Overcoming the Balkan Legacy Through Sport

Contributed by Sanjeev Dasgupta. Check out more of their posts from this summer here.

Balkanize – To divide (a country, a territory etc.) into small, quarrelsome, ineffectual states (Source: Dictionary.com)

Saying that Serbia has had a somewhat turbulent history would be a pretty big understatement. The sheer number of times that the region has seen war and conflict is unbelievable. All the way from the Roman times through the Ottoman occupation and the wars of the 90s, Serbia (and the region) has suffered a lot. The harsh truth about war is that even though regular civilians are hardly ever a part of the actual fighting, they often end up suffering the most. And every time that the region has experienced an extended period of ‘stability,’ it has been wrecked by another conflict. That is the historical legacy of the region. That is the story behind the word ‘Balkanization.’

The Serbian people, in particular, have suffered a lot in the past few years. Be it the wars of the 90s and Milosevic’s reign, which led to international isolation and subsequent economic and social issues. International interventions against Serb activities created a big dent in Serbian pride. Yugoslavia fell apart and Serbs saw their international role take a nosedive after the relative importance of Yugoslavia during the Cold War. Their loose federation with Montenegro fell apart soon after. The last big blow came as Kosovo declared independence in 2008, soon after being recognized by almost 100 other nations. After so many big ‘defeats’ how could the Serb populace recover? As economics and politics repeatedly failed to give them hope, what could the Serbs turn to?

The answer? Sport. One thing that has struck me in the three weeks I’ve spent here is the love and passion Serbians have for sports. My host dad proudly tells me every other day that Serbia is one of the best teams in Water Polo. The other day, I sat down with him to watch a volleyball game and I realized how into the game he was. He kept on cheering the team, even as they struggled against a strong Brazilian side. My friends ran into a host of people celebrating Red Start Belgrade’s victory in the domestic basketball league. They seemed to be pretty passionate supporters. The biggest sporting icon is, of course, Novak Djokovic. The entire country seems to come to a standstill whenever he plays a game. As I sat through the French Open final with my family, this thought struck me again and again. But the event that captured hearts and gripped the populace in the last couple of weeks has been Serbia’s victory in the U-20 FIFA World Cup. Never before have I seen people celebrate so much. There were people running across the city with flags in their hands, shouting at others and celebrating in big groups. There was a huge rally outside the city hall where the returning team met its triumphant supporters. The event was graced with speeches, songs, the national anthem, flares, chants and even a group of white doves, which were released by someone in the team management to celebrate the moment.

For a country ravaged by wars and conflicts, a country which has experienced setback after setback in the political and economic realm, a country which is still struggling to reconcile with its extremely nationalistic activities in the recent past, sport comes as a means to escape it all. It has gripped the majority of the Serbian populace at a time where they experience frustration and disillusionment with other aspects of Serbian society. The term ‘balkanize’ has continuously haunted these people, as many consider the current state to be largely ineffectual. Yet, they’ve found their escape from that disappointment and complexity. They will have to deal with it sooner rather than later. But in the meantime, sport has successfully managed to bring large parts of the country together. When big things don’t go your way, one often starts appreciating the smaller ones, making them bigger in the process. Often seen purely as source of entertainment in many other parts of the world, sport has become a key element of Serbian society today, encouraging celebration and passion in light of an otherwise precarious future.


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