Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The Mostar Derby

Although few things divide a city like a river, nothing segregates people so completely as a civil war. Mostar is as recognisable for its ethno-cultural partition as it is for the famous Ottoman bridge spanning the Neretva River.

The rupture between the primarily Catholic Croat west bank and the largely Bosniak Muslim east is exemplified by the intensity of the Zrinjski-Velez derby. The animosity between the teams is rooted not only in sectarianism, but also in their divergent political views. More than any other in the Balkans, the Mostar derby is a microcosm of a century or so of Bosnian history, with the clubs defined as much by politics and war as by players or fans. 

The Opus of the 'Nearly Man'

Rather than a case of ‘what might have been’, Lance Klusener’s was a career that all too briefly ‘was’. Notwithstanding a period as one of the best all-rounders in the game, his time as a professional cricketer was consistently hindered from ‘being’ by a succession of injuries as varied in length and gravity as a Scott Boswell over. In terms of his batting, Klusener’s attacking style was initially a thrilling complement to his aggressively tight seam bowling, a secondary aspect of his game that, on the back of some stellar knocks in the late 1990s, eventually came to define him as a cricketer. Though his transformation from background metronome to star turn was for the most part limited to the one-day game, this Dave Grohl of turn-of-the-millennium South Africa occasionally showed he could be as destructive a bat at Test level as in the shorter forms. One such demonstration occurred at Port Elizabeth in 1999 – undoubtedly Klusener’s annus mirabilis – when he made 174 against an England attack containing luminaries such as Darren Gough, Andrews Caddick and Flintoff, and Phil Tufnell.

A Dangerous Friend

For better or worse, anger is as much a part of football as the creative corruptibility of the game’s administrators, inclement midweek nights in Stoke-on-Trent and the consistent outscoring of Emile Heskey at international level by Latin American goalkeepers. Whether through Roy Keane’s on-pitch nod to Edmond Dantès in the 2001 Manchester derby at Old Trafford or the submersion of Twitterspace beneath a hormonal torrent of adolescent fury, football allows wrath – which often masquerades under the guise of ‘passion’ – to be manifested amongst its players, fans, and officials with a raw, unbridled fervour that might otherwise go unexpressed. As one of the more powerful – yet unstable – emotions, the exhibition of wrath on and off the pitch is an unavoidable consequence of human nature. It’s symptomatic of how we are, and football is merely an outlet through which many choose to articulate anger – and indeed the wider spectrum of emotion. Though anger is not always a bad thing – particularly with regard to sporting contest – it’s a state of mind that’s hard to control, a fuse burning down towards detonation that some find more difficult to extinguish than others. It can be channelled into something positive, but can also ‘go off’, a fact which is often made evident by certain events that surround the sport. 

Diaspora and English Cricket

In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia came into effect. As well as calling a halt to decades of war in Europe, the treaties signed as part of the Peace paved the way for a reimagining of national identity on the continent. Westphalia resulted in the subsequent pre-eminence of the ‘nation-state,’ a sovereign entity which is essentially a combination of geopolitical and cultural components. Nation-states are now the most common form of statehood, but one of the few remaining non-Westphalian states is the United Kingdom, an amalgamation of four different nations. Yet, a great curiosity in relation to the UK’s homogeneity is the sporting independence of its constituents. An example of this is the England cricket team, itself a body which has always looked beyond the geographical entity it represents in order to ensure its international competitiveness. Now, in an era when the predominance of nation-states is being challenged by the emergence of ‘diaspora’ as an ethnic and cultural marker, as well as trans-national groupings like the European Union, English cricket goes some way to illustrating the often mercurial nature of nationality. 

Footballers as Role Models

A young man signs a piece of paper.  At sixteen or seventeen years of age, this marks the point when his path through life begins to diverge from those around him. He has just become a professional footballer, and though still not permitted to vote, the opportunities that will be afforded to this novice mean he is to be saddled with a very adult responsibility. With the stroke of a pen, he has been unwittingly transformed from pubescent jock into a role model for rudderless teens, frustrated middle-aged men and, by extension, the rudderless teenage children of frustrated middle-aged men. 

From a very young age, professional footballers are elevated to a status to which many with twice their years would struggle to adapt. Exactly what is it, then, that qualifies these particular individuals to assume such a burden? Are they philosophers, thinkers, boys whose academic capacities predestine them for the life of an exemplar? Intellectuals, maybe, earmarked as statesmen or sociological commentators? 

No, actually. They kick balls around a pitch, which they often don’t even do particularly well. 

The Berlin-Dresden Rivalry

Considered a poor cousin to its West German neighbour, with few of its clubs experiencing major success on the international scene, the 52-year history of the East German Oberliga nevertheless yielded some fascinating points of interest. Perhaps, the most notable story involves Dynamo Dresden and Dynamo Berlin, two clubs whose histories are intricately intertwined. Though these teams had been the leading forces in the Oberliga – from 1975 to 1990 no other team won a league title – both suffered after the dissolution of the league and failed to achieve much of note in the reunified Germany. Thus far, Dresden have managed four seasons in the 1. Bundesliga, from 1991-95, and currently sit in the second tier of the German football pyramid. Berlin had it even worse after reunification, spending most of their time in or around the third or fourth tiers. However, the modern mediocrity of these two clubs belies an absorbing and complex past.

From Nobodies to Minnows

From his spectacular vantage point on the north-west corner of Belgrade’s ancient walled fortress, The Statue of the Victor stares watchfully across the confluence of the city’s two great rivers, the Danube and the Sava. Built in the 1920s, Pobednik stands in memoriam of wartime triumphs over two fading imperial glories, the Austro-Hungarians and the Ottomans. Between them, these once-powerful, utterly contrasting empires served, as much as anything else, to shape the nature – and, by extension, the ensuing history – of the peninsula upon which their borders met. 

Now, Pobednik remains a steely-bunned, dutiful sentinel at a place that once marked the bygone frontier separating the Occident and the Orient. Tasked with identifying threats on the horizon, his regard also takes in what was, in 1928, a marshy expanse of mostly-unsettled land stretching from the left bank of the Sava to Zemun, previously an Austro-Hungarian border town. For many years, this area found use as a buffer zone between Ottoman Belgrade and the lands of the Dual Monarchy. Sixty-five years ago, with the White City no longer an outpost of the Eternal State, it became what is now New Belgrade, Yugoslavia’s Brutalist capital-in-waiting. It was here, in the city that Tito built, that I played my first cricket match in Serbia.

The Prospect of a Serbian Jackie's Army

Over the years, the Irish have left Ireland in their millions. Many went west to what for them was a stars’n’striped home-from-home. Others, however, chose an eastward path to that neighbourly island which still bears the standard of Saint Patrick upon its flag. As a consequence, the passing of the centuries brought about the development of a vast and enduring Irish diaspora in Great Britain. During the 1980s and 1990s, this fact was catapulted to the forefront of footballing life by Jack Charlton and an Irish national team containing the likes of Mick McCarthy, Ray Houghton et al. Yet, in that same decade, and seemingly in a parallel universe, war-torn Serbia witnessed an equally widespread scattering of its people. Now, through the recruitment of players such as Zdravko Kuzmanović, Neven Subotić, and others, Serbian football is reclaiming some of its exiles, leading to the very real possibility of the emergence of a Serbian ‘Jackie’s Army.’

Radnicki and Ideology

The south of Serbia, with its rich and complicated past, is something of a historical and political melting pot. Niš, the region’s most populous city, is no different. Over the years, the city bore witness to the coming and going of a multitude of would-be conquerors, each of whom recognised the city’s importance as a gateway between East and West, a metaphorical confluence of cultures, ideologies, and nations. Consequently, Niš has long been possessed of a certain flexibility of nature, an ability to seamlessly adjust to the incursion of a previously unfamiliar authority. This year, the city’s illustrious football club, Radnički, has been obliged to exhibit a similarly acquiescent character. 

Marakana to Maracana

Nestled picturesquely amidst the forested hills of Eastern Serbia is the small, industrialised town of Majdanpek. The region in which it lies – Bor – is known for its relatively extensive mineral wealth, particularly its rich deposits of copper, as well as that shiny metal most widely and greedily valued by the human race; gold. However, despite a long history of mining that saw the arrival of many aspiring prospectors and a 20th century industrial boom, it was not until 1972 that the town’s most cherished discovery first saw the light of day. 

That year, Dejan Petković was born. 

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Deconstructing the Plovdiv Pistolero

In the middle of the 4th century B.C., the all-conquering army of Philip II of Macedon swept southwards through the Balkans, thus setting into motion an enduring legacy that would be continued and expanded upon by Philip's more renowned son; the famous, infamous, and glorious Colin Farrell. In the course of that marauding charge - in 342 B.C., to be precise - Philip passed through the now-Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, renaming it after himself as he did so (Philippopolis). The arrival of Philip preceded centuries - millennia, even - of invading forces pitching their tents at the walls of Plovdiv, attempting to make the city their own. 72 B.C. saw the Romans give it a shot, under the leadership of Marcus Lucullus. More than a hundred years later, in 46 A.D., Plovdiv finally ceded to the Romans and their Emperor Claudius.