“Mi Igramo Nogomet, Nogomet Igra Nas!”
American Eng. “We Play Football; Football Plays Us!”

Welcome to a world where entertainment media ideologies replace state consciousness. Here leisure serves the purpose of national identification, creating a sense of belonging through beer and skittles. We construct our sense of self through distraction and displacement. Patterns of identification result in collective game behavior that takes on an overt political dimension. This is the world of soccer — or as most of the world calls it — football.*1 

Football is the identifying sport of nations worldwide. Football matches provide a field for opponents to meet, measuring strength within set rules of the game. Projected onto the green of the stadium are the cultural, social and political differences between the opponents. Such is the power of these mythic encounters that some football matches have been said to have changed the world.*2

In the area of Southeastern Europe, one such match stands out. Coinciding with local elections in May 1990, it foreshadowed the eventual dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia through civil war. The federation was a union of the South Slavic republics. The football match in question became a precursor to the bloody conflicts between them, conflicts that were to envelop the region through the remainder of the decade.

On the day of the fatal football match, Sunday, the 13th, 1990, Dinamo met Crvena Zvezda and the ultra fans of the teams clashed, first on the streets and then at Zagreb’s Maksimir football stadium. The stadium had been a site of nationalist and ideological conflicts dating to the second world war.*3 Sack and Suster’s (2000) study of the match describes the two ultra fan clubs as paramilitary organizations whose political agenda included provoking a confrontation.*4 The nationally biased police became a part of the conflict.

Representing opposing political interests, the 1990 football riot ultimately involved special forces who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse bloody rioters in a stadium set ablaze. The destruction stood in stark contrast to the unity that built the infrastructure of the country through labor activities. Gone was a culture of cooperation between the republics of the federation, a culture once perpetuated by slogans such as “Mi Gradimo Prugu, Pruga Gradi Nas!”*5

In 1990, echoes of the bitter conflict on the football field played out on television screens across the country. Back-lit images of a player striking a police officer. The police clobbering fans. Images of a conflict, blow by blow. Families huddled in front of the TV, witnessing the early signs of violence that would characterize the unraveling of the federation.

Until that day, the TV played friendly football matches every Sunday. Kids played football on the pavement in the afternoons. You could hear them cheer. Occasionally someone scraped a knee, bloodying the pavement. Shedding no tears, the kids were oblivious to the slow and certain turning of the political tides. It was springtime when Dinamo played Crvena Zvezda in Maksimir in 1990. That afternoon, the only thing that kids across the country could do was to watch the bloody screen. That Sunday, football played us.


  1. I use the English term “football” to describe the game that is often referred to in the United States as “soccer.” Rugby, soccer, and American football all evolved from the same sport. Tracing the etymology of the it’s name is, in of itself, an exercise in national pride.
  2. Montague, J. (2011, January 13). Five games that changed the world. CNN. Retrieved November 9, 2022, from http://edition.cnn.com/2011/SPORT/football/01/05/iraq.asia.six.games/index.html
  3. Zorić, S. (2010, May 12). Otkrivanje Nepoznatog zagreba. e-novine.com. Retrieved November 9, 2022, from https://web.archive.org/web/20121119052419/http://www.e-novine.com/region/region-hrvatska/37358-Otkrivanje-nepoznatog-Zagreba.html
  4. Howard L. Nixon, “Sport, Politics and the Future,” in Sport in a Changing World (New York: routledge, 2016).
  5. American Eng. “We Build The Tracks, The Tracks Build Us!”

(The word “Tracks” refers to railroad tracks.)

The slogan was used to evoke a sense of pride. It originated among young people who participated in labor actions sponsored by the federation after the second world war. Youth work actions were used to build state infrastructure, most notably roads and railways. The activities had some similarities to the New Deal’s WPP actions in the United States. In addition to working, participants took part in educational activities that helped raise literacy and train workers. Many participants came from a farming background. They were trained to take on industrial jobs. Culturally, the actions were regarded as a right of passage that embodied the state ideals. Participants would often form lifelong bonds with other workers who came from republics across the federation.