As one of the best playmakers of modern European football, Zvonimir Boban is remembered for his elegant passes, excellent vision and impressive leadership for nine years representing Croatia and AC Milan.
But despite a great career on the field and his work as an administrator at FIFA and Milan, there is one moment that will always define him: the attack on a police officer on May 13, 1990, the day of the abandoned match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade that many see as an important point on the way to war in the former Yugoslavia.
These conflicts lasted ten years from 1991 and resulted in more than 100,000 deaths.
Thirty years have passed since Zvonimir Boban kicked a policeman in a tough game in 1990
Boban ran to the officer and flew through the air before kicking him in the back
The officer fell to the ground and it was a defining moment in Boban’s life
Boban’s clash was one of many on the field and in the stands. It meant 65 fans were prosecuted and hundreds injured, including 79 police officers.
It would be simplistic to say that these events led directly to the fighting that followed. But as Boban remembers, “That derby reflected everything that was going on in our society and everyday life. Yugoslavian football reflected Yugoslavia. ‘
Exactly 30 years have passed since the riot at Maksimir Stadium and the images are as powerful today as they were then. After a first scuffle, Boban turns and jumps through the air, beating the officer in the back.
Around them, supporters, police officers and players get caught in the chaos. At the time, Boban ruined his chances of playing for Yugoslavia during the 1990 World Cup – he was eventually banned for six months – but became a hero in Croatia for many.
Boban, who played for Dinamo Zagreb in 1990, was one of the players who remained on the pitch
Political tensions were high and the match is seen as one of the first steps towards the eventual Yugoslav war
“I swore to one of the police officers, he hit me and that’s how the fight started. As you can imagine, it was very difficult, but I think I would do the same thing again, ”said Boban.
“I saw that the police were only treating our (Dinamo’s) fans badly and I became increasingly frustrated when I thought about all the major injustices that had been done to people over the years, the fans and also us.”
“(Boban) said something to me, but I didn’t understand him,” Refik Ahmetovic, the police officer involved, recalls. “He kept looking at me and I could see in our eyes that we were about to collide.
“I looked over my right shoulder and saw that he was already in the air with his knees and arms together. He kicked me and hit me on the ground. ‘
Both Boban and Ahmetovic spoke in a documentary – A Kick For Independence – More Than A Game – that is as fascinating as it is horrifying. The matches between Dinamo, one of Croatia’s two main clubs, along with Hajduk Split, and Red Star, who were to become European champions in 1991, had always been very busy, given their relentless support and impressive teams.
Red Star Belgrade fans got into the home situation and chaos ensued when the seats were removed
A fire broke out behind one of the targets when the abandoned game surfaced in a riot
Given the political situation in the region in the late 1980s and early 1990s, what happened at Maksimir that day might come as no surprise.
The ties that had held Yugoslavia together since the end of World War II were fraying as the desire for independence grew in the different areas.
“It was clear that each [region of the former Yugoslavia] would like to become an independent state, ‘said goalkeeper Miralem Ibrahimovic of Dinamo. “Everyone understood that, except the politicians who thought otherwise.”
The following month, Croatia held its first free multiparty elections since 1938, and Franjo Tudjman was elected president in May.
The game itself made little sense, as Red Star had already sealed the league title. Still, 3,000 people took the night train from Belgrade to Zagreb to kick off late afternoon. Inevitably, there would be violence between Red Star’s ultras, the Delije and Dinamo’s Bad Blue Boys.
Many stories say that Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan, belonged to the Delije that day.
Arkan was commander of a notorious Serbian paramilitary force during the Yugoslav wars and was indicted in 1997 by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity. He was on Interpol’s most wanted list in the 1970s and 1980s and was murdered in a Belgrade hotel in 2000.
There were fighting all day in Zagreb and these continued in the stadium, where the police received heavy criticism. Despite the presence of the police, Red Star fans were able to find their way to the Dinamo section.
Boban rebelled when he saw a supporter being hit by an officer while on the field
“We came out to warm up to the Red Star supporters so we couldn’t miss what happened,” Ibrahimovic recalled. “The police did not respond adequately. They made us destroy our stadium. They let them leave their booth and go to another where our supporters were.
“It was chaos. There were stones and tear gas everywhere, even on the field. It became clear that we would not be able to start the match. ‘
The players were led to the tunnel, but some – including Boban – returned when they saw how serious things were getting.
“Those were not normal living conditions, let alone football,” said Vjekoslav Skrinjar, a former Dinamo midfielder. “We saw the police beat the supporters, so we just went back to try to help.”
There are people on the Croatian side who wonder if the police have deliberately not done enough to prevent Delije from reaching Dinamo supporters. What is beyond dispute is that once the Delije did that, the police could no longer control the situation.
‘[The fans] sang a lot of nationalistic songs, “said Ahmetovic. “They called the political leaders, Tudjman and [Slobodan] Milosevic [president of Serbia].
Although they had to be eliminated, some players remained on the field. And some have even called their fans to run on the field. Then the large-scale riots started and they could not be stopped anymore. ‘
The tensions in the stands eventually ran into the field as riot police attempted to regain control
In the Red Star that XI started that day, seven players also started the European Cup final in Bari the following year. Davor Suker and Boban were in the Dinamo line-up.
These were stars of their time: Dragan Stojkovic and Robert Prosinecki were European champions with Red Star, Boban with Milan and Suker with Real Madrid. Stojkovic, Prosinecki and Suker were part of the Yugoslavian team that reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 1990; Prosinecki and Suker helped Croatia finish third on France 98, where Suker was the top scorer. Few of their memories would have been as vivid as those at Maksimir Stadium on May 13, 1990.
For those debating the significance of this match on the way to war, Red Star’s European Cup-winning goalkeeper Stevan Stojanovic has an easy answer.
“There was certainly tension, but what happened was as a sign that Yugoslavia was about to break up,” he said. “It turned out to be a match that marked the beginning of the end for Yugoslavia.”