Montenegro Faces Hard Choices Over Sports Violence


Analysis
13 Apr 15

Montenegro Faces Hard Choices Over Sports Violence

Humiliated by the antics of football fans at the March qualifier, calls are growing for Montenegro to deal harshly with violence that is undermining both the sport and the national image.

Dusica Tomovic
BIRN

Podgorica

Thousands of Montenegrin football fans saluted the Russian national anthem at the start of the Euro 2016 Group G qualifier between Russia and Montenegro in Podgorica on March 27.

Minutes later, Montenegrin fans hit a Russian goalkeeper with a flare, as a result of which he was taken to hospital with serious injuries. Igor Akinfeev suffered concussion to the brain and a burn to the neck as a result of this act of hooliganism.

German referee Deniz Aytekin eventually called off the match after fans several times endangered the safety of players by throwing other objects onto the pitch, including coins, a lighter and according to some reports, a knife.

After a match that some media outlets dramatically called “the end of football as a civilized sport in Montenegro”, the Montenegrin sports authorities were left facing a dilemma about how to deal with the wave of violence plaguing sporting events.

Adding to a sense of embarrassment about the state of fooball in Montenegro, a football association official, Zoran Lemajic, admitted that some fans were being paid – bribed might be more accurate – to “refrain from causing incidents.

“We have been financially helping, or rather paying, a small group of so-called supporters of Montenegro for years, not to chanting derogatory slogans… to insult players… and to be polite,” Lemajic said in an open letter issued after the match.

The national football association, first division clubs, and other sporting organizations are now demanding extra measures to help police curb this violence, including nationwide life bans for repeat offenders.

Another possible measure being considered is to detain known hooligans on their way to the matches, to stop these troublemakers from getting into stadiums.

According to official data, over the past seven years, only 13 persons have received court injunctions banning them from entering the stadiums, out of a much larger total of 468 who police marked out as ringleaders in sporting violence.

The head of the Montenegrin Olympic Committee, Dusan Simonovic, said sport in Montenegro had become hostage to those who wrongly called themselves fans.

He said that only a more rigorous application of the law can solve the problem, “While it is not too late”.

A prominent sports journalist and former football federation official, Aleksandar Vuckovic, said only a strict ban on hooligans entering stadiums can solve the troubles that sport is facing.

While more developed countries had solved the problem of sports-related violence long ago, this had not occurred in the Balkans, he observed.

Montenegro is certainly not the only country in the region facing this problem, which dates back years in the region.

The old multinational Yugoslav league, with its nationalist rivalries that communism could never fully suppress, was consistently marred by hooligan violence.

Throughout the 1980s, as Yugoslavia began to crumble, football stands became arenas for nationalists to recruit followers and battle it out with one another.

Sport, nationalism and crime became especially closely contected in Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, when the Belgrade regime used footballs fan clubs to recuit paramilitaries for its expansionist wars.

Zelijko Raznatovic “Arkan”, a notorious criminal who was assassinated in January 2000, helped the Serbian regime channel and direct the violence of football hooligans.

Hundreds of hard-core football fans joined his disciplined, clean-shaven mobile killing squads in the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s.

Serbian football remains its violent side to this day. Last October, a qualifier between Serbia and Albania in Belgrade was called off in the 44th minute after clashes erupted on the pitch when a drone appeared carrying a flag bearing a map of “Greater Albania”.

Elesewhere in the region, the Croatian Football Federation was fined 80,000 euro after Croatian hooligans in Milan’s San Siro stadium in November shouted racist slogans, threw flares onto the pitch and clashed with police.

Football and national identity have long been interconnected in Montenegro as well, especially after the country separated from Serbia and regained state independence in 2006.

The international success of the national team is seen as providing evidence that a country with a population of only 620,000 can be an important factor in the region.

Top state officials regularly attend international matches played by the national team.

Less than 24 hours ahead of the scandalous scenes on the pitch with Russia, Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic hailed sport as the “most prestigious activity in the country”.

After a two-week disciplinary investigation into the abandoned qualifier with Russia, UEFA awarded Russia a 3-0 win over Montenegro.

UEFA ordered Montenegro to play its next home qualifier in an empty stadium. The football federation was also fined 50,000 euro. Russia was also fined 25,000 euro for improper conduct by some its own supporters.

Vuckovic recalled that the Montenegrin Football Association had already paid more than 120,000 euro in fines for the bad behaviour of fans at the qualifiers for Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup.

During those matches fireworks, flares, broken chairs, mobile phones, metal bars, coins fell to the ground and hit players from Poland, San Marino, the Czech Republic and England.

“The fact that the Montenegrin football was fined by UEFA was the least of the problems; those scenes from Podgorica traveled around the world. The overall reputation of the country is under question,” he said.

Just after the match ended, the football association secretary general, Momir Djurdjevac, painted a worrying picture,.

“We have left an impression of barbarians and this is a complete disaster. It seems we don’t deserve to have a nation, a football team or a place in a major tournament,” he said.

Two weeks later, Djurdjevac remains equally disappointed. “We are only fighting the consequences, not the cause [of sporting hooliganism],” he told BIRN.

The escalation of violence at sporting matches reflected deeper social problems that had to be addressed as well, he maintained. “This is no longer just a sporting issue,” Djurdjevac concluded.

Source: Balkan Insight (Montenegro)