On this day in 1990, thousands of football fans began filtering into Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb, Croatia – then a part of Yugoslavia – for a match between the local Dinamos and the visiting Red Stars, a team from Serbia. As with all football matches, there was intense animosity between opposing fans, and several fistfights had already broken out in the streets between the Croatian Bad Blue Boys (BBB) and Serbian Delije. What set the Dinamo-Red Star match apart, however, was the fact that the 3,000 Serbs in attendance were heavily-armed and led by Željko Ražnatović (AKA Arkan), a nationalist and future war criminal. Soon after the kickoff, some of the Delije began chanting Serbian songs and throwing rocks at the BBB. Tempers began to flare, and members of the BBB leapt from their seats and started sprinting towards the Delije on the other side of the pitch. The brawl had begun.
The two groups smashed into one another in the midst of the game, attacking rivals with knives, bats, brass knuckles, torn-up seats and broken bottles as the players continued to play. Local police were hopelessly overwhelmed, and reinforcements armed with water cannons and rifles were called in. For nearly an hour, the fighting raged on as CS gas choked everyone and bullets flew through the air. The Red Star players retreated to their locker room, but members of Dinamo stayed on the pitch, enthusiastically taking part in the melee. Dinamo captain Zvonimir Boban, a proud Croat, noticed a policeman beating a member of the BBB and kicked the cop in the face. Although he probably didn’t realize the significance of what later became known as the kick that started a war, Boban later remarked that he was “… prepared to risk [his] life, career, and everything that fame could have brought, all because of one ideal, one cause; the Croatian cause.” As the dust settled, over 60 football fans, players and cops had been seriously wounded by knives, beatings and gunshots.
The Dinamo-Red Star match was merely a foretaste of the violence that would rock the Balkans for the next decade. Just weeks before the game, a Croatian referendum – the first free election in 50 years, thanks to the collapse of the USSR – had overwhelmingly supported the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), an independence party. Serbian nationalists in the region, who comprised 12% of the population, were incensed; so was Slobodan Milošević, the last president of Yugoslavia and a fiercely patriotic Serb. As disagreements over Croatia’s fate developed, tensions came to a head at the Dinamo-Red Star match, with Boban’s infamous kick symbolizing the depths of the animosity between Croats and Serbs. Soon after, a series of conflicts known as the Yugoslav Wars erupted, a seemingly-inevitable manifestation of the intensely nationalist character of the various ethnic groups jammed together in the Balkan region, previously held together by the USSR. By the end of the conflicts – many of which were forcibly settled by the UN and NATO – over 140,000 were dead and 4 million displaced.