Serbia: A country of many conflicts

The racial abuse directed at England Under-21s was shocking but is one of many problems in a country that needs help – not isolation

Some day, a Serbia team will manage to get through a World Cup without falling out with each other and will play attacking football of the sort of technical brilliance that will have viewers from across the globe cooing. Some day the world will love Serbia for their passing, their flair, their invention, their passion and their unapologetically cynical defending.

That day isn't coming any time soon.

Last Friday, at the Marakana in Belgrade, I saw something I'd never seen before. As Belgium's national anthem played, Serbia's players gently clapped. At the back of the stands, where fans had massed to keep out of the rain, the gesture was picked up and a ripple of welcoming applause ran around the ground. This was not just not booing the opposing anthem; this was self-consciously demonstrating respect for it. A young Serbia side had hammered Wales 6-1 in their previous qualifier and all the pre-game talk was of the immense promise of the Under-21s. For a moment, I allowed myself to think a new Serbia was emerging.

The position of the fans also meant the word "Delije", picked out in white seats among the red, was visible. Literally meaning "Strong Ones", they are Crvena Zvezda's ultras, from which the warlord Arkan drew his Tigers, the shock troops responsible for many of the atrocities of the Nineties civil war that led to the break up of Yugoslavia. If local mythology is to believed, their clashes with Croatian Dinamo Zagreb fans at a match in 1990 represented the first battle of the war. This is a world in which football, politics and conflict are unavoidably intertwined.

Four days later one of the Serb colleagues who had spoken so optimistically and enthusiastically of the future was weeping in frustration. Serbia had followed up a 3-0 defeat to Belgium with a 1-0 reverse in Macedonia, Chelsea defender and national team captain Branislav Ivanovic had fallen out with coach Sinisa Mihajlovic, the Under-21s had been eliminated from the European Championship by England and, worst of all, Serbia's name had been dragged through the mud again as that Under-21 play-off was marred by racist chanting and ended in a brawl.

Brawls, of course, happen when tensions run high and, while they clearly should not, there is no sense being sanctimonious about it. Football's usual disciplinary processes should deal with that. The real issue is the racism and specifically the Serbian Football Association's (FSS's) response. It is difficult to control all of the fans all of the time and if a couple of hundred behaved disgracefully, the FSS deserves sympathy and support in trying to track them down and punish them. After all, how many England fans engaged in racist chanting in the World Cup qualifier against Turkey in 2003? How many were involved in ripping up Lansdowne Road in 1995?

The problem is that the FSS has shifted immediately into defensive hostility (not helped, it must be said, by the self-righteousness of much of the English reaction, as though relieved that, after a year of seeing the unsavoury underbelly of our game revealed by the John Terry saga, we're delighted to accuse someone else of racism). First there was the statement that promised an investigation while insisting Danny Rose's "vulgar behaviour" was to blame and then the bizarre video released on YouTube showing Rose not having stones thrown at him and not being abused that lasted for all of six minutes – why only six? Does that mean he was abused for the other 84 (plus injury-time)?

Given the former Aston Villa striker Savo Milosevic, now the technical director of the FSS, apologised for the chanting, given the Serbian prime minister Ivan Dacic has ordered an investigation, given the monkey noises and chants of "Kill him! Kill him!" when Rose got the ball are clear on the video, the FSS seems out of step even within Serbia, presumably hoping a blanket denial will create doubt and mitigate any potential punishment.

It is far from alone, of course, in being a national federation taking the moral low ground to try to help its national side; it's just that to do it in a case of racism suggests a lack of awareness of how serious the issue is. Serbia has none of the western European sensitivity to anti-black racism, which is natural given it never had an African empire and never played any part in the slave trade, and that immigration to Serbia is minimal (and it's perfectly reasonable to ask why anti-Roma racism, for instance, seems to be taken less seriously in western Europe than anti-black racism. All racism, surely, is equally deplorable: the racisms to which western Europeans are more attuned cannot be given precedence, and nor can the FSS use what it perceives as a lack of action on anti-Roma racism to justify not pursuing anti-black racism.)

That is not to excuse what happened in Krusevac but it is to give it a context. Ethnicity, of course, is a pressing concern in the former Yugoslavia, as the current trial of the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic for war crimes against Bosnian Muslims demonstrates. In terms of immigration, the major tensions are with those of Albanian descent, something that crystallises in the issue of Kosovo. When Serbian hooligans forced the abandonment of the Euro 2012 qualifier against Italy in Genoa two years ago, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's arrival in Belgrade to discuss Kosovo was one of the three triggers, the other two being anger on the part of Crvena Zvezda ultras that their former goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic had joined Partizan and, most significantly, fury over the arrest of a major drug smuggler. That gives some indications of the problems facing the FSS: just to keep football running, it must tackle hooliganism, organised crime, match-fixing, corruption and endemic violence. It is not to suggest what happened in Krusevac was anything other than reprehensible, just to say that given that background it's unreasonable to expect tackling racism to be the FSS's top priority.

Serbia is an easy country to hate. It was the aggressor in the most recent war fought on European soil and at times it really does not help itself. Its claims of persecution are often self-deluding and self-serving but they are not wholly without basis. To take just one anecdotal example, when Anderlecht's Serbian striker Nenad Jestrovic was sent off following an altercation with Liverpool's Momo Sissoko in a Champions League match at Anfield in 2005, I remember a voice behind me in the press box saying, without any self-awareness or irony, "It's racial abuse. Bound to be – he's a Serb." Would that sentence be acceptable with any other ethnic marker? Of course not and it's not acceptable with Serbs. But then it turned out that the referee, Kim Milton Nielsen, had shown the red card for racial abuse (although Jestrovic denied it, saying he had only sworn).

That incident came to mind this week reading a despairing opinion column in the Serbian tabloid Blic that, after complaining about how the rest of Europe saw Serbia as "thugs living in the Stone Age", asked what else foreigners were meant to think when incidents such as that in Krusevac occur. Serbia needs sympathy and it needs help – which is not the same as saying that western Europe should arrogantly impose its values wholesale. Banning Serbia and forcing it further into isolation will only breed more ignorance, more introverted hostility. But if a new, more respectful, more tolerant age is to dawn, it must face up to its faults.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of 'Behind the Curtain: Football in Eastern Europe: Travels in Eastern European Football'

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