This firsthand account of a weekend in the Bosnian capital has been kindly donated by my good (Celtic supporting) friend Chris Tait, following his trip earlier in the year. Following on from the Internal War earlier in the month with my Koln article
– this piece recounts an unforgettable journey to a city recovering from its own past struggles for independence.
The average tourist wants to go somewhere where there are no tourists. I am no different. However, the paradox for the modern traveller is that whilst the emergence of budget airlines has transformed accessibility to new places, it does so to the masses making it difficult to find a truly unique destination. So after studying the route map in the in-flight magazine en route to London Gatwick, I realised that as my final destination was in the grey area of an otherwise easyjet orange Europe, I knew this trip was going to be different.
An overnight stay in London and a connection in Budapest later we arrived in Sarajevo. This was not the stereotypical weekend city break and it had raised a few eyebrows before we set off. At the heart of our trip was to be the local derby between FK Željeznicar Sarajevo (Željo) v FK Sarajevo, a fixture, prior to 1992 played within the Yugoslavian league, now the biggest derby in Bosnia and widely considered one of the main city derbies in South Eastern Europe.
Our host and former Strathclyde University classmate, well connected within the Bosnian football, picked us up from the airport. On the way to our city centre hotel it was clear that the outskirts of the city are still divided into ethnic enclaves and that legacy of the war was still etched on many buildings. However, there were more than a few modern buildings, standing tall, proud, reflecting the autumn sunshine and perhaps the hope of a population with deep emotional scars.
With barely enough time to check in to hotel, we quickly made our way Stadion Grbavica to catch a glimpse of Željo’s final training session before the derby the following day. The fact that manager Amar Osim had delayed the session, risking training in the dark (insufficient funds to switch the floodlights on), to ensure we could attend was the first sign of the unbelievable hospitality we would go on to enjoy throughout the trip.
At stadium the team were training on a muddy pitch, not atypical of Sunday league pitch in Glasgow in December, adjacent to the main stand. A few fans peered through the fence watching their heroes, whom included Hearts record £850k signing Mirsad Bešlija. If it wasn’t for the intervention of Amar, the security guard would not have let us in. Apparently pre-match security had been heightened in an attempt to eliminate the threat of fireworks being smuggled into the stadium in advance of the derby.
We watched the training session before entering the stadium itself. It was clear to see that Stadion Grbavica was symbolic of Sarajevo, with the modern North stand, in keeping with post Taylor report stadia in the UK, in stark contrast to the open aired South stand which, in the misty dusk sky, looked as though it had a haunting story to tell. It was quickly explained that the stadium suffered heavy structural damage during the war as it occupied a strategic position between the first front lines. The South stand, embedded within Šamac Hill, was proliferated with Serb forces who used this position to burn the wooden terraces and target the citizens of Grbavica area behind the North Stand.
After the stadium tour, we headed to a couple of bars before settling in Tuborg Café. Tuborg Café is popular with the Maniacs (Željo ultras) so it was the ideal place to get further immersed in the big match build up. Both the cheap beer and the ‘healthy stuff’ (an unknown Balkan shot!) which accompanied every round had a notable impact on both our balance and ability to talk coherently. This actually worked to our advantage as we were soon integrating well with the Maniacs, even making a credible attempt to join in their singing and dancing! They were delighted to welcome us and even went to the effort of arranging for exclusive maniac merchandise to be brought to the bar for us.
Amar, sporting his Željo tracksuit, and his management team soon appeared at the bar. We politely declined his offer of tickets for the North Stand explaining our preference to join our new friends in the South Stand! Amar sat mingling with the Maniacs for a couple of hours before leaving. This guy eats, sleeps and drinks football and, having managed Jef United in Japan, it is obvious that his current tenure is out of love and loyalty for his home town / club rather than career progression…unless of course this is part of a strategy to become the next Bosnia manager!
The following hours were somewhat blurry but we got back to the hotel to get some much needed rest. No sooner had we gone to bed than it was match day and we were up reviewing the memorabilia and pictures which enabled us to piece together the night before. We were all in agreement that the ‘healthy stuff’ may not be so healthy after all and we made a pact that we would not be indulging today.
Our next challenge was to go to find Ćevapdžinica “Željo”, a famous traditional place specializing in the local delicacy of Bosnian ćevap. As we walked through the Austro-Hungarian quarter into the old bazaar it became obvious as to why Sarajevo is often referred to as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans”. Until recently, it was the only major European city to have a mosque, cathedral, Orthodox Church and synagogue within the same vicinity and we encountered this rich cultural and religious heritage in the short 5 minute walk to Željo Ćevapdžinica. Our efforts were rewarded with the ultimate hangover cure that is ćevap (little meat balls made from a mix of beef and lamb served in bread with a natural yogurt on the side) which did not disappoint.
Inspired by the religious epicenter and our new found meat miracle we convinced ourselves that Tuborg Café, our rendezvous point for the big game, was a pleasant strong along the Miljacka River so we set off by foot. During our walk we stumbled across the location where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, in 1914, an event which ultimately started the First World War.
We continued along the course of the river, along what was once known as Sniper Alley, pausing frequently to survey war damaged buildings, roads and pavements. Some still appear like raw open wounds, while others have been healed but remain with permanent scars. It is difficult to comprehend what happened in Sarajevo and our pre-match conversation, as we walked, was somber and contemplative.
The most notable site we encountered on our walk was the Holiday Inn Hotel, the famous location where the first shots were fired, by Serb forces, to break up a peace rally. Shortly after this incident 18,000 Serb forces and the Yugoslav People’s Army encircled Sarajevo from the surrounding hills. As his family in Sarajevo faced Serbian bombardment we reflected upon Ivica Osim’s decision to resign from his position as manager of the Yugoslav national team: a team led to the quarter final of the World Cup Finals less than two years earlier. “My country doesn’t deserve to play in the European Championship (1992),” said Osim, “On the scale of human suffering, I cannot reconcile events at home with my position as national manager.” Yugoslavia was subsequently banned from the tournament and their replacements, Denmark, went on to with it.
Opposite the Holiday Inn we stopped to pay our respects at a memorial site for Zeljo’s legendary kapo (Dzevad “Djilda” Begic). We saw a graffiti mural of him at the Stadion Grbavica the day before but this time where were confronted with the exact spot where he was shot by a sniper whilst trying to help an injured female pensioner 2 months into the siege. It seemed a somewhat fitting tribute that three guys from Glasgow had embarked upon a journey to support his team and with that we were reminded that we had people to meet, beer to drink and a South Eastern European derby to go to.
The Sarajevo Derby
We arrived at Tuborg Café where we received a warm welcome from our host, his friends and the maniacs from the night before. Before we could utter the word ‘hello’ we were presented with a beer and shot of the ‘healthy stuff’. We reluctantly accepted and before long we had fully embraced the highly charged atmosphere. We had been advised that individuals within our company had been physically wounded during the conflict but it did not seem appropriate to raise the subject. What struck me though was that these were normal guys, like you and me, and what they lacked was choice. They did not go to war, war came to them.
Tuborg Café, in what is essentially, a housing scheme, felt like the heart of Bosnia as the maniacs sang along to the club anthems booming out of the sound system with pride and passion. Still daylight, a few of them tested their cache by setting off a flare in the street outside as the build-up reached fever pitch.
A few drinks later, it would have been more if we had not walked from the city centre; we negotiated our way around a few tower blocks to be reintroduced to Stadion Grbavica. The eery silence of the night before had been replaced with a bubbly inferno of tension and excitement. The perimeter of the stadium was guarded by a line of riot police. With a ban on away fans in the Bosnian league (brought about by an attack on the Željo team and fans at an away game a couple of weeks before) there were rumours that the FK Sarajevo fans were still going to attend.
The entrance to the South stand was basic and akin to a junior football stadium in Scotland. After filtering through the turnstile (where we presented our £2 match ticket), passing a security check, walking across a derelict basketball court (yes, inside the stadium!) and climbing up a 2 foot ledge of cracked and crumbled concrete, we were in. A glance to the left, the South stand was curved around the pitch like a packed amphitheatre. To the right, beyond a replica locomotive (there as an acknowledgement to the fact that the club was formed by group of railway workers) the North stand had indeed a pocket of 750 or so away fans whom had paid at the gate and shepherded themselves over to the area they would ordinarily be entitled to. An ad hoc police and steward team had formed to ensure the stand was segregated.
Despite the religious tensions in Bosnia and indeed Sarajevo, Željo v Sarajevo is more of a neighborhood and class based rivalry focused on an old difference between the town’s elite and working class. During the post-conflict Sarajevo had close ties to current political elite in Bosnia as it did with local municipal leaders prior to the aggression on Bosnia and Željo is rooted in the working class, this derby came to represent the “conservative centripetal forces”. Although today both clubs enjoy the support of the rich and poor, the legacy still runs deep. Religious tension is more profound when Zeljo play last season’s champions FK Borac Banja Luka.
The South Stand is two tiered with the seated area and terracing divided by a 10 foot wall lined with banners. We walked around the terracing area before entering the seated area. In the South stand, the tradition, if it has not been melted by a flare, is to stand on the seat so we duly assumed our perilous positions. The kapo and his deputy were organising proceedings from the terracing area. Complete with a sailor hat and a sound system they patrolled the terracing area to conduct their choir of thousands. Amar, whom is nonchalance, personified, in his derby day attire of shoes, denims and a jumper orchestrated his team from the sideline.
It was clear from the start that football is an outlet for Željo fans. The guy directly next to me, whom was on his own, literally sang his heart out. For long periods, his eyes were closed with his head transfixed on the crisp night sky. He meant every word he sang. This was raw emotion which transcended the beautiful game. At various points during the game, in following the instructions of the kapo, I jumped, locked arms and cuddled this guy. There was no small talk, no smiling, this was about football and the story behind the words to the songs.
The game itself was a poor spectacle and the current Zeljo side, I imagine, are a shadow of the team Ivica Osim led to the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup in 1984 / 85. However, I will be forever grateful for the own goal scored by Sarajevo in the 34th minute. A cross from the right deflected off of the defender and looped into the net right in front of our position in the South Stand. Bang. The place exploded! The pre match security efforts had clearly failed as 10, 20 or maybe even 30 flares lit up in a spontaneous bonfire. The scarves we got from the maniacs came in handy to mask the cloud of smoke that had engulfed the South stand. I couldn’t fathom whether this was heaven or hell! As the smoke refused to lift, all you could see were more and more flares sparkling like matches. When your visibility is obscured your other senses take over and although I was comfortable with the sounds of traditional rockets I was not prepared for the air bombs which provided deafening explosions.
Boom! The noise echoed around Sarajevo city offering the sound of celebration rather than the sound of death. Ironically it was the 5th November and I never would have thought that I was going to be a Guy in the middle of a bonfire.
Over 5 minutes passed before the pitch was visible and it was a relief to see Željo were still leading 1-0. The passion and enthusiasm from the home fans continued and we left ruing what might have been if Željo converted a 74th minute penalty. Having been reduced to 10 men the Sarajevo fans, resigned to losing the game, started their own pyrotechnics display from the North stand. Flares and rockets landed on a small area of the pitch and a, part brave and part stupid, steward had responsibility to remove them from the less than impressive playing surface. As he performed his duties, more flares and rockets rained over his head. At one point, a Zeljo player beat two players and a flare to get a cross in!
After the full time whistle we remained in situ to catch our breath and, in the now clean air, reflect on an unbelievable experience. Our voices, hoarse from singing a combination of Željo and Celtic words to familiar tunes (i.e. Artur Boruc, the holy goalie), and limbs fighting off cramp, I glanced at the scoreboard and realised that Stadion Grbavica, once a place of sorrow, for today, was a place of unbridled joy for Željo and its supporters.
There were minor skirmishes as we met where the Sarajevo fans had exited the stadium but it was well controlled by the intimidating looking riot police and things passed off fairly amicably. The emotional and physical exertions of the day left us with enough energy for some local food and a couple of beers away from the partying fans.
The next day, Amar arranged for us to watch the Motherwell V Celtic game in Tuborg Café. For once, the football coverage in the bar was accompanied by commentary, rather than Europop, and this was a subtle mark of respect for which we were most grateful. We sat and talked about the Zeljo game, Japanese football, Koki Mizuno (whom he managed), Bosnia’s chances in the Euro 2012 play off against Portugal, Edin Dzeko (the best player he had managed) and of course Glasgow Celtic Football Club. We then celebrated our weekend wins in a beautiful restaurant in the hills overlooking Sarajevo and since then both clubs have surged to the top of their respective leagues.
On the Monday, before flying home, we had time to revisit Željo Ćevapdžinica for one last ćevap as well as meet with footballing legend Ivica Osim. I had met Ivica a number of years ago at Old Trafford where his Sturm Graz team, whom knocked Rangers out, faced Manchester United in the second group stages. He then went on to manage Jef United (Japan) and succeed Zico as the manager of the Japanese national side where he retired through ill health. Last year he was appointed head of an interim committee to run the Football Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina after it was suspended from all international competitions for refusing to replace its three-member presidency – made up of a Bošniak, a Croat and a Serb – with a single president. This situation epitomises the current situation in Bosnia, where to keep the country at peace and avoid potential conflict, decision making is devolved to a local level or shared when it comes to nationwide interests.
We had a weekend to remember in Sarajevo and I would argue that it is one of the safest European cities I have visited. Despite high levels of unemployment, there is no obvious, lurking underclass. The people were genuinely delighted to meet us and proud that we had come to their city. The accommodation, food and drink are cheap and there are plenty of interesting places to visit. It is not the easiest place to get to but it is only a matter of time before this fascinating city is made more accessible from the UK. I hope this happens sooner rather than later as, after the recent suffering, the city deserves a fairer hand and the injection of tourist income would offer a glimmer of hope for the future.