By Gerry Johnston
It’s fair to say that Zvonmir Boban made an impact on the game of football. Most will remember him for his decade in the Rossoneri of AC Milan or as the captain of the Croatian national team that stunned the world by finishing third on their World Cup debut. In retirement, he has even gone on to work for FIFA and AC Milan.
Boban first became known to most global football fans when he was with Milan. He played in a superb team that won four Scudettos, three Supercoppa Italiana’s, a UEFA Super Cup and most famously the European Cup when Fabio Capello’s side stunned Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona, famously known as the Dream Team, by four goals to nil in Athens when Barca were believed to be streets ahead of any other team on the planet.
Internationally, he originally played for Yugoslavia and starred for their under-20’s when they won the 1987 World Youth Championship (now known as FIFA U20 World Cup), scoring three goals and the decisive penalty in the shootout win in the final against West Germany. He would win seven caps for the senior Yugoslavian team before switching allegiance to Croatia after they declared independence, a declaration that many believe Boban played an important part in.
With Croatia, Boban would win 49 caps including playing for the team in their first two major tournaments at the 1996 European Championships and the 1998 World Cup. Croatia reached the quarter-finals of Euro 96 before losing narrowly to eventual winners, Germany but they would gain revenge two years later when they beat the Germans 3-0 in the World Cup quarter-finals to set up a semi-final with hosts and once again eventual winners, France.
Boban picked up an injury in the semi-final and was going to come off at half-time but he stayed on the field and unfortunately with Croatia 1-0 up, he was caught in possession by Lilian Thuram who scored the equaliser and later the winner as France won 2-1 to break Croatian hearts. Boban was able to recover to play in the third-place playoff against the Netherlands and with the score level at 1-1, he set up Davor Šuker for the winner and his sixth goal of the tournament which was enough to take him ahead of Gabriel Batistuta and Christian Vieri in the race for the Golden Boot.
Boban’s professional career lasted 16 years and came to an end in 2001 after a short loan spell in Spain with Celta de Vigo. He only played four times and rather than stay as a bit-part player he decided to retire in the October instead of seeing out the season. Zorro, as he was known throughout his career, was a creative talent who was at his best as a number 10 but he was also a hard worker that allowed him to play deeper in midfield and also on either wing. He was a strong leader and although he often came across as confrontational, he had the technique to go with the physicality.
After retirement, Boban went back into education and completed a history degree which included a thesis on Christianity in the Roman Empire before going on to work on football coverage in both Italy and Croatia. He has ruled out ever becoming a coach but he has been back in the game in recent years. Firstly, he was FIFA’s Deputy Secretary General from 2016 to 2019. In that position, he is believed to have been a key player in the introduction of VAR before resigning. He then returned to Milan as the clubs Chief Football Officer but his stay only lasted a matter of months.
Overall, Boban has an impressive CV. He won multiple honours in Milan and was a key part in Croatia’s instant growth into a credible football nation. However, it all could have been very different and while all of the above is memorable, his most iconic moment came before he even made it to Milan. He was involved in a remarkable incident that not only changed his life but is also credited by many as being the birth of a nation and the collapse of another.
To understand Boban’s part in what happened, one needs to understand the history of Yugoslavia. It was born in 1918, just after World War I and even then it was essentially a group of ethnic groups thrown together to make one nation. It had previously been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but after the war, it became known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes before being changed to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929.
Yugoslavia was invaded by the Axis powers during World War II and after the war, the monarchy was dissolved and a republic was born. This republic included the nations that are now known as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia and Slovenia. Within Yugoslavia, there were a number of ethnic groups with many Albanians and Muslims also living within the borders.
From 1943 to 1980, Yugoslavia was led by Josip Broz Tito, first as Prime Minister and then as President. Tito had risen through the ranks of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia and became their leader in 1939, four years before he became Prime Minister. While Tito was regarded by many as an authoritarian he was popular both inside and outside Yugoslavia with most considering him a benevolent dictator.
During Tito’s years in power, he managed to keep a lid on the various nationalities, ethnic groups and religions that made up Yugoslavia. He himself had Croat and Slovene heritage and he was generally able to keep the disagreeing factions at bay under the one flag of Yugoslavia. However, just days shy of his 88th birthday, on the 4th May 1980, Tito passed away and suddenly the glue holding Yugoslavia together was no longer there.
With Tito deceased, there was a gradual rise in nationalism with the various nationalities and groups making the first moves that would later lead to independence. Croatia was no different and joined the other groups in displaying their own particular brand of nationalism on a more regular basis. This nationalism was also beginning to make its way into football and ultra groups were mostly made up of members of the military which usually meant the violence was bigger and more chaotic than anywhere else.
As the nation grew apart and the calls for independence got louder, elections were held in April and May 1990. These were the first multi-party elections to be held in Croatia for over 50 years and they went against the communists who had been in control of Yugoslavia since it became a republic and instead parties that were supportive of Croatian independence came out on top. This result echoed that of what had happened in Slovenia just a few weeks earlier.
Naturally, this was not the desired outcome in Belgrade. Serbia and the communist leadership were against any re-organization of the nation and tension was building in the days after the election results. In Croatia, the “Sahovnica” (the red and white checked symbol from the national coat of arms) began flying from buildings and Croat became the national language replacing Serbian. Croats also began taking official jobs which had previously been in the hands of Serbs.
With all of this going on football continued as usual and on 13th May 1990 the fixtures had scheduled Red Star Belgrade to travel to the Maksimir Stadium to take on Dinamo Zagreb. Red Star and Dinamo were two of the biggest clubs in the Yugoslav First League and with Belgrade being Serbian and Zagreb being Croatian it always looked like there may be a flashpoint but nobody could imagine what would actually transpire.
In the hours before the game, there were running battles as Red Star had brought several thousand members of their infamous ultra group, Delije. The Delije were led by Zeljko Raznatovic who is better known as “Arkan”. Arkan would later go on to lead the Serb Volunteer Guard, a paramilitary force, in the Yugoslav Wars which would lead to him being accused of committing war crimes. The Delije were up against the local fans who had an ultra group of their own, the Bad Blue Boys.
Despite the violence in the city and outside the ground the game went ahead but it wouldn’t last long. Once inside the ground, the violence increased as the Delije tore down advertising boards, ripped up seats and began attacking the home fans with those missiles and knives whilst signing pro-Serb and anti-Croatian songs. The game was abandoned after just 10 minutes but the events of the day weren’t yet over.
The Red Star players made their way to the dressing room as soon as the game was abandoned but many of the Dinamo players stayed around the pitch and Boban was seen screaming for the police as they appeared to be absent while the Delije destroyed the stadium and attacked the home fans at will.
The police finally got involved just as the Bad Blue Boys made their way onto the pitch and while they were able to restrain the home fans for a short time with batons and tear gas they were soon overrun and were forced to retreat to get reinforcements leaving the two factions to clash on the Maksimir Stadium’s pitch.
It was while the Bad Blue Boys and the police were fighting that Boban etched his place in history. As battles broke out all over the pitch, Boban, who was the Dinamo Zagreb captain at the time, saw one of the home fans on the ground being struck by batons from the police. He tried to defend the fan, later identified as Bruno Sirok, but the police struck him with batons so Boban took things into his own hands by running towards a policeman and delivering a flying kick which knocked him off his feet.
The image is iconic as Boban, seeing his people being attacked in their own home stadium, comes to their aid by putting their plight above his own life and career. Years later he made a statement to CNN which summarises his action better than anyone else could;
“Here I was, a public face prepared to risk his life, career, and everything that fame could have brought, all because of one ideal, one cause; the Croatian cause,” said Boban.
In the end, it would take over an hour for the police to restore order and even then it took them to come back with more numbers, armoured vans and water cannons to help bring peace to the stadium. However, peace may have been restored that night but it was a marker of things to come as Yugoslavia was now well on its way to collapse. Boban was banned for six months which meant he missed out on playing for Yugoslavia in the 1990 World Cup although he did go on to play for the national team again despite receiving threats and abuse from Serbian fans before switching his allegiances to Croatia after independence.
As time has passed a narrative has emerged that the riots may have been a set-up but both sides are still blaming the other. In Croatia, they believe the Yugoslav Secret Service and Serb Police wanted to destabilise the region in the wake of the rise of the Croatian Democratic Union Party who had defeated the communists in the elections in the weeks before the game. Many Croatians also believe that the riot showed them that violence may be the answer and the Bad Blue Boys, many of whom would go onto serve in the Croatian military during the war, felt they had shown themselves as defenders of their people.
The mood in Belgrade and amongst Delije members is also that the riot was staged although they aren’t entirely sure who by. Some think it was by Croatians who wanted to lay down a marker for independence while others feel it was Arkan and Slobodan Milosevic, who at the time was the head of the Serbian part of Yugoslavia, who had cooked the idea up to further the Serbian and Communist agenda within Yugoslavia.
In terms of football, Dinamo Zagreb would continue in the Yugoslav First League for the 1990/91 season but all Croatian and Slovene clubs would depart in the summer of 1991. The 1991/92 campaign began but it was unable to be properly finished as the war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina which left their representatives in the league unable to fulfil their fixtures. The other matches were played and Red Star would win the final title before the league was completely dissolved due to the war.
For most of the decade between 1991 and 2001 Yugoslavia was at war as the various regions began to fight for their independence. Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia were the first to declare independence in 1991 before Bosnia and Herzegovina followed suit in 1992. Fighting continued in the region until 2001 as Kosovo sought independence from Serbia but it would take until 2008 for that to happen, two years after Serbia and Montenegro had gone their separate ways.
Overall, somewhere in the region of 130,000 and 140,000 people lost their lives in the Yugoslav Wars with as many as 4,000,000 believed to have been displaced. The legacy is a divided Yugoslavia with all countries now separated. In Croatia and particularly in Zagreb, many regard the events of the 13th May 1990 as the day the war began. There is a monument outside Maksimir that reads;
“To all the Dinamo fans for whom the war started on 13th May 1990 and ended with them laying down their lives on the altar of the Croatian homeland.”
It’s not unusual for professional footballers to become national icons but in the case of Zvonmir Boban, it’s not just for his performances as a player but also for standing up for his people and in doing so potentially laying the foundations of a nation.