Tuesday 16 July 2019

The patron saint of football thugs

Meet the role model for Serb youth: a football-mad harbinger of terror. Patrick Bishop takes a look at Arkan, the notorious paramilitary commander

Meet the role model for Serb youth: a football-mad harbinger of terror. Patrick Bishop takes a look at Arkan, the notorious paramilitary commander

IN THE summer of 1993, I was having lunch at a riverside restaurant in Belgrade when a flotilla of speedboats roared past packed with muscular men in dark glasses and glossy women. After racing up and down the river Sava a few times they docked at the restaurant's mooring and came ashore.

``Oh my God,'' groaned one of the women at our table. ``It's him.'' Leading the group was a man with smudged, babyish features, who was instantly recognisable to anyone following the war that was currently raging 100 miles down the road in Bosnia.

It was Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan, whose militia was killing and terrorising the non-Serb population of eastern Bosnia. Arkan was smiling. He looked around, nodding graciously to the customers as the restaurant manager scuttled forward to lead him to the best table.

A sort of chill settled on the restaurant. Some of the diners cast ingratiating glances at the Arkan table. Others lowered their eyes and their voices, concentrating fiercely on their meals. Despite the eager laughter that erupted from the Arkan party every time the boss made a joke, tension filled the air and people hurriedly finished their meals and slipped away.

Arkan's presence does not make for a cosy atmosphere. In his time he has been an agent of the old communist authorities, a war criminal and a black marketeer. There are at least seven warrants against him. He is wanted by Holland, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Belgium and Croatia for crimes including bank robbery and assaulting a policeman while escaping from jail.

Now though, Arkan has gone straight an elastic concept in the gangster state that is modern Serbia. He has achieved the ambition of every post-Communist hustler in the region and has become a ``businessman.'' Or rather, a tycoon who has the protection of Serbia's inscrutable strongman Slobodan Milosevic; an entrepreneur with his own personal football team.

Born in Montenegro in 1953, the son of an army officer, Arkan first got into trouble with the police as a teenager and was eventually recruited by the Yugoslav secret service and sent to spy on enemies of the regime living abroad.

Back in Yugoslavia he combined his interests in violence and football by establishing himself as leader of the supporters' club of one of Yugoslavia's top teams, Red Star Belgrade.

When the war began, with the blessing of the authorities, he set up his own militia, drawing some of his recruits from the Red Star fan club. He called them the Serbian Volunteer Guard, popularly known as the Tigers. They quickly established themselves as efficient killers and looters in Serbia's 1991 war with Croatia. The next spring they led the murderous campaign to drive Muslims and Croats out of the eastern Bosnian town of Bijelina. There was no fighting involved. It was enough to shoot a number of the menfolk to persuade everyone to flee, leaving their valuables to be carted off to Serbia.

Arkan presents this evil episode as a gallant military encounter in which his men saw off ``rabid'' Muslim extremists in reality, 30 or so policemen who offered little or no resistance.

Arkan has consistently rebutted all the dreadful stories that have attached to him. But the confidence of his denials stem from the belief that inside the boundaries of what is left of Yugoslavia, he is above the law, protected and encouraged by President Milosevic who employed him in his failed attempt to build a ``Greater Serbia'' from the ruins of the Yugoslav federation.

His journey to what passes for respectability in Serbia is apparently complete. He is married to a pop star, Svetlana Velickovic, better known as Ceca. She is Serbia's leading ``turbo-folk'' artist, who he is said to have rescued from a potential life of Western decadence in Switzerland.

Now she is a good housewife bringing up their two children, Veljko, two, and six-month-old Anastasia. When he is not toiling honestly to secure their future, he pours his energy into the football team which he bought, taking it from obscurity to the top of the league. His views are earnestly sought by television journalists. He is pictured in the local press. His children, dressed as little facsimiles of their parents in tuxedos and gowns, stare glassily out of the celebrity mags.

I saw him once during an election campaign addressing a rally in a drab town in southern Serbia. An adoring audience listened as he banged on with that characteristic Balkan mix of self-pity and aggression about the need for the Serbs to stick together to face a hostile world. He was dressed ludicrously, in a First World War uniform.

Nowadays his patriotic feelings are channelled into the football club. Obilic were perpetually anchored in the lower reaches of the Yugoslav league. Since taking over two years ago they have risen to the top of the first division. The club, which was founded in the 1923 and takes its name from the Serb hero who stabbed the Turkish commander to death before the 1389 battle of Kosovo Polje, now plays in the European league. Arkan's problems with Interpol means he cannot travel with them.

This astonishing rise has been partly the result of lavish investment in star players. But Obilic's enemies maintain that it is also due to a campaign of bribery and intimidation conducted against opponents and officials. Among the supporters are a core of shaven-headed men in black who chant death threats at players and opposing fans. Arkan himself is respectfully referred to by the fans as the ``Commandante.''

Last year he announced the most expensive transfer in the history of Yugoslav football when he paid £500,000 for striker Nikola Lazetvic. Arkan ordered the entire team to show up for the signing ceremony attired in identical dark blue suits, dark blue shirts and red, white and blue ties. As a gypsy band played the Obilic anthem, Arkan jumped up and down and showered the musicians with bank-notes.

It is hard to find anyone in Serbia who will openly say a word against Arkan.

He tends to inspire terror or admiration. Such is the moral inversion of Milosevic's Serbia that he appears to some, especially the young, as a role model. In the absence of any true heroes they have chosen a psychopath to venerate.

He lives out their fantasies of blondes, money, soccer and violence. He happens to be a Serb, but he could be the patron saint of football thugs the world over.

Daily Telegraph

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