Twelve years ago, I was up north for a few days visiting my family. At the time, my stepfather was a season ticket holder at St James’ Park: Newcastle had qualified for that season’s Champions League, and he asked me if I wanted to go to with him to watch their first home game in the competition against Željezničar Sarajevo. In my world, there’s only one real answer to that question, so I found myself on a balmy evening on Tyneside watching the Magpies cruise to a 4-0 victory, a significant build on the 1-0 lead they brought back from the Dinaric Alps. At the end of the game, the Geordie crowd turned en masse, looking up into the lofty section reserved for visitors at the juncture of the Milburn and Leazes stands, and lauched into a rapture of applause for the Bosnian supporters.
There’s an outside chance that Newcastle were simply congratulating the Sarajevan fans for making the best of what is surely one of the worst perspectives in European football, but I think it’s likely there was more to it than that. In 2002, the Bosnian War had been over for less than seven years, and the horrors of Srebenica and Tuzla still felt like a contemporary feature of the mediascape. Željezničar’s home city had, of course, been besieged for around four years, and their stadium in Grbavica had been right on the front lines of the conflict, with some of its terracing being destroyed by Bosnian Serb forces. The message being sent by the football supporters of Tyneside, surely, was that the very presence of their opponents at the top table of European competition was an achievement in itself. In fact, the applause was not being aimed solely at a specific set of football fans, but at the redemptive qualities of football itself.
Bosnia-Herzegovina’s debut in the World Cup this summer will see an enactment of the same principle writ large. Here’s the opening of their preview in the pages of the generally perspicacious World Soccer:
Whatever happens in Brazil, Bosnia-Herzegovina have already achieved all their goals. Ravaged by a war that brought it to its knees, the poorest country in Europe can take great pride in just having gained a place on the biggest stage of all.
If the people of the country truly feel this to be the case, then it would be churlish to disabuse them of that sense of pride. Indeed, the Bosnian player most familiar to English fans, Manchester City’s Edin Džeko, recently stated that qualification has ‘helped to bring smiles’ to the faces of his compatriots.* What I think does need to be interrogated is the degree to which Europe, or football, at large should be allowed a slice of the affective pie here: is the narrative that the historical nightmare of the Balkan Wars is brought to a close by sport not also a way of alleviating the continent-wide anxiety they provoked?
In my preview of Algeria, I called that country Europe’s ‘near abroad’. Bosnia, along with Albania and Kosovo, might be called in turn Europe’s ‘nearly abroad’, those parts of the continent which are regarded on the whole as being only physically of it. One might make a similar claim for some post-Soviet states, particularly Moldova and perhaps also Belarus, but the Muslim-majority nations of the Balkans are conceived of by many as an ‘inside-outside’ for reasons that are already implied in this sentence. The war in Bosnia, and the subsequent intervention over Kosovo, provoked a crisis of identity for Europe for a number of reasons, not all of which were to do with the unheimlich reappearance of armed conflict in a region of the world which had been essentially at peace since the end of the Greek Civil War in 1949. No, the logic of liberal intervention necessitated providing not only logistical, but military assistance to a largely Muslim population fighting a war, which some believed to be an existential one, against Orthodox Serb and, at times, Catholic Croat Christians. This set off some cognitive dissonance, as did – for a more left-wing demographic – the twin convictions that the Bosniaks (and later, the Kosovar Albanians) were the victims of the immediate conflict but that NATO’s involvement was made in geopolitical bad faith.
That the Balkan Wars are still a live issue was brought to the fore last month when terrible flooding on rivers such as the Bosna and the Sava unearthed vast numbers of landmines left behind by the fighting, thus hampering relief work and reactivating the traumas of the 1990s. In the context of the World Cup, the event seemed to have a grotesque metaphorical value, alerting us to the fragility of humanist redemption narratives. Over the last decade, there has been a boom in semi-literary writing which uses some form of cultural activity to represent the indomitability of an essential human spirit in the face of the degradations of political conflict. Think The Kite Runner, The Bookseller of Kabul and, of course, The Cellist of Sarajevo. There’s almost a format: The [dogged defender of activity prized by liberal humanism] of [war-ravaged city]. These texts, along with a vast number like them – I live in East Dulwich, which seems to have built a whole economy on shops selling books with pastelised dust-jacket illustrations of knitting groups in Kirkuk – are well-intentioned, but their core message is that politics is a transcendental perversion of human niceness, something which is inevitably bad where cultural activity is inevitably innocent and good.
In communicating this idea, the historical specificity of all conflicts is generalised out of existence, so the Taliban are transformed from products of an absolutely unique set of economic and political contingencies into supervillains who ban kite flying and lovely books. Likewise, the Bosnian conflict becomes a story about universal badness and goodness, rather than one about the way in which Western Europe and the United States stood back, and in many cases added fuel to the fire, as aggressive nationalism filled the vacuum left by communism as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, autonomous from Moscow under Tito and his successors, creaked and then fell apart through the 1980s. Counter to a reductive humanism, Milosevic, Radovan Karadžić and Franjo Tuđman were not out-of-control Bond villains, but the products of definable ideologies which flourished as communism floundered in Europe.
There is a danger that Bosnia-Herzegovina playing on the world stage will work in a similar way to this ahistorical logic, making the political realities of the war and its ongoing aftermath disappear – which is not the same thing as dealing with them – as football works its purifying magic. But this would be to ignore ongoing political divisions within the country’s football set-up. Although the Bosniak-Croat and Serb entities merged their federations at national level in 2002, creating a properly inclusive Premier League, the second tier is still split between B-H ‘proper’ and the Republika Srpska. The briefest glimpse at a map of the nation will show that this is not a matter of geographical convenience. That the national team mixes Serbs and Bosniaks – captain Zvjezdan Misimović is a Serb, albeit German-born, Džeko a Bosniak – is encouraging, but it continues to be dominated by the latter. Some Serbs born in what is now the RS – Borussia Dortmund’s Neven Subotić, for example – still take the opportunity to turn out for Serbia if the chance arises. What needs to be understood is that, where football can be a space for unity and reconciliation, it cannot be asked to bear the burden of the whole task of post-conflict reparation. While it’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction, Europe on the whole cannot take Bosnia-Herzegovina’s achievement in reaching Brazil as a simple feel-good story which allows us to forget about the nationalistic excess out of which the conflict developed in the first place.
* Thanks to SotB correspondent Muzz for the link to this interview.
Posted by Joe Kennedy