ECMI Minorities Blog. Ethnic Identity and Football in Mostar – A Clear Divide along the Old Front Line
*** The blog posts are prepared by the authors in their personal capacity. The views expressed in the blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors concerned and do not necessarily reflect the view of the European Centre for Minority Issues. ***
Identity in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s city of Mostar is a particularly stark and inescapable part of its visual landscape, accentuated by its geographic position in a valley with the major Neretva River flowing through. With the city populated mostly with ethnic Bosniaks and Croats, the river became a dividing point during the ethnic conflict of the 1990s and the populations have remained largely polarised since. Whilst the extremities of the ethnic conflict are still visible in bullet-holed buildings and crowded graveyards, as the city grows as a popular tourist destination these divisions can appear as part of history rather than the modern-day reality. However, the prominence of street murals and graffiti relating to Mostar’s two football clubs demonstrates that there is certainly an ongoing form of territorial division. Home to two Premier League teams, FK Velež Mostar and HŠK Zrinjski Mostar, the local derby between the two is a feisty and divisive affair which has frequently been forced to play without fans due to violence and tension between the teams. This blogpost aims to address the question of how ethnic identities (and societal divisions) in Mostar are expressed through football and consider how this dominates the city’s linguistic landscape. It is therefore embedded in the context of previous literature on sport and identity but also the discipline of sociolinguistics – outlined in the subsequent paragraph. The following paragraphs unpack the case of Mostar, applying the first-hand experience of a non-participatory observation visit to Mostar by the author earlier in 2023, and built upon by extensive desk research of the club’s online presence – some of which has already been outlined in a comparative post on the ECMI Minorities Blog earlier in 2023.
Football as an academic topic has a fairly extensive body of published literature, often in the context of nationalism but also sociology and group behaviour. The journal Soccer and Society is a pioneer of this but there have also been edited volumes such as Sport and Secessionism which come closer to the topic of ethnicity and conflict. Such cases evidence sport (often football) as a vehicle of expressing identity, particularly against a perceived hegemonic identity. In the context of language and minority/minoritized contexts, research on linguistic landscapes can be of core relevance to this case. The pioneering research by Jasone Cenoz and Durk Gorter stressed the importance of words and imagery in the public sphere as representations for and of communities. This has subsequently been applied to the context of Mostar, where the work of Ivana Grbavac found a stark division in language use between the eastern and western parts of the city; 73.3% of signs on the east were in Bosnian compared to 4.6% on the west, whilst 4.6% of signs were in Croatian on the east compared to 59.3% on the west. This polarisation is exactly what can be observed with the street art and graffiti of the two football clubs’ fans, as can be seen in the photos displayed with this post.
To first provide a brief history of the two clubs, HŠK Zrinjski were founded earlier, in 1905, yet it is FK Velež who have spent more seasons as a competing club. This is due to HŠK’s participation in a football league of the Independent State of Croatia, governed by the fascist group Ustaše, during the interwar period. This led to HŠK Zrinjski being banned as a club following the establishment of the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia in 1945 and a new football league. The club was seen as a tool of Croatian nationalist propaganda and this ban lasted several decades until HŠK Zrinjski were revived in the middle of the war in 1992. Meanwhile, FK Velež were founded in 1922 as a workers’ sports club and were known for their socialist leanings – demonstrated most visibly through the red star on their shirt. The post-WWII period then left FK Velež as the sole club in Mostar, for which a new stadium, Bijeli Brijeg was built by the city to house the club and opened in 1958. During this time, FK Velež were seen as a non-partisan club for all communities and, whilst they continue to project this image today, the events of the mid-1990s polarised football identity in Mostar dramatically.
Following the outbreak of the Bosnian War in 1992, FK Velež were evicted from their stadium and pushed across to the east side of the Neretva River – forming a new home at the Rođeni stadium where they have remained since. The reformed HŠK Zrinjski made Bijeli Brijeg their home, with Ultras Zrinjski Mostar (UZM) formed in 1994 when the club started to play in the league of the newly formed Herzeg-Bosnia Football Federation. It was not until 2000 that the Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina was founded and the ‘Mostar Derby’ was played again for the first time since the late 1930s. This first modern competitive meeting between the two clubs occurred in August 2000 in the Bijeli Brijeg stadium. Moreover, the rebirth of HŠK Zrinjski and the far-right tendencies of their ultras has been said to challenge what FK Velež stand for and leaves the club “unable to avoid becoming the victim of ethnic categorisation”. The identity split of the city was also visible when Croatia played Turkey in a quarter-final of Euro 2008; the east-side majority Muslim were celebrating the Turkish victory at the expense of the Croatia-supporting west-side of Mostar – leading to violence and destruction on the streets between groups of either side.
Both the street murals and the casual graffiti is unavoidable on the streets of Mostar but is extremely territorial. On the east side of the river, along the main pedestrianised street which leads to the famous Stari Most (Old Bridge), there are several large murals of FK Velež. This includes references to their fan group ‘Crvena Armija’, also written in some instances in English as Red Army, as well as the years 1922 (when the club was founded) and 1981 (when Crvena Armija were founded). There are no obvious signs of any ethnic identity of the club, however. Whereas when one crosses the Neretva River and goes beyond the Bulevar which formed a major front line during the war, the murals and graffiti switch to Zrinjski, the year 1905 (when they were originally formed) and the year 1994 (when Ultras Zrinjski Mostar – UZM – were formed). There is an obvious concentration around Bijeli Brijeg stadium, including references to the stadium belonging to UZM and there are many instances of the team’s logo – which features the words ‘Hrvatski Športski Klub’ (Croatian Sports Club) and the red and white checkerboard that symbolises Croatia. Moreover, murals of the UZM – such as in Image 5 – can contain images of crosses, an obvious ethno-religious marker against the Muslim-majority Bosniaks on the western bank of the river. While most of the murals and graffiti relate to the Ultras or the club badge, more sinister imagery can also be observed – such as the ‘U’ with a cross above which symbolises the Ustaše or the capital ‘Z’ in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (as seen in Image 4 depicting the Bijeli Brijeg stadium).
What is perhaps most interesting to observe is the area closest to the front line which ran along Bulevar. Tourists to Mostar are often led along this street to be shown the bullet-holed buildings which still remain as well as the former Ljubljanska Bank building which has become known as the ‘Sniper Tower’. Now abandoned, visitors can clearly see its height and position facing down from the Croatian side as an obvious vantage point. Nowadays, one can observe a large mural facing the tower featuring the Red Army-associated numbers of ‘1981’. Moreover, on many of the buildings in this area there are countless examples of ultra groups tagging them with ‘their’ year – as well as subsequent tagging over from groups of the other side. This is what can be observed in image 6, with a strikethrough the original 1981, replaced by 1994, and then re-replaced with RA (Red Army) 81; in essence, a territorial dispute being played out through markers of football identity.
Yet, as the attempts by FK Velež to remain a bipartisan club for Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs show, the situation is more complex than complete polarisation. Players have been known to play for both clubs, moving from one’s youth team to another. An insightful case is that of the Vasilj family, two generations of goalkeepers representing different clubs and national teams. Vladimir Vasilj was actually born in Germany but represented teams in Bosnia during his youth, including NK Široki Brijeg (another team with a Croat identity) but also FK Velež. He went on to play most of his domestic football in Croatia and was also called up to their national team – making the World Cup 1998 squad. His two sons have since become professional goalkeepers, both representing HŠK Zrinjski at youth level – with older son Nikola Vasilj going on to represent the first team squad. Nikola chose to represent Bosnia and Herzegovina at international level, making his debut in 2021, and now plays his club football at FC St Pauli in Hamburg. His younger brother, Filip Vasilj, spent most of his youth career in the Croatian league system before returning to the Bosnian system to play for a number of sides – currently NK GOŠK Gabela, who have a Croat checkerboard on the badge, but he has also previously played for FK Mladost Doboj Kakanj – located in central Bosnia and Herzegovina and with much more of a Bosniak identity. This family case serves as a reminder that the Mostar divide is not always as simple as two separated identities which never mix. The extent to which these cross-community examples involve any conscious element of bridge-building is unclear: it may be pure pragmatism related to career building.
As has been shown with the array of previous literature linked to in this post, the conflict between FK Velež and HŠK Zrinjski is not a new or unknown phenomenon. It is interesting to observe however, that almost 30 years on from the war and over 20 years since the two clubs started playing in the same league, the tensions and divisions seems as strong as ever. For the most part, the murals and graffiti across Mostar appear very new and in good condition, suggesting this is very much an ongoing conflict of identity. This reaffirms earlier research on the two clubs from the early 2010s and is more broadly in line with much of the literature on sport and identity which suggests that fan behaviour reflects existing differences of identity. Moreover, these observations are in line with Ivana Grbavac’s findings on the polarised linguistic landscape of Mostar – demonstrating the divide runs through many elements of society, with football one of the most visible markers particularly as the scars of the 1990s conflict continue to slowly fade, physically at least. With HŠK Zrinjski qualifying for the group stages of the UEFA Europa Conference League competition for the first time, their profile is going to be greatly raised on the international level. AZ Alkmaar (the Netherlands), Legia Warsaw (Poland) and Aston Villa (England) and their travelling supporters are all visiting Bijeli Brijeg in the final months of 2023, making it a timely point to demonstrate the complexity of football in Mostar. HŠK Zrinjski certainly announced themselves on the European stage in style – completing an unlikely turnaround from 0-3 down to win 4-3 against AZ Alkmaar in September. Although their subsequent results have not been enough to progress to the knock-out stages, the international profile of HŠK has certainly risen.
Armstrong, G., & Vest, E. (2013). Bridging practice and desire: Football rivalry in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. In M. Vaczi (Ed.), Playing Fields: Power, Practice, and Passion in Sport (pp. 227-250). Centre for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno. http://hdl.handle.net/11714/121
Kinder, T. (2014). Bosnia, the bridge, and the ball. In P. Kennedy & D. Kennedy (Eds.), Fan Culture in European Football and the Influence of Left Wing Ideology (pp. 50-62). Routledge.
Mills, R. (2010). Velež Mostar Football Club and the demise of ‘brotherhood and unity’ in Yugoslavia, 1922–2009, Europe-Asia Studies, 62(7), 1107-1133. https://doi.org/10.1080/09668136.2010.497018