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Political Football: Zvonimir Boban

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 19 December 2007

For his Political Football series, Simon Kuper asks: did Zvonimir Boban kick off the Balkans conflict?

Here's a scene from 1999: the car park at Milanello, AC Milan's training complex, on a foggy autumn's day. Zvonimir Boban, dressed in an outfit worth about as much as a Tranmere Rovers player, is getting into his people carrier for his commute home through the Lombardian countryside. The great midfielder looks every inch the materialist modern footballer.

He was, but he was also more than that. The Croatian nationalist may be the only footballer ever credited with kicking off a civil war. He was in at the beginning of the division of Yugoslavia in 1990. As we enter the last phase of that division, with Kosovo saying it will claim independence from Serbia within days, it's time to pick Boban for our political footballers' XI. He joins Neil Lennon, Diego Maradona and Walter Tull in midfield.

Romantic nationalist

Boban was born in the small Croatian town of Imotski, very near the Bosnian border, in the famously nationalist south of Croatia. He grew up in communist Yugoslavia, but as he reached adulthood the state was crumbling. With communism heading for the dustbin of history, many politicians turned to nationalism instead.

On a videotape of the match between Dynamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade, Boban is heard muttering: 'Where is the police? Where is the bloody police?'

Boban was a receptive customer, a romantic nationalist straight out of the nineteenth century, steeped in the Croat version of history. In fact he is an obsessive reader, who says he "grew up" on Chekhov and Dostoevsky, and before one Croatia-Italy game confessed to the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport that if the match were between Croatian and Italian literary classics instead of footballers, Italy would win hands down. "Dante, Petrach, Leopardi.... It wouldn't be a contest," he said.

His chance to enter Croatian myth came in Zagreb on 13 May, 1990. Yugoslavia was then still uneasily holding its various nationalities together. Boban's team Dynamo Zagreb, from the capital of Croatia, were playing the Serb team Red Star Belgrade in a league match that degenerated into hooliganism.

Then Boban spots a policeman beating up a Dynamo fan who has tripped. The player runs up and karate-kicks the policeman in the face (see video below).

Visiting Serb fans began tearing down the stadium, while Yugoslav police stood and watched. To Croats, the scene seemed an allegory of how Serbs had been privileged and they themselves disadvantaged in Yugoslavia. On a videotape of that day, Boban, Dynamo's captain, paces the athletics track, steaming. He mutters, "Where is the police? Where is the bloody police?"

A nation is born

According to one serious Croatian historian, that kick was "the symbol of the uprising against the 70-year Serb domination in Yugoslavia." Many Croats feel that with that kick their nation was born. Erik Brouwer, a Dutch writer who has written beautifully on the match, notes that when the victim of the kick was dredged up in 2005, he turned out to be not a Serb at all, but a Bosnian Muslim. The man said he "totally understood" Boban's act.

Soon after the kick Boban went off to the Serie A, but many Croat and Serb men of his age went to war. Football hooligans in particular volunteered for the armies of both sides. The psychopath Arkan, who had led Red Star's hooligans at the match in Zagreb, and became a brutal Serb paramilitary leader in the war, subsequently recalled: "After that game we immediately began to organize ourselves."

Email us your Political Football suggestions

Simon Kuper is in the process of nominating his Political Football First XI - 11 footballers whose lives have acquired a dimension outside the sport they play.

But we want to know who you would include. It doesn't have to be an entire team (although that would be fascinating) - just a player for whom life has meant more than a mansion in Belgravia and a fleet of 4x4s.

Email your suggestions to Channel 4 News by clicking here.

Myth kick

Later a statue of a group of soldiers was erected in front of Dynamo's ground, with a text beneath them saying: "To the fans of this club, who started the war with Serbia at this ground on May 13, 1990."

The claim is false. Politicians, not Boban, started the war. His kick - and the melee at the match - merely conveyed to many Yugoslav TV viewers that it was all up with their country, that the tensions between Serbia and Croatia would lead to war.

Football hardly ever changes anything, but it can act as an allegory for a society. Still, in time to come people will no doubt believe the plaque's message. Zarko Puhovski, a philosophy professor who showed it to me in Zagreb, grumbled: "You don't need a century for this to become myth."

Football hardly ever changes anything - but it can act as an allegory for a society.

After the wars, Boban starred in a Croatian side that came third at the World Cup of 1998. It was a team dredged in romantic nationalist rhetoric. Its coach, Miroslav Blazevic, told me: "On every occasion before a match I speak to the players of Croatia's problems, the suffering of all our patriots. Because in football, motivation is very important."

Boban bought it all. "Croatia is the reason I live," he declared in the documentary film The Last Yugoslavian Football Team. "I love my country as I love myself. I would die for Croatia." Of course he avoided doing so during the war, preferring Milanello instead.

Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times

Channel 4 News Political Football XI (so far)

Franz Beckenbauer
Midfield Walter Tull, Neil Lennon, Diego Maradona, Zvonomir Boban
Forwards Matthias Sindelar

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