You generally won’t get a hugely positive reaction when either of the above cities are mentioned. Long, complicated and ethnic or sectarian conflicts tend to suck the wind out of most folk. To what extent the recent visiting Northern Irish fans were aware of the finer points of the Balkans War, and the Sarajevan citizens were of the ‘Troubles’ is one to consider. In conflict, insularity tends to take over, unless you are into propaganda.
Following a match against Austria on the preceding Friday night where that wedding-cake of a city was invaded by 2600 Ulstermen, it was a staunch core of 700 who reached Sarajevo for the Monday night match against Bosnia & Herzegovina. The reduced amount was due to capacity both in stadium size and the humankind, as money, time and dedication all played their part. Sarajevo does not have the warm invite of a Barcelona or a Rome for most people. It does have a certain sorting out the wheat from the chaff aspect to it. It’s a pretty difficult place to get to and get out from and already that seems a vulgar and crass comment when put against the four-year siege of the city from 1992-1996. Getting out of the city then was near nigh impossible. Leaving your house was in itself a feat, whilst returning to it was an achievement.
With that as a background some of the encounters between the invading green shirts and the local community, both footballing and otherwise threw up some interesting scenarios. One can perhaps overreach into them but I feel generally and individually it is a recourse worth visiting. The first advance troops from Vienna had started to pocket themselves in and around the Old Town and the city centre fringes within fifteen or sixteen hours of the final whistle sounding in the Ernst Happel stadium. Flashes of green and pale and ruddy faces spectated behind supportive glasses of beer down the narrowing main boulevard in Sarajevo. The Ulster face and guffaw can be identified fairly easily.
Perhaps tired by the previous night’s effort and the travelling, the foot soldiers were in a subdued and reflective mode which was overriding their interest in their new and unfamiliar surroundings. That said, there was a distinct veneer of quietness which floated around Sarajevo in contrast to the cosmopolitan chutzpah of the jewel in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Where the green hordes brought their ballast to Vienna, the solitude of Sarajevo sat and settled them.
By Sunday various groups of Northern Ireland fans had learned a whole lot more if they hadn’t already in passing the famous yellow-clad hotel on the airport road into the city. It’s significance was prescient as the mantle of the world’s most bombed hotel had passed from Belfast’s Europa to the then Holiday Inn of Sarajevo. These groups had embarked on war tours and walking tours and had visited museums recounting crimes against humanity that defied belief, such was their proximity to the last ten years of the twentieth century in Western Europe. For a tribe that had suffered themselves there was a familiarity and also a shock.
Sarajevo has an edge that the likes of comfortable Vienna doesn’t. The visiting fans would have recognised that. Street wisdom comes fairly naturally to them. On match day Monday, having learned the nature and history of the place it was time nevertheless to mobilise. This invading army had ingratiated themselves with the locals, well beyond the seriously increased consumption of meat and hop to the local economy. Group photographs of private and commercial nature were evident as Bosnians captured images of these buoyant Celts from the far west of the continent. The local woman on the tram who said “Thank-you for travelling so far to see our country. Jimmy Nesbitt is my favourite actor” to some fans struck a chord. It did so as away football fans tend to see themselves on a tour of duty and can bypass subtle moments of communication.
And yet that is harsh as most football fans resident abroad have a heightened sense of how welcome they are. The locals as well though were absorbing the bountiful bonhomie that the visitors imbued. The very same that had them esteemed and courted in France in 2016 and is now a reputational minesweeper as they trot around Europe and beyond. Remember as well it was their first visit here but it can tend to escape Northern Ireland fans the high watermark they have left around the places they have visited.
Even within the travelling fans, there is scope for discovery as the unique setting enables great camaraderie to develop. The exiles especially gorge deep upon their Ulster lineage available in a foreign land. The range, class and outlook in such a group, in such a number and in such a place is very much extended. Conversations about football run deeper than normal. Then they extend to life. Sarajevo is a good place to talk about life. So much of it was lost from that moment just over a hundred years ago in June 1914. That nationalistic wave that rolled over Europe from the moment that Archduke Franz Ferdinand perished was still throwing flotsam up at the end of the same century in the same city. It permeated and persisted. Northern Ireland fans had recognised it and had acknowledged it, but also were there on business and moved on accordingly.
The full cohort of fans did not finally gather at Tito’s restaurant until very early evening for the march to the ground. In some places, it can be very much sooner. Fully-clad riot police lurked to escort. The mood mismatch was stark. Upon arrival at the unimposing Grbavica stadium, rows of Bosnian fans lined the streets amidst the tower blocks in genuine and warm welcome. Parents had their young out on the balconies to see and hear this green and noisy phenomenon curving its way at odds through the rigid lines of the buildings. Local fans waved and clapped at the throng who grinned back bemused at their celebrity-like status. Once again that symbol of humanity surfaced as hands pushed through the separating barriers from eager Bosnians keen to connect with this Celtic curiosity. Riot police were heckled by their own for trying to prevent those trying to reach the visitors. They weren’t trained for this paradox.
The Northern Irish fans, squeezed into the equivalent of a shoebox without access to refreshment or food for the next three odd hours then started into their professional obligations. Long and loud they boomed out from the corner. Humour, noise and national character filling all spaces. The fans agitating on repetition in their songs became a magnet for turned heads all around the ground. Bosnians pointed to the unique throng to arriving friends as if they had a new toy to show them. The full repertoire of songs was waded through and the negative swing on the game for them was unable to dim the output. Increasingly Bosnians would come to the separating fence begging to exchange scarves, hats or jerseys. The desperation on their faces echoed some of the faces I had seen in grim photographs in their museums. The gratitude expressed through clasped hands, evident once transactions were done, was heartfelt and solid. The sentiment and sincerity would be long remembered.
Postgame the Northern Irish fans kept behind, heightened their noise while singing their ‘Sarajevo’ song for twenty-five minutes solid as home fans tried to join in to be part of it. Once released the balconies were once again filled with extra excitement as residents spilled out to see the green flood spill through their neighbourhood. Riot police now well relaxed had arms around Ulster shoulders. As the procession reached Tito’s, the police withdrew and the fans too broke up into their separate ways home. It had been interesting. Two sets of peoples unused to each other but through football the richer for the union. The broader backgrounds of their histories hovered but for a few short days never quite pierced the football bubble – but they may well after. For those that were there on both sides, inside and outside the stadium, it should be something that will be remembered.
It would be interesting to canvas recollection from both sides of that Monday night. On the surface, it seemed and appeared just like any other game. But somehow it wasn’t. One Bosnian who posted his thoughts suggested so. He stated that two things he had to do in his footballing bucket list were to see Lionel Messi play and also to see Northern Ireland fans. One hopes Lionel can have the same impact but there lies a rub. What I witnessed was football spilling across its sporting boundaries and nudging into the human carriageways. That sort of stuff carries with people. I would be interested to see it again.