- The Politics of Football in Yugoslavia: Sport, Nationalism and the State by Richard Mills
Richard Mills’s The Politics of Football in Yugoslavia traces the history of the troubled twentieth-century state through the lenses of competitive football. In over three hundred pages filled with excerpts, photographs, and a variety of sources, the author reinvents the narrative of Yugoslavia’s rise and fall through the examination of internal politics within its football institution(s). The reader is introduced to the various conflicts that plagued the multiethnic state and directly affected the sport: from the search for ideological unity during the Tito era, to the rising growth and outbreaks of nationalist sentiment toward the end. The monograph’s very premise is to underscore the importance of football as a worthy realm of study in the unification, maintenance, and, in some cases such as this one, the deconstruction processes of modern-age state entities.
Spanning nine chapters, the book can be divided into three sections. The first three chapters deal with the interwar period’s founding of the Yugoslav state and its domestic First Federal League, the game’s survival and place under the conditions of the Second World War, and the sport’s reconstruction in the immediate postwar years. Chapters 4 to 6 pertain to the sport’s growth and success under Josip Broz Tito’s rule, beginning with Yugoslavia’s split from Soviet centrality and coursing through the golden years of competition for the coveted League and Marshal Tito Cup titles. The monograph is rounded out by three chapters that detail the league’s final years, beginning with the watershed moment at Maksimir Stadium in May 1990, tracing the polarizing effect of diverging nationalist politics on the game, and capping off with the sport’s direct contribution to the Yugoslav wars that sealed the state’s fate.
Mills’s methodology is most noteworthy, as his approach to constructing a narrative involves taking the reader on a tour of the most important sites of Yugoslav football: the stadiums. He attempts to connect the present day with the past by exhibiting their modern-day functions, whether as artifacts from another time or continuous hosts of competition, and then traveling back in time to when these sites attained their fame. Photographs of stadiums are complemented by other snapshots from the past, such as the memorialization of fallen footballers in the fight against fascism during WWII. Falling back on some archival sources and a grandiose offering of Balkan publications, Mills’s research comes full circle to create an understanding of the crucial role football contributed to the construction of propaganda, myths, glory, and violence. Such themes are encountered throughout the book regardless of epoch, as monarchial, communist, and ethnonationalist forces sought to utilize the sport to consolidate their political power.
Chapter 4’s focus on the golden years provides two polar perspectives: the success and popularity of the domestic league and the various club scandals and origins of spectator hooliganism. Mills details the success of the national team and notable club teams in various foreign tournaments, where attaining prestige in the international community coincided with Tito’s attempt to amicably navigate Yugoslavia between the West and the Eastern bloc during the Cold War. He then turns to the league’s darker side, as fans began to adopt the edgy tactics of their English and South American counterparts. Here nationalist slogans begin [End Page 123] to reappear under the guise of loyalty to one’s club, drawing an immediate response from football authorities seeking to keep ethnic diversity locked down under a socialist system considered to be the glue in holding the multiethnic state together. An excellent example is the denunciation of Hajduk Split’s Torcida spectator group, which was accused of perpetuating chauvinistic behavior or “anti-Belgrade” sentiments (118). The latter is an interesting concept that Mills touches on throughout the book, inspiring the question of how powerful the symbolism behind Belgrade-centric institutions can truly be. If Croatians were...