Contemporary recollections of Mostar almost always surround the Stari Most, the 16th century Ottoman Bridge located in present day Bosnia and Herzegovina. Standing towering for over 427 years until it was destroyed in 1993 by the Bosnian Croats the scenic bridge was reopened again in 2004. It stands today as a reminder of the Balkan conflict yet remains one of the former Yugoslavia’s foremost tourist attractions.
Across in the north western reaches of Mostar there stands another building less famous but equally symbolic of the tragic Balkan conflict. Built in 1971 the Bijeli Brijeg Stadium was until 1992 the home territory of Velež Mostar.
Alongside the Maksimir in Zagreb and the Marakana home of Red Star it was recognised as one of the ‘hottest’ grounds in the former Yugoslav First League. Venue for some special nights in Yugoslav domestic football, the stadium also witnessed UEFA Cup competition including wins for Velez against the likes of Derby County, APOEL, Belenenses and Spartak Moscow. But today the Bijeli Brijeg plays host to a different club; the club for whom the stadium was originally built. HŠK Zrinjski have been resident at the stadium since 1993 when Velež Mostar were evicted by Bosnian Croats. The pitch, stands and property were confiscated by the Croatian authorities and given to its sports club HŠK Zrinjski Mostar for footballing purposes.
With Velež Mostar now firmly resident at another stadium in the north east of the city ‘Vrapčići’,and both clubs playing in the Bosnian Premier League, the Bijeli Brijeg Stadium continues to be a symbolic representation of the embittered ethnic fallout from the Balkan Wars. Like much of Bosnia and Herzegovina the demographics of Mostar have changed considerably following the Bosnian War. Despite this the city still contains a large population of Croats whilst the wider confines encompass all ethnicities including Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. Indicators of the Croatian presence sit everywhere in Mostar, none more so that at the University of Mostar which is the only Croatian language University in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Geographically Croatia sits to the west of Mostar; many cultural events held yearly continue to be sponsored jointly by the Croatian and Bosnian governments.
Mostar has two football clubs – HŠK Zrinjski in the west, but also the more famous Velez. But whilst the history of the Velez club is littered with Yugoslav Cup wins that story of Croatian sports club HŠK Zrinjski is one less famous and filled only by a black hole. Founded in 1905 Zrinjski had been prohibited from sports participation by the ruling communist Yugoslav government from 1945 onwards. Due to the banning of nationalist clubs and their perceived threat to communist hegemonistic objectives, Zrinjski were banished from playing in the Yugoslav First League.
There sank in 47 years in the wilderness for HŠK Zrinjski. But by 1990 with Velez Mostar a familiar name across Europe so it too soon faced a black hole. By 1991 the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia had been proclaimed. It claimed to be a separate and distinct “political, cultural, economic and territorial whole”located in the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Despite being unrecognised by the international community Western Mostar soon found itself as the official de-facto capital city of Herzeg-Bosnia. HŠK Zrinjski, the club of western Mostar, banned and banished during the reign of Tito, now had space to draw breath once again. Friendly matches and tours around Croatian territories soon commenced.
The first steps towards reforming for HŠK Zrinjski were not easy. In Croatian Bosnian territory the Herzeg-Bosnia leadership engaged in coordinated efforts to dominate and “Croatise” the municipalities which they claimed were part of Herzeg-Bosnia. Shelling, bombing and fighting were a daily happening. For the Croats, the 1990’s saw a renewed sense of national consciousness awaken but in reality a form of ethnically cleansing had commenced. Increasing persecution, the property seizure and social discrimination become common. The football club Velez Mostar soon become a target for Croatian intolerance and it too like many Bosniak families become displaced being forced to leave the Bijeli Brijeg Stadium.
Since the Bosnian War (1992-1995) it has taken some time for all the ethnic parties inside Bosnia and Herzegovina to reconcile differences. It took until 2003 for a unified Bosnia football league encompassing teams from all ethnic fractions to become a reality.
Internationally, the Bosnian national team is only now becoming unified with the long evident corruption and conflict within its federation healing thanks in no small part to the efforts of former Yugoslav coach Ivica Osim. But whilst unity is becoming a reality at the Football Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (N/FSBiH) many clubs are still organised and supported along ethnic lines. The fan base of Velež Mostar, now resident at a developing Vrapčići Stadium, are seen as the club of Bosniaks whilst HSK Zrinjski the sport club for the Croats.
As if ethnic and nationalistic splits between the two were not enough so these have also fractured into political differences. Fans from Velež ‘Red Army’ have attached themselves to left wing ideologies and likewise the Ultra groupings at HŠK Zrinjski (many of whom were born during the war years) have become attached to right wing chants, slogans and symbols.
The sensitive political situation in Mostar continues to block any sort of emotive path back to the Bijeli Brijeg for Velež Mostar and its fans. The city mayor comes from the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) whilst many subdivisions of youth who follow Velez now only recognise the club through playing anywhere other than at the Bijeli Brijeg.
The sorry tale can only end by noting that the new home of Velež – the Vrapčići Stadium, has undergone significant modernisation since 2006. But still its former Yugoslav state home stands today in much the same condition as it was on the day they were evicted. Its clubhouse lawn is tended to by gatekeepers yet so much of its exteriors sit covered in weeds, senseless graffiti and its turnstiles are twisted with rust.
By Damon Main
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona