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Throwback Derbies: Dinamo vs Red Star... The Derby That Started A War

It was a terribly hot day in Zagreb on May 13, 1990. It wasn’t so much the weather, as the tension gripping the city.  That afternoon, the stage was set for the “classico” of Yugoslav football: Dinamo Zagreb – Red Star Belgrade.  Supporters headed to the stadium emblazoned with a cold look on their faces, filing through an endless line of police officers.  The 13th of May 1990 will live in infamy, as boundaries were blurred, and a football match came to mean something more.

General Tito, who for better or worse had build a united Yugoslavia following the Second World War, had been dead for a decade.  The federal republics were shaken by nationalist fervor, and that day, the symbolic teams of Croatia and Serbia represented much more than a footballing rivalry to supporters on the stands of the Maksimir Stadium.

There had always been tension Dinamo’s ultras, the Bad Blue Boys (named after the 1983 Sean Penn film), and Red Star’s Delijie or heroes. Furthermore, everything in that time period took on a different dimension.  When Zagreb beat Belgrade the previous year, supporters began racially insulting each other, foreshadowing the growing tension between the Balkan states. Croatia held its first independent election on May 7th 1990, resulting in a run-a-way victory for the nationalist party. The football match that took place just 6 days later was to become the opportunity for the Croatian fans to let their frustrations out against the symbolic team of Belgrade: Red Star. The Capo of the Delijie was a man named Zljko Raznatovic.  Zlijko would become known as general Arkan, leading his ultras turned paramilitaries called the Tigers who killed an estimated 3,000 people over the course of the war.

On the day of the match, Arkan and his followers devastated the train to Zagreb.  They marched to the stadium destroying everything they could get there hands on.  In grounds, Dinamo’s supporters waited, singing violent and offensive anti-Serbian chants.

Over 20,000 fans were already in the stadium an hour before the match was set to start.  At 6 pm, hundreds Red Star supporters began tearing up seats, ripping down billboards, and throwing the discarded waste at the Dinamo faithful, while Dinamo’s fans began to throw rocks back.  Pretty soon, the Red Star supporters had managed to climb over the first barrier, attacking a small group of Dinamo fans.  This continued for about 15 minutes without the police ever intervening.

At this point things got truly out of hand.  The Bad Blue Boys stormed the pitch, facing off with hundreds of police officers.  As the three opposing forces exchanged thrown rocks and swinging batons, the players entered the pitch, with some Dinamo players joining in the brawl.  Most notably, Dinamo’s 21-year-old captain Zvonimir Boban, who, incensed at the police’s aggression began to retaliate.  Known to Dinamo fans as Zoro, Boban recounted, “He (the police officer) hit be twice screaming ‘you ugly son of a bitch, you're like the rest of them’.  At this point I lost my head.  I broke is nose with a knee to the face.” After several hours of fighting, the match as abandoned, leaving more than 100 people injured.

This infamous match became a symbol for the break up of Yugoslavia.  To this day there is a sign on Dinamo Zagreb’s stadium with a dedication, “to the supporters who began the war with Serbia in this ground on May 13, 1990.”  The ensuing war of Croatian independence ran from March 1991 until November 1995 killing tens of thousands.