Partisans on the Pitch

In 20th century Yugoslavia, football played a decisive role in politics – arising from the workers' movement, recruiting for the struggle against fascism and even helping to build a socialist state.

From today’s perspective, in the wake of the European Super League debacle, it is almost impossible to imagine that football could have anything to do with socialism. And yet, in many countries across the world, it has played an enormously important political role — most often as part of working-class movements.

In Yugoslavia, football was deeply rooted in the socialist revolution during and after the Second World War. But this would not be so easy to recognise now. In post-Yugoslav countries, the game has been ruined by political elites and corrupt club owners and managers. Terraces, meanwhile, reflect the ten-sions of society more generally, offering stages for nationalism, ethnic hatred, and violence.

But it was not always like this. The legacies of the revolutionary history of the game can still be found across the region that was once called Yugoslavia. A quick look at the league tables reveal the numerous clubs whose names honour workers, labour, and the Yugoslav socialist revolution. Today, they stand as strangely preserved relics of a past that the elite running the game and the region’s dominant right-wing forces are desperate to escape from.

Radical Roots

The ties between football and the workers’ movement go back to the interwar Kingdom of Yugoslavia. While football in the Kingdom began as a sport of the urban middle classes and the privileged, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY) recognised its potential for revolutionary struggle. The party was established in 1919, but authorities in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (later renamed Yugoslavia) outlawed it the following year. The ban followed its first electoral success in 1920, when the CPY became the third biggest party in the parliament and won the mayoralty of Belgrade.

In 1921, Minister of Internal Affairs Milorad Drašković, who was behind the proclamation which banned the CPY, was assassinated by Alija Alijagić, a member of militant communist organisation Red Justice. This made the already staunch anti-communism in the Kingdom even stronger and more repressive. The CPY was driven underground, creating networks that would become crucial for sending volunteers to the Spain during the country’s civil war and for the organised uprising which took place after the outbreak of the Second World War.

Workers’ football began to develop during the interwar period and the CPY founded, managed, or at least had connections to many sports clubs. Workers’ football clubs acted as platforms for political education and members and players were often involved in banned political work. The close connection between football and socialism was clear to state authorities and they worked to suppress and even shut down workers’ sports clubs. The situation only became more difficult after King Alexander I established the so-called 6 January Dictatorship in 1929 — only a handful of workers’ clubs survived this period of heightened political repression.

The Second World War began in earnest in Yugoslavia in April 1941. At that time the Axis forces invaded and segregated Yugoslavia into separate areas under either occupation or quisling rule. Using its underground networks, the CPY prepared to wage armed resistance. The People’s Liberation War, as the Partisan struggle against the occupiers and their domestic supporters was subsequently termed, was a parallel revolution that led to the establishment of a socialist Yugoslavia during the war itself. And, as with earlier radical politics, football was an integral part of this struggle.

Football at War

Football did not stop during the destruction and occupation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia by Axis forces. Instead, the occupation authorities merged the clubs in the occupied territories into their leagues. In Serbia, for example, sport served ideological and educational purposes for the German occupation and collaborationist administration.

In Vojvodina province in the north of today’s Serbia, under the Hungarian occupation, clubs that had not been shut down were integrated into the Hungarian league. In the puppet Independent State of Croatia ruled by the fascist Ustasha movement, there was a national team recognised by FIFA. In most territories, the game excluded Jews and Roma, as well as Serbs in the case of Croatia. In the Croatian coastal city of Split, then occupied by Italy, interwar club Hajduk refused to change the name and join the Italian league — as a result, it was disbanded.

Everywhere in Yugoslavia, socialists found themselves in a position even worse than in the interwar Kingdom, persecuted and fought by both the Axis occupation and fiercely anti-communist domestic collaborators. At the same time, their support among the peoples of Yugoslavia grew rapidly, as the Communist-led Partisans represen-ted the only anti-nationalist, multi-ethnic, and consistent resistance movement. A formal decision by the CPY to start an organised uprising and a call to arms in July 1941 attracted many members of workers’ football clubs, which in fact became the basis of recruitment for Partisan units. Many club members and players died fighting as Partisans, and many more were decorated with a ‘People’s Hero’ medal after the war.

Brothers Mirko and Vasilije Kovačević from Montenegro personify these links between football and socialism. They both joined the CPY in their youth and played for Radnički, a workers’ sports club from Belgrade, during the 1930s, before their departure to join the International Brigades in Spain. Having spent the entire Spanish Civil War in combat, Mirko Kovačević Lala, the younger of the two brothers, managed to escape forced labour in Germany and return to Yugoslavia. He was only 25 when he was executed as the commander of the First Split Partisan Detachment in August 1941.

Thirteen men of RSK Split, a football club with a fascinating revolutionary history whose 120 members were killed in the Second World War, shared Mirko’s tragic destiny when twenty-four Partisans were captured, taken to prison, and executed near the village of Ruduša in Dalmatia. Vasilije Kovačević Čile survived the war and went on to help the revival of Radnički, which was a front for the illegal political work of the CPY during the war. Many members and players joined the Partisans or continued with illegal activities in occupied Belgrade and eleven of them were named People’s Heroes. Many Radnički members died in combat or were executed by occupation forces in reprisals that targeted Communists as the main political enemies and organisers of the uprising.

Yugoslav fighter ace during the Spanish Civil War, Božidar Boško Petrović, was a professional footballer who played for several clubs in Belgrade and Novi Sad. As a student in Belgrade in the early 1930s, Petrović got involved in the CPY. Together with football legend Milutin Ivković, he organised the boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and co-edited Mladost, a newspaper of the Belgrade Communist youth. Their paths separated when Petrović used the away trip of Belgrade Sports Club (BSK) to France to escape to Spain and join the Republicans.

Nicknamed ‘Fernandez Garcia’ after the fake passport from an underground printer in Belgrade that brought him to Spain, Petrović joined La Gloriosa, the Republican air forces. He was killed in combat in 1937. His comrade Ivković, who had played in the first 1930 World Cup in Montevideo, was constantly persecuted for his links with the People’s Liberation Movement by the occupation authorities back in Serbia. He was arrested and executed by Gestapo in 1943. Plaques commemorating the two men stand next to each other at the Yugoslav People’s Army Stadium in Belgrade, the home of FC Partizan.

Football after Fascism

The participation of people from football clubs in the Partisan struggle is not the only link between sport and the Yugoslav revolution. The Partisans also played football matches in the territories they liberated, in addition to other cultural and political activities. Numerous units had football teams in place and matches were a way to celebrate victories to boost morale among the fighters.

The revival of interwar club Hajduk from Split personifies the phenomenon of the revolutionary game. After the capitulation of Italy in 1943, the Partisan headquarters and the CPY Central Committee moved to the Croatian island of Vis. Many former footballers were on the island and it was just a matter of time before they formed a team and started playing against the Allied soldiers stationed nearby. Once again, the CPY recognised the importance of the game for their cause. Soon, the idea of reviving Hajduk as the team of the People’s Liberation Movement was born. Its former players were sought out among the Partisans and smuggled to the island, and Hajduk was officially reborn in May 1944. From the beginning, media accounts about Hajduk and its endeavours were propagated across Yugoslavia, making a connection between the importance of football and the CPY vision of the future.

Hajduk began to repay the Yugoslav revolution with a promotional tour of Italy. Around 40,000 people watched the match against British soldiers in Bari in September 1944 on the stands of Stadio Della Vittoria. It was a symbolic founding moment for Yugoslav state socialism — even though Hajduk lost the match, the Yugoslav flag with the red five-pointed star was flown and the national anthem of the new state echoed through the stadium.

Hajduk continued their tour, bolstering the image of Tito’s Yugoslavia among an international audience and attracting immense attention. Their return to newly-liberated Split in November 1944 was the subject of mass enthusiasm. Thousands turned out at the match against the First Dalmatian Brigade, followed by an even larger crowd against the British Army. They continued to tour liberated socialist Yugoslavia, where Partisan units played celebratory matches and tournaments. A new society was being built with both socialism and football at its heart.

In the post-war period, football clubs which had roots in the workers’ movement or anti-fascist struggle were quickly re-established. Some of them, such as RNK Split, were decorated with the golden ‘Medal for Merit to the People’ in honour of their sacrifice in the People’s Liberation War. But the state took a strict line: football was now the people’s game, and its collaborators against the people would not be tolerated.

Reactionary clubs — either bourgeois clubs from the interwar period or those that implicated in the occupation and quisling competitions — were either shut down or rebranded to fit the new political moment. New sports societies were established with responsibility for representing Yugoslav socialism, the most prominent examples being Red Star and Partizan Belgrade.

Destruction and Demise

In the decades that followed, sport never lost its significance for Yugoslav socialists. The development of sports infrastructure was a key aspect of the overall post-war reconstruction. Many stadiums built then are still used today. The break with the Soviet Union intensified the role of football teams as ambassadors for Yugoslav state socialism.

First, the national team and clubs turned to the West, ceasing the matches with the Eastern Bloc until Stalin’s death in 1953. After the Non-Aligned Movement was founded in 1961 and Yugoslavia shifted its geopolitical focus, the national team and clubs toured the world and football coaches were among thousands of experts sent from Yugoslavia to other Non-Aligned countries.

The Yugoslav footballers toured across all continents. Already in the early 1950s, Yugoslavia was working on strengthening the ties with the future Non-Aligned countries. Josip Broz Tito travelled across Africa and Asia to foster cooperation and expert and cultural exchange started forming. Football was part of this initial phase of alliances that preceded the official establishment of the NAM.

Clubs from all Yugoslav republics travelled to Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, and Indonesia, attracting large crowds, and were entertained at the private residences of countries’ leaders. When various Non-Aligned leaders visited Yugoslavia, they often attended prominent matches and derbies. During the Algerian War, the football team of the National Liberation Front played in Yugoslavia on their international tour promoting their struggle.

As football was one of the key arenas of the revolution, the overall crisis after the death of Partisan leader and president Josip Broz Tito in 1980 had a huge impact on the game. As society slipped towards disintegration, organised fan groups became radically politicised and football stadiums were a fertile ground for nationalist mobilisation. From the stands of the very clubs that were the hallmarks of Yugoslav state socialism, including Hajduk, Red Star, and Partizan, chants now celebrated the wartime enemies of the Partisans.

The descent into darkness was swift. Once this process of right-wing and far-right radicalisation among the ultras was under-way, there was no return — for football or for the country. A match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade in May 1990 descended into a riot, just weeks after pro-independence Croat parties had won a majority for the first time. Dinamo captain Zvonimir Boban kicked a police officer he believed to be mistreating one of the club’s fans and was shielded by the ultras. Even though Boban initially denied any nationalist motivations for his act, a Croatian nationalist icon had been born.

As well as the horrors of war, the problems of corruption and match-fixing which were present in the 1950s rapidly intensified after the country broke up into nation-states in the early 1990s. Amidst the bloodshed, organised crime, business interests, and corrupt political elites took over the game, tarnishing its century-long revolutionary and emancipatory legacy. But this history can’t be erased entirely: in Yugoslavia, football was truly the people’s game.

About the Author

Jelena Đureinović is a historian of Yugoslavia and the post-Yugoslav space working at the University of Vienna. She is the author of The Politics of Memory of the Second World War in Contemporary Serbia: Collaboration, Resistance, Retribution.