Sarajevo – Our Life is Different

Sarajevo is the leading political, social and cultural centre of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This is a city famous for its traditional cultural and religious diversity with adherents of Islam, Orthodoxy and Catholicism co-existing in the city for centuries.

Despite the the bloody and embittered Balkan wars of decades previous Sarajevo is still a city undergoing post war reconstruction.  During the war life here was very different but also dangerous.  

Each night during the early 1990’s it was impossible to switch on the news and not watch images of sniper fire in Sarajevo.  Numerous city center buildings still exhibit the tell tale signs of this conflict.  

Around the city red paint mark places where people fell dying after being shot.

Sniper alley or Ulica Zmaja od Bosne was the most dangerous street in Europe with the most extreme Serb soldiers hiding in the highest floors of surrounding apartment blocks.  From here bullets were aimed at people who were simply crossing the road. The street became infamous as a dangerous place for civilians to traverse with signs stating “Pazi – Snajper!” (“Watch out – Sniper!”) all around.  Several videos exist of people running across the street or hiding behind UN armour vehicles in an effort to get any sort of food from stores.

Sarajevo was a city under siege and with an airport controlled by Serbs.

Today sniper alley is safe and Sarajevo is the fastest growing city in Bosnia.  It is also a city with a significant historical past way past the Balkan wars.

On Sunday, 28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo; an event that set in place a chain of events that led to World War I. As his car drove past a 19 year old Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip stepped forward and drew his pistol – a Belgium M 1910 .380 ACP Semi-Automatic – and shot the Archduke in the neck.

Today, Princip is remembered as a national hero by many Serbians with a statue erected to his memory in Eastern Sarajevo (Srpska Sarajevo) and one in Belgrade.

Despite being know chiefly for tragic historical events, Sarajevo is not without its footballing history.  

Over the years Bosnia contributed numerous top quality footballers to the Yugoslavian national team; many of them players with outstanding technical ability. Back in 1968 Matt Busby led Manchester United to the European Cup triumph over Benfica at Wembley Stadium. Lesser known is that 6 months earlier the men from Old Trafford had struggled past FK Sarajevo in round two.

The Stadion Asim Ferhatović Hase ground, also known as the Kosevo Stadium or Olympic Stadium, did not prove to be a graveyard for Manchester United back on that run to the 1968 final.  

Today its immediate surrounds tell a story of the war and death.

Numerous graveyards line the streets on the way to the ground, converted into graveyard during the war to bury the dead.  Each grave seems to tell a story of the Bosnian war.  After close inspection almost every gravestone states that the person died between 1992 and 1996.

Despite this background of fractious war and ethnic division, football in this part of Europe has improved greatly in recent years.

Between 2011 and 2012 the Bosnian FA (NSBiH) was run by a FIFA imposed normalization committee due to internal ethnic conflicts in the association. Accusations of unethical behavior were rife.  

To solve the dispute the one time manager of the Yugoslav national team Ivica Osim was put in charge of selection alongside a range of other former players.  

By the summer of 2014 things had improved dramatically.

Under a new manager (the one time Yugoslavian national team midfielder Safet Susic) the country qualified for the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.  Moreover, the squad has many high quality international players including goalkeeper Asmir Begovic and forward Edin Dzeko.

However, top quality football in the Bosnian Premier Liga is lacking at the moment and there are few stars playing in the set up. The fans are essentially what the Sarajevo derby games are all about.  

A spectacular atmosphere occurs with pyrotechnics, loud chants and flags used.

FK Sarajevo v. Široki Brijeg

On a warm Sunday evening FK Sarajevo have a Bosnian Premier league game.  

Fans in the city are beginning to congregate and the barman whom served me left me in no doubt a ticket was easily obtainable. Indeed, he had no need to worry – the previous evening had seen me easily gaining a match ticket from the neat little FK Sarajevo club outlet in the city center.

In the central cafes and stylish bars members of the main supporters group Horde Zla sit around listening to Bosnian music as the islamic influences in Sarajevo came to the fore once again.  Despite the live television coverage of the game it looked like a hardcore of enthusiastic fans were gathering.

These are some of the most passionate fans in this part of the world indicated by the motto “Do zadnjeg dana života mog samo Saraj’vo” or ‘to the very last day of my life, only Sarajevo’.  

Once inside you could pick your seat given that a crowd of about 2,500 was expected inside a huge open stadium that holds up to 55,000.  Even the most loyal of Sarajevo fans would agree that more intimate surroundings to play football games are required.

This is also one of the main reasons why the qualification matches of the national team are played at the Bilino Polje Stadium in Zenica.

Despite a paltry crowd the noise inside the stadium was extraordinary.  

Not five minutes in and the game was held up for five minutes thanks to maroon smoke bombs and red flares being thrown onto the pitch.  The referee did contemplate taking the teams off the pitch and the stadium announcer then made an appeal.

Sarajevo were unable to capitalize on home advantage and with the referee angering the home fans regularly.   FK Sarajevo had four or five chances to win the game. 

A full four minutes were added on at the end of the game, and, as so often happens, the visitors scored with the last kick of the ball.

At full time the home fans went absolutely crazy; climbing onto the fence between the tunnel and the players entrance to shout abuse at the visiting team.  The referee meanwhile needed a police escort from the field of play as seats torn from the stands were thrown onto the field.

Olimpia Sarajevo – A Side Show

Just one day before another Bosnian league match had taken place.

At the top of the Bosnian football system sits the BH Premier League of Bosnia.  

Currently it is contested by 16 clubs drawn from both Bosnia Herzegovina and the Republic of Srpska – a region that is effectively a Serbian ruled administrative republic within Bosnia.  The current league is a ‘national’ league encompassing clubs from the entire Bosnian region.

All ethnic communities including Bosniak, Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat are represented in the league.

On this particular afternoon the visitors to Sarajevo were a club from the Republika of Srpska – FK Borac Banja Luka. As noted the Republik of Srpska is one of the two political entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Banja Luka today serves as the de-facto capital of Bosnian Serb politics although Sarajevo remains as the official capital city.

People of a Serbian ethnic background out number Bosniaks in Banja Luka hugely – 106,000 Serbs to only 28,000 Bosniaks according to one estimate.

FK Borac Banja Luka are the most popular club from Srpska and play in colours symbolically representative of the Serbian flag – blue, red and white.   The playing kit is an almost exact replica of the current Serbian national team kit.

Football in Sarajevo is dominated by the big two of FK Sarajevo and Fudbalski klub Željezničar.  Both are survivors of the Bosnian war but FK Olimpic are a child of the war – only forming in October 1993.  The club name of Olimpic was chosen due to the association of Sarajevo with the 1984 Winter Olympic games.

The Otoka Stadium in the west of the city is small, compact, colorful and modern.  The ground serves as a sporting hotspot for this part of the city and today has enough space to hold 3,000 fans.

Just beside the stadium sits a mosque with familiar domes and minarets dominating on this symbol of Islamic architecture.  During the fixture a call to prayer goes out from the mosque.  The 600 or so fans who are in attendance pay little attention as FK Borac kick off on a warm evening in front of live television cameras.

Due to league rules there are no travelling fans in attendance.

FK Olimpic should have really won this game but failed to take a number of chances as the visitors held on for a point in a 1-1 draw.

While its unlikely that Olimpic will have the resources to challenge the more established Sarajevo clubs it is to the credit of the side that they have fought through financial struggles to become a firm fixture in the Bosnian Premier League.

Unlike the big two they have no fan culture to call on nor an established loyal fan base. But the 500 to 600 who gather each week provide enough support to keep the club ticking over.

Given the location of FK Olympic in Sarajevo it’s not too hard to venture past the Grbavica Stadium home of Željezničar during the long walk back to the center.  This is a stadium which suffered heavy structural damage during the Bosnian War given its location between the front lines.  

From the hills nearby many Serb snipers would shoot at locals crossing small streets.  The stadium withstood heavy fighting with advancing Bosnian Serb armies burning the terraces and stands.

The Yugoslavian and Bosnian national teams have played very few internationals here and the ground has changed little since the war.

You can see some of our images from the Bosnian capital here