Why I Am Afraid of Balkan Sport

In a quest to understand the European sporting psyche, TPA scribe Sam Perry has agreed to a three month pan-Euro assignment. In his first European piece for TPA he tackles the age-old issue of Balkan villainy.

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Zagreb, Croatia

Ever since Oedipus the King laid waste to his Father, Laius, and then married his mother, it has been prudent for us to view life through the conventional narrative of good versus evil.

'King O' kicked off the whole paradigm, allegedly.
‘King O’ kicked off the whole paradigm, allegedly.

Just as sport is part of life, we apply the prism here too. Goodies and baddies. Friendly and scary.

And for highly prejudiced and unfair reasons, it doesn’t get much more evil and scarier than the Balkans. You will struggle to find a group that plays the role of ‘recurring antagonist’ more than Croatians, Serbians, and to a lesser extent Bosnians, Herzegovinians and other ones I don’t really know.

While perception and reality are as diametrically opposed as Bradman and his Catholic team mates, that has never stopped TPA from indulging in obscure, dangerous, and ultimately unfounded narrative; narrative not from the cosmopolitan tertiary school of intellect, truth and balance, but more from the satellite tech high school of visceral gut feeling.

So just for kicks let’s go exploring a few examples of Balkan villainy and crucially how it applies to Australians.

I’ll start with Croatia. After a delightful night out filled with light and love, this country is the frightful dark alleyway of sport that you accidentally and regrettably stumble upon as you head home. And there was no darker alleyway than Australia’s do-or-die encounter with them at the 2006 Football World Cup in Germany. It was 4.30am in Australia, misty black outside, and the din of the Stuttgart crowd was deeper than ever. Whether it’s my own persecution complex or not, as I rugged up with my friends clad in green and gold in Chippendale to watch the match, it felt like Croatia spent the evening attacking my country.

In truth we are frightened.
In truth we are frightened.

I was rattled by the inaccessibility of the Croatian players’ surnames – names like Srna and Simunic – while the non-conformity of their chequered guernsey design put me on high alert. Unsurprisingly, one of the wildest and most chaotic football encounters in World Cup history ensued, with referee Graham Poll doing nothing to dispel this scribe’s theory as he was clearly too scared to failed to send Croatia’s Josip Simunic off after two yellow cards, and called the game to a halt as Tim Cahill was scoring the winner for Australia. Frightening indeed. Australia’s eventual progression, led by our friendly and accessible captain Mark Viduka, was heralded as one of our nation’s foremost sporting achievements, in no small part due to the jarring fear we all experienced throughout the encounter.

In truth, we could see where Graham Poll was coming from.
In truth, we could see where Graham Poll was coming from.

Speaking of fear, let’s turn to Serbia. What about Novak Djokovic? With a wingspan reminiscent of the Iron Curtain, the Serb distributes his court coverage cruelly, tirelessly, efficiently and uncompromisingly, much like the political regimes that defined the broader Yugoslavia throughout the 20th century.

Novak’s game is the antithesis of soft, flowing symmetry; he is instead all angles and rigidity and ruthlessness – words that could also describe his face. Yes, after 7 grand slam titles (4 of which have come in Australia), a huge smile, friendly demeanour and this aside, I take the same view as Australia’s ultimate sporting absolutist, Shane Warne, who summed it up perfectly on Instagram a few years back when he described Djokovic, simply, as a ‘James Bond villain’. Warne’s comment was prescient too, as later that year Djokovic was cast as a small time villain in the Expendables 2.

Yep, you're a Bond villain mate.
Yep, you’re a Bond villain mate.

Yes, from womb to tomb, Balkans are scary. Yet, real life manifestations alone aren’t enough to fully comprehend their villainy. A cursory examination of the very dress of thought, language, exacerbates the terror – particularly in the realm of typeface. Is there anything more genuinely chilling than Balkan typeface? It screams eastern bloc: strong, powerful and again – scary. Sure you’ll while away the hours gazing out over the Adriatic Sea in Dubrovnik, but every Ozujsko you drink will bring with it a sharp reminder of distrust and authority via typeface.

Where villains roam...
Where villains roam…
"Workers of the world, unite!"
“Workers of the world, unite!”

Once you come to terms with the typeface, you then must confront the deployment of language. Balkans will welcome any opportunity to apply explosive language, even where there is no opportunity to be found. You may support Real Madrid, but Croatia supports Dinamo Zagreb. Yep, dynamite Zagreb. Explosive. If they don’t support Dynamite Zagreb they support Hajduk Split. Hajduk, I’m told, is a term most commonly referring to outlaws, brigands, highwaymen or freedom fighters in Southeastern Europe, and parts of Central and Eastern Europe. I’m scared.


Street level fear mongering.
Street level fear mongering.

Now that I’ve argued for and confirmed the deep extent of Balkan villainy and its application to Australians, I am at pains to flee both Zagreb and this topic hastily, and make for the progressive metropolis of Budapest, otherwise known as the Pearl of Danube.

I’ll leave this piece with a frightening ode to one of the great footballing Serbians, Nemanja Vidic; a verse made famous around Old Trafford, Manchester, as their hero made another crunching tackle:

Nemanja, whoooaah
Nemanja, whoooaah
He comes from Serbia
He’ll fucken murder yer


Reporting from Zagreb, Croatia.
Reporting from Zagreb, Croatia.

Long live Balkan villainy.

By Sam Perry

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