The Soccer War: Croatia and Serbia, 1990
For many Croats, the war began not in June 1991 but on the soccer field on 13 March 1990. That day Red Star Belgrade met Dinamo Zagreb at the Maksimir Stadium, Zagreb to settle a long standing disputed league title. The Red Star Delije were led by Arkan, the notorious warlord and Serbian ultranationalist.
Ozren Podnar reports that the Delije held up signs in the north stands saying "Zagreb is Serbian", and "We'll kill Tudjman" . A reference to Franjo Tudjman, the pro-independence Croatian leader. Even before the match, the Delije were tearing the plastic seats of the Maksimir Satdium and hurling them. They then attacked Dinamo fans with knives, tearing down a fence that separated them from the field and the North stands. The Yugoslavian riot police, who were mostly Serbs stood by and took no action. Incensed by the Delije aggression and the police inaction, thousands of DInamo fans, the Bad Blue Boys took to the field en masse. It was the biggest invasion of football fans in history. They quickly tore down the North stand which buckled under their weight and made after the Red Star fans.
The Red Star football team made a quick exit along the sidline but left in the middle were a few of the Croatian players, including Zvonimir Boban. That day, Boban became a folkhero to the Croats. Seeing a policeman thrash a prostate Bad Blue Boy with a rubber truncheon, Boban ran over and felled the officer with a kung fu kick. The fan escaped and Boban himself was quickly surrounded by a protective chain of Bad Blue Boys who escorted him out of the stadium.
"The game that was never played will be remembered, at least by the soccer fans, as the beginning of the Patriotic War, and almost all of the contemporaries will declare it the key in understanding the Croatian cause," wrote Zagreb daily Vecernji list marking the 15th anniversary of the event. It must be, the historians claim, that the Croats saw in the fans' actions and Boban's intervention a symbol of the resistance against the 70-year long Serbian domination.
In 1998, Zvonimir Boban captained Croatia to its best third place finish in the World Cup.