THE MOSTAR DERBY ZRINJSKI – VELEZ

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My wish was to arrive in Mostar by train from Sarajevo, the line is dubbed by many as one of the most scenic train journeys in Europe. Approaching the ticket office in Sarajevo and buying a ticket proved challenging as the dialogue went something like this:

ME: Hi, can I book 1 ticket to Mostar please?

TICKET OFFICE CLERK: ??? (looks at me motionless with a blank expression on her boat race)

ME: 1 ticket to Mostar please?

TICKET OFFICE CLERK: NO

ME: Errr OK, No tickets available?

TICKET OFFICE CLERK: No Train, No Train Mostar, No

I retreated slightly bewildered and realised that it would have to be a 2.5 hour journey by bus instead. Later i found out that due to engineering works the line had been closed for the past 3 months and indeed there were no trains to any destination, quite why there was any work for the clerk in the ticket office is beyond me but nevertheless i hastily made my way to the bus station to purchase a ticket.

Thankfully the buying process was a lot easier, i even got someone who spoke English. The journey itself passed rolling fields, steep climbs and sharp corners all with what seemed like a 200ft drop. This made my heart race faster than a village stream! I’m not great on long distance bus journeys, especially on mountainous terrain, so when i finally arrived in Mostar it was with a sense of relief.  After spending 4 days in Sarajevo it was like night and day, complete different ends of the cultural spectrum. Things were modern and there was a bit of a spring in the step of the people in the street.

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It’s an extremely picturesque and pretty city, hard to believe it was the most bombed city during the war with air strikes targeting many of the important buildings and structures including the Old Bridge, a cultural and spiritual icon called Strai Most built in 1558. I had two reasons to visit, firstly like Sarajevo, i had visited the city before in 1988 before the civil war and I was eager to retrace my steps and secondly i was there for football.

I had always fancied the Mostar derby having read about it a few times on the internet, it’s a derby that is extremely complex and deep rooted with sectarianism, political and religious tensions. It’s a fascinating story from such a small city that is divided not just on matchday but in everyday life.

The two clubs will always contest who were the original club of the City. Velez claim to be the oldest team in Mostar having been founded in 1922 and are from the Bosniak Muslim east side of the city. Over the Strai Most on the west side are Zrinjski, whose fans are predominantly Croatian. They claim they were first being founded in 1905.  Zrinjski were then banned playing football by the Yugoslav authorities for competing in the Croatian League and all their club records were destroyed. When war broke out in 1992 the city was split, Croats in the West and Bosniaks in the East with the Stari Most being the only route between the two sides of the Neretva River. Two years later Zrinjski were formed and they took up residence at the Pod Bijelim Brijegom football stadium which had previously belonged to Velez. This outraged Velez as it had always been their home stadium but being located in the West side of the City, they had no choice and were forced into finding a new home on the edge of the city at the Vrapcici Stadium. So throw all this into a cauldron and mix it with a dose of football you get an extreme powder keg of views and emotions which is why i found it so interesting.

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I had arrived the day before the big game and decided that morning to make my way to the stadium to see if I could get tickets. Zrinjski were the home team with the game taking place at the Pod Brijelim Brijegom Stadion. No office was open but the gate was so I walked in, took some photos and looked around the adjoining neighbourhood. The stadium is located on a slight hill overlooking the City, i climbed to the top of the hill and got a fine view of the stadium below, the city and the surrounding countyside. All this exercise was making me thirsty so i decided to stop for a beer and found a football pub called Shankly’s tucked away in the back streets in the centre. It’s a shrine to Liverpool FC with memorabilia all over the walls, it was luxuriously furnished and even had a beer menu with over 20 different beers from around the world on offer. I resisted the temptation to stay for more than one and made my way to the Old Town.

The Old Town was particularly interesting just as i remembered. I wandered through the cobbled streets towards the Stari Most, it was full of tourists and a lot busier than almost 30 years ago. Dotted at various parts across the city are white crosses marking a soldier that had been killed which was a stark reminder that the war was as recent as 21 years ago. With the mid afternoon sun beating down I decided to stop for something to eat and it was there that i discovered Mostarski Pivo the local brew which was cheap at UK prices (90p). It is lightly coloured, delicately flavoured and has a sharp hoppy aftertaste. It was just the tonic after all that walking. I drank a few more and watched the sunset over the old bridge, it was the perfect ending to an interesting day.

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Matchday!!!! and a game that I had been looking forward to for a while. I had asked in the morning at the hotel I was staying at about tickets for the game. I was told that I could buy tickets before the match. “It will never sell out” I was told.

From my research I had heard that there was an Ultras Pub so headed for there and upon reaching the address the derby party was in full swing. Loud local music could be heard from across the street and it was only 10.30am! It’s a small dark pub with black painted walls and the only tables and chairs were sparsely dotted along one wall. The windows were wide open and most of the clientele were happy to sit on the window ledge looking outside and singing loudly to all passers by.

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There were a few exceedingly unsavoury characters so I decided to move on after just one beer. As I was waiting to cross the street a car slowly drove past with a Velez sign on the window which was spotted by the “window ledgers”. Now I don’t speak Croatian very well but I know that they were at best not pleased. Some loud shouting and a glass was thrown in the direction of the car, full pace ahead I made it safely to the row of bars outside the stadium. I picked a bar that was to give me the best vantage point of the crowd assembling, the movements of the police and watching to see if there was any further “incidents”. It was a great position a row of about 6 or 7 bars all leading up the hill to the stadium. The atmosphere was good with lots of home fans with scarfs and with no sign of trouble despite a heavy police presence.

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From my walkabout the previous day I had deduced that one side of the stadium was reserved for the Zrinjski Ultras (TRIBUNI STAJANIE) and the other side housed the rest of the home fans and a section for the away fans. Tickets on public sale were only available for the home section so that was what i paid for.

The teams entered the field with loud applause from both sides of the stadium. From my position i could not see any away fans and found this a little strange. I moved position and saw them entering eventually after 20 minutes played, whether this was intentional or not i will never know but before they had time to settle they were attacked in a cruel and unavoidable way in as craziest a method i have ever seen.

I am to this day not sure what was propelled across the field but it looked like some sort of projected missile, a flare maybe or fire cracker but the noise was deafening. It was shot about 30 feet into the air…WHOOOSSH was the noise. It came from the STAJANIE and was a direct hit into the small visitor’s area sending them fleeing either side to escape. It was a dangerous, cruel and callous action across a field of players. Mindless of the damage that it could cause, however, the precision would impress any a military chief.

This of course infuriated the away fans who began ripping the seats out of the area and began throwing them into the downstairs section where supporters including children ran for their lives. My initial thoughts about this being a high risk game were confounded and lucky that i had chosen the safe side of the stadium. Only Balkans football gives you this craziness, not to be found anywhere else in Europe, a unique selling factor? Having witnessed a full scale riot in Belgrade which lasted a full 40 minutes between Red Star and Partizan fans and Polish violence in Plock, bizarrely i was getting immune to this. The atmosphere inside the stadium was turning nasty and heated and credit to the players on the field as they played on amidst the shenanigans off the field. The police moved in around the STAJANIE and circled the perimeter fencing hinting more trouble was about to erupt. Thankfully it did not and all remained calm until the half time whistle.

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The football was not pretty and another flashpoint occurred midway through the second half. Velez fans, obviously ran out of seats so began throwing wave upon wave of lit flares onto the seated section below. Stupid and naïve for the ones still sitting there, i thought, as if the earlier incident was not enough to convince them to move. Loud whistles from the STAJANIE echoed around the stadium. Never had i been so happy that a game finished 0-0. It was wild, crazy and eventful off the field but relatively flat on the field.

For those who have travelled through the Balkans for any great length of time will know what kind people they are and it was a surprise to me when i returned to my hotel and the manager was there waiting to greet my return. “How was the game? Sit down….here’s a beer”. 7 beers later and he brought out a bottle of homemade Rakija. Depsite our slight language barrier he was the most gracious host, we sat drinking Rakija and talked about football, politics, his country, my country, woman and life in general. It was not an early night i can assure you!

Mostar is a truly wonderful city full of culture, beautiful scenery and wonderful people. They take pride in their city and it left me with an impression that i would return some day to sample those qualities once more. Don’t be put off by the negative reports and images go and see and experience it for yourself.

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