the city, which was founded directly by the communist power holders. Next year, the administration of “Sarajevo” proposed to merge “Željezničar” and “Sarajevo” which would definitively resulted in the  erasure of the former. However, the club rejected this proposal resolutely, arguing that “Željezničar” occupied an extremely large place in the hearts of railway men as well as other supporters. In this way, another attempt to shut down the club by the authorities was avoided.

Game Over for Socialist Yugoslavia

At the beginning of the 1990s, the political situation in Yugoslavia was aggravated by bad economic and national-political relations, which resulted in the secession of Slovenia and then Croatia. Clubs from those areas withdrew from the Yugoslav football. In March 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina embarked on a similar path. After a referendum, the independent Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was declared. Its football clubs, however, decided to play the Yugoslav league until the end of the season. On 5 April 1992, “Rad” from Belgrade was supposed to play a match in Sarajevo against “Željezničar”. The players came to the stadium and started warming up before the game, but around 2:30 p.m. shots were fired over the stadium. Everyone who happened to be on the field at that moment fled to the club premises. The match between “Željezničar” and “Rad” would never be played and also  meant the end of the competition for “Željezničar”.

In the further course of the war, the cult “Grbavica” stadium, the home of “Željezničar”, became the scene of war rather than sports events. The stadium was the first line of demarcation between the two armies. Already on 4 May 4 1992, the iconic stadium was set on fire. The stadium had been mined before and the western stand of the stadium, under which the club premises were located, was set on fire by constant firing and shelling. Together with the grandstand a total of 316 trophies were burned and disappeared.

War and new trials of survival

In addition to the fact that “Željezničar” lost its home, furthermore many player also had to leave, not just the club but also the country as a whole. . In the fire that engulfed the stadium on May 4, the club’s legal documentations were also burned giving rise to the question whether “Željezničar” even existed as a legal entity. During the war,  “Đerzelez” football club was founded. Historically, the clu had existed  from 1918 to 1941 and was supported by a political organization that represented Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Due to its nationalist activities, the club was disbanded in 1945 by the new socialist power holders. Given that the 1990s were also a period of restoration of Bosniak national identity, “Đerzelez” was re-established, with the goal to remind people of  an earlier time when Bosniaks gathered around this club. “Željezničar” was supposed to be merged with this newly founded club, but the club’s junior selection, players who would become clubs legends  after the war, along with a few more experienced people involved in  the club, opposed the re-shutdown of the club.

The boys gathered around “their” “Željezničar” and began to hold training sessions in halls of various schools. Most of them were members of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and during breaks between combat operations they gathered and trained. During the war, “Željezničar” participated in the first football championship of Bosnia and Herzegovina that was held in 1994. The club won the qualifying tournament, which enabled it to participate in the finals of the championship and win fourth place.

Continuing a successful tradition

Peace came with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement at the end of 1995. In the spring of the following year, the area of Sarajevo  called “Grbavica” was reintegrated in the city, which brought the club back to its stadium. Mined, remnants of shells and bullets, demolished, burned, overgrown with weeds. The fans nonetheless were happy because they returned home to “Željezničar” where their most beautiful football stories had been written for decades. Lovers of the club’s blue color managed to prepare the stadium for the first match at the stadium, which was held on 2 May 2 1996, against the city rival “Sarajevo”. The result of the match was secondary because  20,000 fans celebrated life, the end of the war, and the siege of the city. On the day, Alija Izetbegović, President of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, took the opening kick.

Thinking points

 Despite the difficult moments and their struggle for survival, “Željezničar” in its hundred-year history was the national champion eight times, won the cup six times and has three Super cup trophies in its showcases. To this, the semi-final of the UEFA Cup in the 1984/1985 season, should be added.

The story of this club can be compared to the story of the phoenix, which rises again after many bows and becomes stronger and better. It is clear that changes in government and ideologies lead to changes in the understanding of sports and that clubs that are not acceptable to the ideological characteristics of the new political groups will be shut down. However, why should a worker’s football club bother the authorities? The members of “Željezničar” did not commit illegal actions that would disrupt state order, which is why the club could not be terminated directly by the state’s decision. What are the indirect ways in which the state tries to make the work of the club more difficult, and can such activities lead to the closure of the sports team? Does the state remove responsibility from itself and avoids conflict with fans?

Find out more

You can find out more on the website of Željezničar, including a special article on the stadium here. Take a deeper dive into the role of the club and stadium in the 1990s conflict in the paper Pitch itself was no mans land by Richard Mills. Wikipedia also offers more background information. Blog 1921ba also provides a detailed background. Finally, footage related to this article can be viewed on YouTube here and here.

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Stadium "Grbavica" after the war.
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