The European Championships of 1992 threw up one of international football’s great quirks (and pub quiz questions) when Denmark won the tournament despite not actually qualifying for it. Told they were competing with less than two weeks’ notice, the Danes made the short trip to neighbouring Sweden and sensationally defeated France, the Netherlands and Germany on their way to securing the cup. On the other side of Europe, the former republic of Yugoslavia found itself in the midst of the war that went on to claim an estimated 140,000 lives. In his excellently researched book, Chris Etchingham examines the role football had in stoking national tensions, but also how it has worked as a tool of reconciliation since the end of the conflict.
The collapse of Yugoslavia can be traced to the death of Josip Tito in 1980, an event that occurred during a match between two of the country’s biggest clubs; Hajduk Split of Croatia and Red Star Belgrade of Serbia. When he was informed of what had happened, the referee abandoned the game in the first half as many of those in the stands broke down in tears. Ten years later, another Red Star away game in Croatia, this time at Dinamo Zagreb, showed how much the mood had changed. A skirmish between supporters quickly became an all-out riot, with Dinamo fans parading both Croatian flags and Yugoslavian flags with the star torn out. Nationalist sentiment was clear, and by September 1991 the Croatian War of Independence had begun. As the fighting progressed, the supporters of Red Star Belgrade’s main supporters group, the Delije, had a dark role to play. As Etchingham explains, their leader, Željko Ražnatović (better known as Arkan), set up the Serb Volunteer Guard, who massacred scores of innocent civilians in their genocidal campaign.
Ironically, in the early years of the conflict, Red Star Belgrade achieved their greatest on-pitch success. Etchingham dedicates a chapter to the achievements of Yugoslav clubs in Europe, the main focus naturally being Red Star’s European Cup triumph against a star-studded Marseille side in 1991. Etchingham includes an interview with Dr Richard Mills, Associate Professor in Modern European History at the University of East Anglia, to explain the impact of that famous victory on Serbia and Yugoslavia as a whole. The team itself was multi-ethnic, featuring players from the likes of Croatia, Montenegro and Macedonia as well as Serbia. However, Serb nationalists also looked to take the opportunity to hijack sporting success for their own ends. Throughout Emancipation for Goalposts, Etchingham includes a variety of fascinating interviews which add great insight to his own extensive research.
Later on in the book, Etchingham explores the tensions that are continuing to fester in Kosovo, with clashes on the football pitch adding to this at times. A Euro 2016 qualifier between Serbia and Albania in October 2014 was infamously abandoned after a drone carrying an Albanian nationalist flag was piloted over the stadium, sparking a riot. Four years later at the World Cup, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, both of Albanian-Kosovan heritage, celebrated with an Albanian nationalist hand gesture after scoring against Serbia in a 2-1 win. Kosovo were granted FIFA and UEFA membership in 2016 despite Serbia still failing to recognise the country’s independence, and the two countries are therefore kept apart in draws for qualifying tournaments. Etchingham also explores how the breakaway nations of the former Republic of Yugoslavia have been doing in a football context since securing independence, with Croatia having been particularly successful, of course, reaching the World Cup Final in 2018.
Having examined some of the horrors of war in Emancipation for Goalposts, Etchingham finishes with an uplifting account of how football is being used by a programme called Open Fun Football Schools (OFFS) to bring together children of different ethnicities. The work of Anders Levinsen and the Cross Cultures Project Association (CCPA) carries a message of hope for the future, and is the perfect way for Etchingham to finish what is a painstakingly researched and deeply informative read.
About Johnnie Lowery
Johnnie is a football writer. His first book, Six Added Minutes, was written while he was at university and published in November 2019. With strong reviews from the likes of Jeremy Vine and Jacqui Oatley, it is selling well online. His second book, Match Fit, explores mental health in football. It looks to raise mental health awareness and is inspired by Lowery’s own struggles as a teenager, when he did not understand why he was feeling down.