Playing Past is delighted to be publishing on Open Access – Sport and Leisure on the Eve of World War One, [ISBN 978-1-910029-15-2]  – This eclectic collection of papers has its origins in a symposium hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Sport and Leisure History research team on the Crewe campus between 27 and 28 June 2014. Contributors came from many different backgrounds and included European as well as UK academics with the topics addressed covering leisure as well as sport.


Please cite this article as:

Zec, Dejan. and Paunović, Miloš. Kick-Off in Europe’s Powder Keg: Cooperation and Confrontation in Football in South Slavic Lands 1900-1914, In Day, D. (ed), Sport and Leisure on the Eve of World War One (Manchester: MMU Sport and Leisure History, 2016), 187-206.





Kick-Off in Europe’s Powder Keg: Cooperation and Confrontation in Football in South Slavic Lands 1900-1914.

Dejan Zec and Miloš Paunović




The very beginning of the twentieth century was a time of turbulence and crises in South East Europe. The on-going and rapid decay of the Ottoman Empire, violent power shifts and instability in the Kingdom of Serbia, the readiness of the young and potent Balkan nations to expand their territories and the desire of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to impose its influence and authority on the troubled region, reached its peak in this period. It all resulted in a series of low and mid-level incidents and confrontations, political, economic and cultural, which eventually contributed significantly to the outbreak of the First World War. At the same time, the ideals of the European civic life, including leisure practices such as playing and watching football and other sports, were gradually introduced to the population of the Balkan cities and towns, firstly by their fellow countrymen who were fortunate enough to travel, work or study abroad, predominantly in Central Europe. The very fact that the first football contacts between Serbia and other parts of the so-called ʼSlavic Southʼ (Croatia, Slovenia, Dalmatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) with the rest of the world were with Austria-Hungary and Germany, resulted in some interesting developments. Those who first brought knowledge of football to Serbia were Austro-Hungarian citizens, predominantly Czechs, Croats and Hungarians. They taught young Serbian students to play during their visits to Budapest, Zagreb, Prague or Vienna. Once the first Serbian football clubs had been founded in the first decade of the twentieth century, some skilled footballers from Austria-Hungary even moved to Serbia in order to play and improve the game and contacts between clubs from Serbia and Austria-Hungary were numerous between 1903 and 1914. Relationships were generally cordial and friendly but they also depended on politics and they got worse during periods of political crises (notably during the Bosnian Annexation Crisis of 1908) when football matches often became a stage for violent outbursts of nationalism and political agitation. The quality of relationships between Serbia and Austria-Hungary also depended on the ethnic identities of the clubs. These football connections between Serbia and Austria-Hungary were immensely important in establishing the sport and are worth examining in detail since it tells us more about the spread of the game in Europe in such a crucial period. In addition, the complex regional political situation can possibly be made clearer by examining this football history and off-setting it against the political and social realities of societies in question.  

Keywords: Football; Austria-Hungary; Serbia; South Slavic Lands; Cooperation; Confrontation.


Sitting on the powder keg – The Balkans at the turn of the century

In the last two centuries, ever since the Western powers involved themselves in the Balkans, the region has been usually depicted as a dark and troubled place, even as a place, as Vesna Goldsworthy wrote, of deep mysticism and occult dread.[1] In fact, the Balkan region was just another turbulent part of Europe, torn between the desire for national liberation within the smaller nations, the cruel oppression by the decaying empires, and the geostrategic calculations of the great powers. By the end of the nineteenth century, it seemed that the Balkans had been appeased. Serbia and Montenegro had been recognized as independent countries by the great powers at the Berlin congress of 1878, Hungarian elites had secured a favourable deal with the Habsburgs that breathed new life into the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Bosnia and Herzegovina was occupied by the Austro-Hungarian forces. The Central-European monarchy effectively drove out the Ottoman state from the western part of the Balkans and vowed to modernize the province without unsettling, at least not excessively, the local way of life (ultimately, with limited success).[2] However, the peace that followed the agreement of 1878 was very fragile indeed. Serbs felt they were denied the opportunity to incorporate what they believed were Serbian lands (large parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia) into their independent state.[3] Croats still dreamt of independence from Budapest and Vienna and resurrection of the medieval Croatian Kingdom, and the southern parts of the Balkan Peninsula became a stage for violent clashes between Serbian, Bulgarian, Greek and Albanian national movements and territorial claims over the spoils of the dying Ottoman Empire.[4]

The period between 1878 and 1914 saw incredible political, economic and social shifts in the region. The firm control Austria-Hungary established over Serbia as her protector from the Ottoman danger after the Berlin Congress of 1878, caused a great number of connections to be made between Serbia and other Slavic parts of Austria-Hungary, especially the regions where Serbs lived together with Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Previously, when Serbia was formally a part of the Ottoman Empire and thus incapable of having an independent foreign policy, the Austro-Hungarian Serbs were not considered as a major political force in the state, not even after the turbulent and revolutionary years of 1848 and 1849, when the military forces of Serbs from South Hungary loyal to Habsburgs, together with volunteers from the Principality of Serbia, significantly helped the government in Vienna to crush the Hungarian rebellion.[5] However, after 1878 they represented a bridge between the South Slavic nations of Austria-Hungary and the independent Serbia, an unstable country at the time, with various political forces having differing ideas about the new country’s regional policy.[6] Austro-Hungarian involvement in the Balkan politics, its meddling in internal Serbian political and economic life, suppression of the Croatian political revival and, to top it all, occupation and later annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, awoke a Slavic nationalism. This encouraged various different ideologies to emerge, ranging from chauvinist ethnic nationalism to pan-Slavic idealism and the promotion of the ideas of South Slavic brotherhood and unity.[7] Both nationalism and ʼYugoslavismʼ, although contested, presented a major threat to the political stability of the region, most notably a fragile Austria-Hungary. In the political sense, these connections and confrontations resulted in a series of low and mid-level incidents, political, economic and cultural, which, in the long run, contributed heavily to the outbreak of the First World War. On the other hand, they also forced otherwise very closed and conservative Balkan societies to open up and to accept different cultural patterns. The age of confrontation was thus also an age of exploration.

The birth of the new Europe – Football as a sign of modernism

The turn of the century was a period that saw great changes in the social life of whole Europe, including the Balkans. Those changes came as a consequence of the political and economic shifts of the mid-nineteenth century.[8] Europe was becoming more and more connected and the periphery of the continent was no longer excluded from what was going on in the continental metropolises. By the end of the nineteenth century, Belgrade, the Serbian capital city, still a rather small and shabby settlement of about 70.000 people, was connected with Zagreb, Vienna, Budapest, Paris, Istanbul and other European cities. The railways, built with great effort and sacrifice, put Serbia on the map of modern Europe. Even more important than its connections to the West, the Balkan region itself was changing dramatically as well. The establishment of new independent states in the region, and the process of building their own state apparatus meant that a new class of educated clerks and civil servants was emerging and they were a backbone of the region’s new rising middle class.[9] At the same time, a slow but on-going process of industrialization and urbanization gave birth to a rather small but very active working class as well. The workers and those who constituted middle class were the people who were genuinely interested in seeing their societies and countries being modernized. Gradually, one step at a time, the new and rising urban population of the Balkans discovered the way of life then common to the citizens of Western countries.[10] The circulation of the daily press was steadily rising, theatres and cabarets were not a rare sight by the end of the century, and, most importantly for the story, sport was no longer considered a foolish pastime of the idle, but a vital part of modern urban life.[11]

Serbs and other Slavic nations of the Balkans became acquainted with the modern notion of sport in the mid-nineteenth century. Prior to that, a few sporting relics from the middle ages had been nurtured but these so-called sports represented nothing more than brutal fist fights or various forms of wrestling.[12] Gradually, Serbian enthusiasts keen on the notion of developing and supporting physical culture, and inspired by the European romanticism of the mid-nineteenth century, had managed to remodel brutal physical competitions into a movement with distinctive romantic and even medieval touches. Thus, the so-called chivalric societies were born. They represented associations of citizens who nurtured traditional forms of physical exercise and competition, with a romantic medieval twist. By the end of the nineteenth century, dozens of chivalric societies had been formed throughout Serbia and, in 1892, they were all united in one organization, the ‘Association of Chivalric Societies “Dušan the Mighty”‘.[13]

Figure 1
Chivalric Society ʼDušan the Mightyʼ, Belgrade section, 1910.

The modern concept of physical exercise as an important part of urban culture was introduced from the Czech lands, through so-called Sokol (Falcon) societies. Sokols were gymnastics groups who combined physical exercise with segments of Slavic and Czech national folklore and mythology, thus representing more a nationalist political organization than a sporting one.[14] Sokols were very popular in Slavic parts of Austria-Hungary and their popularity had spread to Serbia by the end of the nineteenth century. Educated and cultivated Serbs saw the Sokols as more refined and modern versions of the chivalric societies, with an agenda that was at the same time both patriotic and inclusive. It was very fashionable to be a Sokol and all the members of Serbian high society lined up in support. At the very end of the nineteenth century, the region also saw the rise of proper modern competitive sports, most notably football.[15]

Football came to the Balkans in the 1880s and many researchers have tried to reconstruct the exact paths by which it came into the region. There are plenty of disputes about this and different Balkan regions and cities take immense pride in being the first to play football. What can be said with certainty is that football came to the Balkans in the 1880s, via two different paths and that both of them were the result of the gradual opening of the region to the world. Firstly, sailors from Great Britain, Dutch port cities, and northern Germany introduced football to the population of the coastal cities of the Adriatic such as Trieste, Rijeka, Zadar and Split, and, from those cities, the sport penetrated the inland of the peninsula. A newspaper report states that two sides made up from a British marine crew played a football match in the port city of Zadar in 1887, in front of many amazed spectators.[16] In addition, many British engineers and workers were engaged in building industrial infrastructure in the Balkans and they brought their customs and games along with them. In Županja, a small town in Croatia, British workers at the local tannin factory founded a proper football club in 1880 and incorporated locals into it.[17] On the other hand, football was also advancing into Balkans via Austro-Hungarian officials, soldiers and engineers, stationed across Croatia, Dalmatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most of them were young men from Vienna, Prague and Budapest and by the late 1880s football had already become an important part of their everyday lives and they, naturally, wanted to maintain their familiar activities in their new surroundings. The ‘Weird game’ of the foreigners caught the attention of the Balkan youngsters who wanted to learn how to play it. Serbia, meanwhile, followed a slightly different path in terms of football development. Football came late to Serbia, with a 10-year delay when compared to Croatia, and those responsible for the introduction of football to the Serbian public were youngsters and students who were studying abroad, mainly at Austrian, Swiss and German universities.[18] They founded the first clubs at the turn of the century and they were the ones who battled against the conservative Serbian public and its reluctance to accept the new sport.

Figure 2
Serbian politician and Sokol activist Ljubomir Jovanović, surrounded by sportsmen.

Perhaps the most valuable consequence, speaking in the long run, of the rapid expansion of football in the Balkan region at the turn of the century, beside the fact that the ‘beautiful’ game was firmly established, was the way that football brought people of different nations, religions or social backgrounds together. In the second half of the nineteenth century, despite progressive reforms being made by the central government in Vienna, large parts of the Balkans still felt the strong grip of the sectarian divisions of the past. In parts of Croatia and Slavonia, despite the general rapprochement achieved during the nineteenth century as the result of mutual political goals, alienation was still very strong between Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats. Children attended elementary schools organized and controlled by their religious authorities, cultural organizations were predominantly divided on ethnic basis and fierce debates and disputes continued over the political future of Croatia and the status of Serbs and other minorities.[19] In Bosnia and Herzegovina, occupied and annexed by Austria-Hungary from the Ottoman Empire, the situation was even more complicated. The Bosnian Muslim population had distanced itself from their Christian neighbours because of the anger and fear they felt after the Ottomans had been driven away from Bosnia in 1878. Children and youngsters of different nationalities rarely mingled and, because of the pressure from their elders, they had very few things in common.

Figure 3
Poster for the First Croatian Sokol rally in Zagreb in 1906.

Sports, however, football in particular, were among the few things that those confronted and alienated nations had in common. The already mentioned Sokols, transferred to the Balkans from Czech parts of Austria-Hungary, became very popular in the 1860s and 1870s. Czech outcasts and pioneers of physical activity and sports who came to the Balkans in large numbers, brought not only the modern concept of the necessity of physical exercise to the people, but also notions of Slavic unity and brotherhood.[20] The Sokol associations of Croatia and Bosnia were the first truly multicultural and multi-ethnic organizations of its age.[21]

The first football clubs of the 1890s and early 1900s, which continued the practice of the Sokols, had instituted and fully accepted the idea of multi-ethnicity and equality of all the nations. They promoted not just a modern and civic ideal of a sporting organizing but also a very specific political agenda, which gathered all non-Hungarian nations of Croatia in a struggle against the government in Budapest. The period between 1900 and 1914, saw a football boom in Croatia and Dalmatia, with numerous clubs being founded in large cities and towns, especially in the city of Zagreb. ʼHAŠKʼ (Croatian Academic Sports Club), the club of the Zagreb students and academic youth, was founded in 1903, ʼConcordiaʼ (Unity) was founded in 1906 and ʼGradjanskiʼ (Citizens’ Club), without any doubt the most popular and successful club in Croatia before 1945, was founded in 1911.[22] Dalmatian students in Prague, both Croats and Serbs, founded a football club in 1911, enchanted by the game played by the Czech football giants, ʼSlaviaʼ and ʼSpartaʼ, and named it ʼHajdukʼ (Brigand), after popular heroes of Dalmatian and Balkan history, who were famous for opposing repressive foreign governments.

The provocative name of the club and the club’s symbols and colours, which actually represented the national colours of the Croatian people, represented a political statement and they were greeted with hostility by the local Austro-Hungarian authorities. All of these clubs, including the Croatian Sports Federation that was created by the representatives of the Croatian football clubs, represented the entire population of Croatia, including a large number of Serbs who were very keen to participate in these events and very large Croatian Jewish, German and Czech minorities.[23]

Figure 4
Croatian students in Prague, founders of ʼHajdukʼ football club, 1911.

This coalition of nations, so to speak, gathered around Croatian football, was a good indicator of the actual political situation in Croatia and Dalmatia, where Serbo-Croatian majority formed a firm coalition in their joint struggle against the oppression by the Hungarian authorities. This confrontation between the Serbs and Croats on one side and Hungarians on the other was also visible in football, because the vast majority of the Hungarians in Croatia did not want to be members of these multi-ethnic clubs. In April 1911, a small but influential Hungarian community in Zagreb tried to create their own football club, ʼZagrabi Magyar torna klubʼ, and the news that a constituent assembly of the club was to be held in one of Zagreb’s pubs drew a huge and angry Croatian crowd to the streets.[24] Vigilant protesters dispersed the Hungarian footballers’ assembly, throwing bottles at them and insulting them on national basis. As a response to Hungarian attempts to form an ethnically homogenous football club in Croatian capital Zagreb, local football enthusiasts from all other Zagreb football clubs and of different nationalities and religions, only few days later formed a united club which represented the entire city – ʼGradjanskiʼ.[25] As for other sporting clubs in Croatia, the constitution of a Croatian sporting club of the early 1900s says it all: ʼEvery educated, honest and independent man can be a member of our sporting clubʼ.[26] The same applied for all civic sporting associations: boxing, alpinism, swimming, bicycling etc.

In Serbia, the situation was very similar to the one in Croatia but also reflected on some of the specificities of Serbian society at the beginning of the twentieth century. Serbia was not as multi-ethnic as Croatia so the percentage of ethnic minorities involved in early Serbian football clubs was lower, but nevertheless, other ethnic communities were well represented, especially the Serbian Jewish population.[27] The urban population of Serbia, after the expatriation of the Ottoman Turks, consisted of Serbs, Jews, Greeks, Armenians and Aromanians and later, after Serbia had undergone a process of industrialization in the late nineteenth century, of Czech and German experts, who came to Serbia to develop its industrial potential. One can trace members of all of those nationalities whilst researching the origins of Serbian football. Members of the expatriate community living in Serbia did not contribute to the development of Serbian football only with their knowledge of the sport but also in helping with various practical issues. For example, foreign merchants who lived and worked in Serbia used their business connections to acquire football equipment – balls, boots, jerseys, which were very hard to obtain in Serbia. Another thing specific to Serbia is the so-called sprit of national liberation, an idealistic view of Serbia’s recent history which was very much present in temporal narratives. Pride felt over Serbia’s accomplishments was used both as a propaganda tool and also as a tool of political actions in neighbouring countries, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. When it came to football, many Serbian football clubs nurtured patriotic and even nationalistic symbolism – some of the best Serbian football clubs of the time carried nationalist symbolism in their names: ʼSrpski mačʼ (Serbian sword) and ʼVelika Srbijaʼ (Greater Serbia) are just two of them.[28] Almost all Serbian football clubs adopted the Serbian national colours ‒ red, blue and white, as their club colours too.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, perhaps the most backward province of the entire region (not including parts of the Balkan peninsula still governed by the Ottomans), football especially helped young educated people to build a sort of supranational identity that went beyond separate Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Muslim identities, but incorporated various Bosnian traditions and merged them into one joint narrative. This can be considered as an enormous achievement in an environment where for centuries any authority was imposed and practised by using ethnic and religious antagonisms. There is a very interesting story about one high school football club from Sarajevo, founded by members of all three nations, and a football match the club played in the city of Split in 1911. The local organizers of the match renamed the Sarajevo club to ʼOsmanʼ football club because they wanted to add the oriental mystique to the event for commercial purposes.[29] The guests from Sarajevo were delighted and actually later changed its name to ʼOsmanʼ. The fact that a part of Ottoman heritage of Bosnia was accepted by all the club members, Serbs, Croats and Muslims respectively, as something that was acceptable for club identification shows that young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina had more things in common than most people had imagined. The ethnic stratification of football clubs in Bosnia eventually did happen, but it was caused by different circumstances in a completely different political framework, in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, during the interwar period.


When cooperation in the pre-WWI football in the western Balkans is considered, two distinctive processes have to be separated, and they were happening at the same time although they were effectively independent of each other – the formation of the first genuine and modern football clubs (very inclusive by their nature and representing a continuation of the national rapprochement process of the 1880s and 1890s and inclusive policy of the Slavic Sokols in the Habsburg lands), and the actual contacts and matches played between the football clubs from Serbia and the Slavic parts of Austria-Hungary. The political situation in the entire region was favourable for the rapprochement of Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims, in all possible ways – political, cultural and economic. In Croatia-Slavonia and Dalmatia, distinguished Croatian and Serbian political leaders found themselves in agreement in opposing the pressures from Vienna and Budapest, which gradually led to the creation of the so-called Serbo-Croatian coalition, a political force that dominated the political life of Croatia for years. In addition, the spirit of romanticism and anti-clericalism appealed to the intellectuals of both nations, who were beginning to focus on the things which were common, like the language or popular oral literature, and who rejected the things that separated the nations, like religion. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, region suffocated by the Ottomans, the change of government and the Austro-Hungarian occupation also brought many new developments, despite the fact that the rule of the Habsburgs was not very pleasant for the vast majority of the population, regardless their ethnicity or religion. Even the Bosnian Muslims, who felt vulnerable after the departure of the Ottomans, had the opportunity to develop a new elite that would be more connected to the European values and to their Christian neighbours and to replace the old conservative leaders, who were still entangled in religion and Ottoman feudalism.

A very important part of the cooperation process, useful for both sides in both sporting and political fields, were the friendly matches played between the clubs from Serbia and Croatia. One of the most important of such events was the visit of the group of Serbian footballers to Zagreb in 1911, where they played two matches against the Croatian club ʼHAŠKʼ. The importance of this match lies in the fact that Serbian footballers came to Croatia not as representatives of individual football clubs but as the National football team of the Kingdom of Serbia, which was making a political statement for that time. The Croatian football clubs did not want to be the part of the Hungarian Football Association but wanted to form a Croatian Football Association that would be recognized by FIFA.[30] HAŠK, being the leading football club in Croatia in the first decade of the twentieth century, was leading the battle. In 1911, HAŠK invited football clubs from Serbia to come to Zagreb and participate in a friendly football tournament. Serbian footballers organized themselves and managed to form one ad-hoc team, which gathered players from various clubs although most of them were the members of ʼSrpski mačʼ.[31] They called themselves the Serbian national football team and went to Zagreb despite the opposition of Radivoj Novaković, the ʼSrpski mačʼ chairman, who thought that Serbian footballers were not ready to face a much better Croatian side, and that eventually they would embarrass themselves. He was proven right and ʼHAŠKʼ scored two easy victories, 8:0 and 6:0.[32] Despite Novaković being furious, this match between ʼHAŠKʼ and the Serbian team had much greater importance and actually represented both the desire of the Croatian football teams to get support from Serbia in their fight for football independence from the Hungarians and a political statement about Serbo-Croatian friendship and alliance.

Figure 5.
Football match in Belgrade, 1913.

Friendly football matches between Serbian and Croatian clubs continued until the beginning of the First World War and they were usually followed by expressions of Serbo-Croatian friendship. The last scheduled match, which should have been played in Belgrade between the Serbian club ‘Velika Srbija’ and Croatian club ‘HAŠK’ in June 1914, was cancelled at the last minute because of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Croatian footballers were stopped at the border and ordered to go back to Zagreb by an Austro-Hungarian border patrol.[33]


Confrontations, on the other hand, were much rarer than people would have expected given the political circumstances. Regional football clubs, no matter if they were Serbian, Croatian or Bosnian, usually made only short trips in order to play friendly football matches, as statistical data confirms.[34] That sort of inclination was caused by various reasons, some of them financial in nature, as most of the football clubs could not afford to spend the amounts of money required for trips abroad, but some were also a matter of political preference – whether a club travelled to face a friendly club and its crowd or the opposite. Before 1914, Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian clubs played most of their international football matches against each other, but, on the other hand, many football matches were also played against the clubs of the conflicting Balkan nations. Many football matches were played in the period between 1900 and 1914 where Serbian clubs confronted Hungarian or German teams and most of the reports suggest that they were played in a good spirit and atmosphere. Even on occasions when a lone shout from the terraces would insult the guests on ethnic or religious basis, the press would always point out that it was a shameful and disgraceful act of a single individual. There were only few real football-related incidents in the period and none of them was of a serious nature, although some caused football matches to be interrupted. Most importantly, all the incidents were caused by politics.

The first proper brawl at a football match happened in 1908 and it was a result of a tension generated by high politics, in this particular case, the intention of the Habsburg Empire to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina. In August 1908, a few months before the actual act of annexation but in the midst of turbulent diplomatic games where the fate of Bosnia and Herzegovina was being determined, a football match in Belgrade was scheduled between ʼŠumadijaʼ from Kragujevac, one of the best clubs in central Serbia, and ʼBačkaʼ from Subotica, a Croatian club from what was then southern Hungary.[35] Despite the fact that ʼŠumadijaʼ and ʼBačkaʼ were long time sporting friends and had already played several friendly football matches in previous years, the very momentum of this 1908 football match was charged with negative energy. Responding to the political tensions, several nationalist groups from Belgrade reacted negatively to the scheduled football match, insulting and attacking guests from Subotica. Among the attackers were members of the ʼSrpski mačʼ football club.[36] The players from Subotica actually suggested the hosts cancel the match but the response from the Serbian club was negative and their explanation was that they would not allow politics to ruin the sporting connections between the two clubs. They stated: ʼ…ʼŠumadijaʼ football club got the permission from the Belgrade Council Court to host their dear guests from Subotica and to organize a football show and deeply regrets the behaviour of ʼSrpski mačʼ membersʼ.[37] On the day of the match a group of nationalist protestors gathered in front of the stadium in Belgrade in attempt to stop it. The Serbian gendarmerie, which was deployed around the ground, reacted efficiently and violently and dispersed the protesters. Despite the fact that the incident was not a major one, the atmosphere at the match itself was gloomy and negative. The ʼBačkaʼ team won the match with the result 10:3.[38]

Fortunately for football, this deterioration of relations did not last long and the ʼŠumadijaʼ players visited Subotica and played a return match against ʼBačkaʼ in 1911. This return match in 1911 also had a certain curiosity because several players of the Serbian team were denied to enter Austria-Hungary due to invalid travel visas.[39] Whether this was the true reason for their retention or if some higher political issue was involved, cannot be determined with certainty. The result of the ban was that only eight Serbian players reached Subotica and that local footballers filled in for those who were prohibited to travel, which was another sign of great football friendship between the two clubs.[40] ʼBačkaʼ won the match by 5:1 and one of the participants, Danilo Stojanović, wrote: ʼBlame for such high defeat goes to our goalkeeper Mihailović, who stood in front of our goal wearing the national costume from Šumadija, posing rather than doing actual goalkeeping…ʼ.[41] Wearing the national costume in a football match only makes sense as a political statement.

From then on, incidents became more frequent and by 1914 a spectator at a football match played between Serbian and Austro-Hungarian clubs could expect to witness some kind of excess, usually of a political nature. Jovan Ružić, a young Serbian footballer at the time, gave a precious account of several friendly football matches played between his club ʼVelika Srbijaʼ from Belgrade and various clubs from the neighbouring country in the 1913-14 period. In his memoirs, Ružić remembers five matches in total being played in the space of two years, one against club ʼTACʼ in Timișoara, one against ʼAACʼ in Arad and three against ʼNTKʼ (ʼUACʼ) from Novi Sad.[42] All of these clubs had been defined as ethnically Hungarian, despite the fact that many other ethnicities lived in the cities the clubs came from, most notably Serbs, Romanians and Jews. Another thing that is worthy of mention is that all of those clubs were among the better ones in Hungary, competing in upper football divisions.[43] In spring of 1914, ʼVelika Srbijaʼ went on a small tour to the region of Banat, to promote Serbian football, and arranged to play against ʼTACʼ and ʼAACʼ. The first match played in Timișoara was never finished. Near the end of the second half, after the Serbian club had equalized to 2:2, an ecited crowd invaded the pitch in celebration.[44] Some 3.000 to 4.000 people, mostly local Serbs and Romanians, attended the match and the pitch invasion was a result of both the dramatic equalizer and a crowd’s wish to express their pro-Serbian and anti-Hungarian sentiment. The celebrating crowd was dispersed by the Hungarian police and the match was abandoned. In reaction to these events, the Hungarian organizers prepared a demonstration of their own only a few days later in Arad. The match between ʼVelika Srbijaʼ and ʼAACʼ was played in front of exclusively Hungarian crowd, which supported its team loudly and frantically. Also, the ʼAACʼ footballers played a rough game, with the help of the blind-eye from the referee. In the end, victory belonged to ʼACCʼ with the result 4:1, and ʼVelika Srbijaʼ finished the match with only seven players on the field.[45]

Just before the outbreak of the First World War, ʼVelika Srbijaʼ from Belgrade arranged to play three football matches against ʼUACʼ (Újvidéki Atlétikai Club), a Hungarian club from the predominantly Serbian city of Novi Sad. Two of those matches were played in Novi Sad and both of them were followed by political demonstrations by local Serbs, who celebrated Serbia’s victories in the Balkan Wars. The Serbian population of Austria-Hungary, especially in those regions where they represented a majority of the population, or a large minority, like the regions of Srem and Bačka in southern Hungary, felt quite jubilant about the achievements of their independent Motherland and hoped that someday they might be incorporated into it. Mass manifestations, like football matches, especially the ones that carried great symbolism (ʼVelika Srbijaʼ means Greater Serbia), were the ideal stage for expressing nationalistic sentiments. Footballers of ʼVelika Srbijaʼ were cheered and greeted with enthusiasm across Novi Sad and the Hungarian police had to respond vigorously in order to prevent further demonstrations.[46] The matches between ʼVelika Srbijaʼ and ʼUACʼ in spring of 1914 were the last international football matches Serbian teams played before the Great War. The next time the two opponents would meet, they would play for the Yugoslav football championship. Confrontation in football in the western Balkans was always political in nature and was predominantly between Serbs, seen as representatives of the Serbia’s outward-looking foreign policy which clashed with Austro-Hungarian designs for the region (especially among the large Serbian minority in Austria-Hungary), and Hungarians. They were trying to prevent the football emotions of the Serbs living in the Dual Monarchy becoming something much bigger and more dangerous. Confrontation also existed between Croatian football structures and Hungarian authorities, because of the wish of Croatian footballers to become less dependent on Budapest. In the process of gaining independence, Serbian and Croatian football structures were natural allies.


At the very beginning of the twentieth century, in the period between 1900 and the start of the Great War in 1914, football was increasingly becoming more important to the people of Slavic parts of the Balkan Peninsula, for those living under Austro-Hungarian rule and for those living in independent Serbia. The political situation in the region, marked by constant confrontation between Serbia and the Habsburg Empire and also by internal discontent within the boundaries of Austria-Hungary, concerning the position of its Slavic subjects and their political aspirations, influenced football profoundly and directed its development, making it an integral part of political games in the region and a tool of political promotion. The first football clubs in Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia, founded in the 1890s and 1900s, were opened to all the people of Croatia, regardless to their ethnicity or religion. A large number of Croatian Serbs, Czechs, Germans and Jews were among the founding members of Croatian football clubs, which were truly tolerant and progressive, and thus confronted Croatian nationalist organizations, religious zealots and pro-Hungarian political forces. The vast majority of Croatian football clubs of the time effectively promoted the political agenda of the Serbo-Croatian Coalition, a major political force in Croatia in the years prior to the First World War. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, occupied by Austria-Hungary in 1878 and annexed in 1908, football was even more important in the process of bringing the estranged nations closer. Serbs, Croats and Muslims, divided and confronted for centuries, were starting to get to know each other better, especially the youth. Youngsters of all three Bosnian nations, as well as Czech and Jewish newcomers to Bosnia, had similar interests and views on life and naturally started to mingle more and more. The first decade of the twentieth century saw the birth of first Bosnian football teams, all multi-ethnic and all nurturing either supranational Bosnian identity and heritage or a joint Yugoslav narrative. The region of Vojvodina, which was a part of Hungary up to 1918, saw a different pattern of football development. Football clubs in Vojvodina were founded by members of a single ethnic or religious group – Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, Germans, Jews or Romanians. Ethnic clubs would compete against each other and political tensions were quite visible – Serbian and Croatian clubs had good relations and Hungarian clubs were in conflict with them. The development of football in independent Serbia was a bit different then in the regions of Austria-Hungary, due to the fact that Serbia was ethnically and religiously much less diverse then the Habsburg Empire. In the decades of the struggle for independence, violent clashes between Serbs and Ottomans caused the ethnic Turks and Albanians to leave Serbia. However, other minorities, who either lived in Serbia for centuries, like Jews and Aromanians, or came to Serbia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, like Germans and Czechs, were represented among the founding fathers of Serbian football. Also, because of its violent history and political position, Serbian football was much more prone to nationalistic ideological influence, but never at the expense of closeness to the other South Slavic nations of the region. Thus cooperation and confrontation are the terms that most accurately describe the state of football in South Slavic lands in the early twentieth century. Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian football clubs were cooperating, playing friendly football matches, helping each other not just to develop its game but also to make political and social statements. On the other hand, confrontations followed football as well, especially when there was an unresolved political issue in the background. Football clubs generally opposed the Austro-Hungarian establishment and its footballing representatives.




[1] Vesna Goldsworthy, Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[2] Robin Okey, Taming Balkan Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 27.

[3] For Serbian diplomatic efforts at the Berlin Congress see David MacKenzie, Jovan Ristic at the Berlin Congress 1878, Serbian Studies, 18 no. 2 (2004).

[4] Leften Stavrianos, The Balkans Since 1453 (New York: Rinehart & Company, 1958), 413-414.

[5] Goran Vasin, Nacionalno-politička borba Srba u Ugarskoj 1848 – 1884, Istraživanja, no. 21, 2010, 316-318.

[6] Stevan K. Pavlović, Istorija Balkana (Belgrade: Clio, 2001), 182-188.

[7] Alex N. Dragnich, The First Yugoslavia – Search for a Viable Political System (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1983), 1-14.

[8] See Harry Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century, 1830 – 1880 (London: Routledge, 1988) chapters ‘The Growth of Industry’ and ‘Diplomacy and Wars’.

[9] Latinka Perović, Politička elita i modernizacija u prvoj deceniji nezavisnosti srpske države, Srbija u modernizacijskim procesima XX veka (Belgrade: INIS, 1994), 236-237.

[10] Dubravka Stojanović, Kaldrma i asfalt: urbanizacija i evropeizacija Beograda 1890-1914 (Belgrade: Udruženje za društvenu istoriju, 2009), 314.

[11] Kaspar Maze, Bezgranična zabava: uspon masovne kulture 1850-1970 (Belgrade: Službeni glasnik, 2008), 53-59.

[12] Spomenica – Srpski sport – 1918-1941 (Belgrade: BINA, 1996), 5.

[13] The association was named after the Serbian medieval emperor, who represented a long forgotten Serbian might and epitomized the Serbian civic nationalism and romanticism of the late nineteenth century. See Saša Nedeljković, Povest saveza viteških društava „Dušan Silniˮ, Zbornik Matice srpske za društvene nauke, 138 (2012): 103-114.

[14] Claire Nolte, The Sokol in the Czech Lands to 1914: Training for the Nation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

[15] Radivoje Marković, Razvitak fizičke kulture i sporta u Beogradu do 1914, Istorija Beograda 2 (Belgrade: Prosveta-BIGZ, 1974), 809-810.

[16] Il Dalmata, September 28, 1887.

[17] Stjepan Tomić, Igranje nogometa u Županji oko 1880. godine, Povijest sporta, 5 (1971): 452-453.

[18] Dejan Zec, The Origin of Soccer in Serbia, Serbian Studies, 24 nos. 1-2 (2010): 137-138.

[19] Serbo-Croatian relations in the nineteenth century in the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia are generally very complicated and their nature ranged from total confrontation to considerable harmony, depending on the issue. The joint feeling, shared by both Serbs and Croats, that their faith lied in the hands of more powerful nations, caused significant rapprochement, especially during the Hungarian revolution of 1848/49, when both Serbs and Croats declared their loyalty to the Habsburgs and fought an armed struggle against Hungarian rebels. The process of finding common ground continued in the second half of the century and in that period several ideas about the political rearrangement of the region emerged and some of them considered unification of all South Slavs in one state, and the backbone of that state would be united Serbs and Croats. Ideas were plentiful but all of them, at least the ones which stood a chance to be successful in the future, were envisaging incorporating Serbs into Croatian political system. For more about history of Serbs in Croatia in the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth see: Vasilije Krestić, Istorija Srba u Hrvatskoj i Slavoniji 1848-1914 (Belgrade: Zavod za udžbenike i nastavna sredstva, 1995).

[20] J. F. N. Bradley, Czech Pan-Slavism before the First World War, The Slavonic and East European Review, 40 no. 94 (1961), 189.

[21] Sveslavensko sokolstvo (Belgrade: Vreme, 1930), 192-193.

[22] Slavoljub Živanović (ed.), Prvi jugoslovenski sportski almanah (Belgrade: Štamparija Drag. Gregorića, 1930), 88-92.

[23] Zvonimir Magdić, Hrvatski akademski športski klub, Sprint, no. 208, 1989, 54.

[24] Zvonimir Magdić, Nezaboravni Purgeri: Gradjanski, Sprint, no. 214, 1989, 54.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Agneza Szabo, O športskim društvima i strukturi njihova članstva na području Banske Hrvatske u 19. stoljeću, Povijest športa, 23, no. 93, 1992, 7.

[27] Founder of the first Serbian football club ʼPrvo srpsko društvo za igru loptomʼ (1899) and one of the true pioneers of football in Serbia was young Hugo Buli, son of a Jewish merchant, who was killed by the Nazis during the Second World War. See: Srbislav Todorović, Fudbal u Srbiji: 1896-1918 (Belgrade: SOFK Zvezdara, 1996), 8.

[28] Some scholars argue that ʼSrpski mačʼ got its patriotic name purely by chance. In 1905, when the sporting association was formed by the dissidents from the Belgade ʼSokoʼ club, ʼSrpski mačʼ had several sections, including both fencing and football, thus the name came from the fencing club. On the other hand, ʼVelika Srbijaʼ was formed in 1913 and Danilo Stojanović, one of the clubs’ founders, insisted on the name, in order to celebrate the Serbian victories in Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913.

[29] Fudbal u Sarajevu,, accessed January 3, 2015.

[30] Antun Škrtić, H.A.Š.K. 1903-1993 (Zagreb: HAŠK, 1993), 14-15.

[31] Mihailo Todić, 110 godina fudbala u Srbiji (Belgrade: FSS, 2006), 56-59.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Jovan Ružić, Sećanja i uspomene (Belgrade: SOFK, 1973), 212.

[34] Two of the famous pre-WWI Serbian football clubs, ʼBSKʼ and ʼVelika Srbijaʼ somehow managed to save their entire archives from the war devastation and after the war had ended, they published most of their material. According to their published data, ʼBSKʼ played only five international matches in total since the club was founded in 1911 and all five matches were against clubs from Austria-Hungary (three of them were identified as Hungarian and one as Serbian). ʼVelika Srbijaʼ played six international matches since the club was founded in 1913 and all six matches were also against Austro-Hungarian football clubs (one Hungarian and two Romanian). See: Miodrag Pavlićević (ed.), BSK: 1911-1931 (Belgrade: Narodna štamparija, 1931), pp. 84; and Bora Jovanović, Ljubomir Vukadinović (eds.), Četvrt veka S.k. ˮJugoslavijeˮ: 1913-1938 (Belgrade: Jugoslovenska sportska revija, 1939), 149.

[35] Srbislav Todorović, Fudbal u Srbiji: 1896-1918 (Belgrade: SOFK Zvezdara, 1996), 35.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Večernje novosti [Evening News], August 25, 1908.

[38] Todorović, Fudbal u Srbiji, 35.

[39] Todorović, Fudbal u Srbiji,  36.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Danilo Stojanović, Čika Dačine uspomene (Belgrade: Crvena zvezda, 1953), 25.

[42] Ružić, Sećanja i uspomene, 208-210.

[43] See: Arad, Aradi AC,, accessed December 28 2014; Temesvár, Temesvári AC,, accessed December 28 2014; Újvidék, Újvidéki AC,, accessed December 28 2014.

[44] Ružić, Sećanja i uspomene, 208-210.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ružić, Sećanja i uspomene, 212.