If you’ve ever been to Mostar you’ll probably remember it being fairly confusing, fairly segregated and fairly oh look there’s that bridge. The largest town in Herzegovina, the city and the area surrounding it come complete with more Croatian flags than you can shake a stick at, despite being an integral part of the independent state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Then comes the talk of the town, that the city is divided along ethnic lines. On the east of Bulevar (the main road) live the Bosniaks, with streets named after Maršal Tito and Ivan Krndelj. The west is inhabited by Catholic Croats, the streets named after Croat towns and heroes.
The story goes that on the west you can’t buy Bosnian beer, only Croatian brands like Karlovačko and Ožjusko. The story is false, but the quality of Sarajevsko (the main Bosnian beer) leads one to wish it was true. As you walk deeper into the west you eventually come to a neighbourhood called Brijeli Brijeg, and within it a concrete bowl of a football stadium. A famous stadium, one that welcomed teams such as Derby County, Spartak Moscow and Borussia Dortmund in the 1970s and 80s. It is also ‘home’ to the current champions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Inverted commas? Of course. Nothing in Mostar is quite how it seems after all.
HŠK Zrinjski Mostar are the oldest football club in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Established in 1905, they were originally called Đački Športski Klub (Students Sports Club) before changing their name to Zrinjski in 1912. Exclusively a Croatian team, they were helped by the cultural society Hrvoje and the 1912 name was taken from a Croatian noble family from years gone by. The club were banned during World War One, but after the war they merged with a club called HROŠK to form Hercegovac. This didn’t last so long however, and in 1922 they reverted to the Zrinjski name.
Another ban came 14 years later, as the club were banned from a tournament in Dalmatia for wearing Croatian colours on their jersey. The club returned once more during World War Two to take part in the Prva HNL as Croatian fascism ran wild. Fascism lost the war however, and all the clubs that had taken part in that league were banned in communist Yugoslavia. Zrinjski was deleted once more.
If Zrinjski represented the Croat nationalist side of the Herzegovinian coin, Velež were undoubtedly the multi-ethnic inclusive side. A club called Ittihad was born in 1906, echoing the inclusiveness of other early Mostar clubs such as Omladina and Zeljeznica. All this friendliness ended when King Alexander tried to end communism in 1921, and one year later Ittihad became Velež (named after the hill that towers over the town). The club disappeared again in 1929, only to rise once more in 1936.
World War Two in Bosnia wasn’t great if you didn’t happen to be Croatian, and this extended to Fk Velež Mostar. Many players and functionaries fought on the Partisan side during the war, meeting their demise on the battlefield or in camps such as Lepoglava. Somewhat ironically translated as ‘nice head’, Lepoglava is the oldest prison in Croatia and housed Tito among others, with many an anti-fascist meeting their end here during the war.
The war ended and Yugoslavia was established once more, and after a spate of Hull City-esque yo-yoing Velež Mostar quickly established themselves as a mid-table side in Yugoslavia’s top division. Frequently punching above their weight, the team’s glory years came in the 1970s as they were affectionately known as the ‘Barcelona of the Balkans’. A succession of second place finishes were enjoyed, as was a fairytale run to the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup in 1975. The team of this time was Yugoslav as all hell, centring on a spine made up of Dušan Bajević (a Serb), Enver Marić (a Bosniak) and Franjo Vladić (a Croat). The beginning of the 1970s also saw the club move into the stadium at Bijeli Brijeg, where 25,000 regularly crammed in to see the pride of Herzegovina play.
Medals came in the 1980s, as Velež became the first Bosnian team to win the Yugoslav Cup in 1981, defeating fellow Bosnians Željezničar 3-2 in a thrilling final. Five years later they repeated this feat, smashing Dinamo Zagreb 3-1 in Belgrade. The Rođeni (the Born) made the final again in 1989, although it may be best not to mention a 6-1 hammering by Partizan Belgrade on that day. Velež were a popular team throughout Yugoslavia, and were the second team for many all over the country. In 1991 they also found themselves ranked 53rd overall in Europe, ahead of teams like Manchester United, AS Roma and Valenica.
Then, war. The faeces met the fan in Bosnia in 1992, and the Franjo Tuđjman-backed Croatis in Herzegovina established the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia, led by Mate Boban. Mostar was its capital, and the muslims living on the west of the city were swiftly expelled by the HVO (Croatian Defence Council). This extended to associations, and Velež were kicked out of Bijeli Brijeg. Zrinjski were re-established in the Catholic pilgrimage town of Međugorje in 1992, but they quickly moved to take over the stadium. They have remained there to this very day. Velež were shunted out to the market village Vrapčiči, and whilst they’ve managed to make a home out of lemons the times they have fallen on deserve a stronger word than ‘hard’ to accurately describe them.
Much like all the other republics of the former Yugoslavia, domestic football in Bosnia is of a poor standard, an adjective that can only truly be deemed generous. Zrinjski and Velež wouldn’t meet until the new millennium, when the two played out a 2-2 draw in a friendly in Sarajevo. Since then Zrinjski has flowered as Velež has floundered, the former winning four Bosnian titles and the latter doing a decent impression of a goldfish circling a drain.
As the 2015/16 season came to a close, Velež Mostar propped up the top league with an embarrassing nine points, some 30 points from safety. They had gone 18 games without winning, and their points tally was the joint-worst in the league since Žepče managed ust seven in 2008. For those who happen to be wondering the lowest tally record is held by poor Đerzelez, who amassed four points in 2001 with a frankly incredibly goal difference of minus 188.
The increasing sectarianism of modern Mostar is mirrored in the clubs. The rabid nationalism of Zrinjski flows stronger than ever, but more depressingly Velež’s image as a multi-ethnic inclusive club has begun to diminish somewhat. Most of the Serbs have left town, meaning Velež has become to represent only the beleaguered Bosniaks in the town. The junior teams of both are entirely mono-ethnic.
To this day, Velež have been unable to beat Zrinjski at the Bijeli Brijeg. They technically did in 2011, but even that comes with a caveat. Leading 1-0 in a Bosnian cup match, the Velež players were chased off the pitch by angry Zrinjski supporters, leading to the game being abandoned and Velež being awarded a 3-0 success. It is no stretch to say that Velež won’t ever win a 90-minute football match against Zrinjski at their true home.
Far from being respected as the number one team in the country, Zrinjski are so closely identified with the angry nationalism of its history and supporters that they resented as much as they are disliked. For fear of simplifying the situation however, the club are in many respects tigers backed into a corner. Throughout their history they have routinely been banned and excluded for being who they are, is it not inevitable that they would be angry? Whether you agree with their ideology or not (most, myself included, don’t), the reasons for its existence are surely clear.
As for Velež, bleak doesn’t do justice to how miserable their future looks. This isn’t the first time they’ve been relegated from the Bosnian top league, but poor administration and a complete lack of money means that unless a remarkable group of Bosniak young football stars happen upon Mostar in the near future the only Mostar derbies will take place in the cup. It’s a long cry from the days of vanquishing Derby County and Spartak Moscow in a packed stadium in West Mostar.