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Updated: Sep 27, 2022

The men bang their fists heavily against the walls of the tram, singing at the tops of their voices about fighting the police. They number no more than ten, yet their menace creeps like treacle through the carriages. The other passengers look at their phones or out the window, avoiding the temptation to make eye contact.

These are Dinamo Zagreb's Bad Blue Boys, ultras with a reputation for tireless support in the stands and violence away from them. They get off the tram a couple of stops from the Maksimir Stadium and immediately a red flare is lit as they go in search of one last beer before the match.

Back when all the Balkan states lived under the single flag of Yugoslavia, there were four big teams: the Croatians Dinamo and Hajduk Split, and the Serbians, Partizan and Red Star. As the first whispers of independence were murmured in the 1980s, football stadiums became a place where the safety of the crowd allowed the expression of opinions that would have been repressed by individuals. The BBB's fearlessness and opposition to authority made them speak up for an independent Croatia when the public at large were still too scared to do so.

Those whispers became cries and, by 1990, the tensions were on the verge of ripping Yugoslavia apart. Amid the fever, Red Star arrived in Zagreb for a league game with Dinamo at the Maksimir. Heading Red Star's ultras, the Delije, was a man known as Arkan, who would go on to lead a paramilitary force in the coming wars that committed horrific war crimes. Both sets of ultras had become extremely nationalistic, and the match quickly descended into a riot.

The Delije ripped out chairs; the BBB broke down the fence separated them from the pitch and the players fled. Some Dinamo players then returned to fight with their supporters – Zvonimir Boban infamously karate kicked a policeman and became a symbol of Croatian nationalism.

When the war came, Arkan's Tigers regiment was overwhelmingly packed with Delije, while the BBB flooded into the Croatian forces. Things would not settle again until many violent years later.


I get off the tram right outside the Maksimir, and immediately the atmosphere is different. The orange glow of the setting sun drapes itself down the outside of the north stand. Families with young children are moving towards the ground and it feels much more like a typical Premier League game in England.

There is a queue leading to a ticket office in which people wait patiently. Occasionally members of the BBB, generally dressed in black, amble to the front, daring anyone to challenge them. No one does. Some of their black t-shirts feature white supremacist symbols – nationalism has not left the BBB despite the passing years.

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Seated on the west stand, everything feels almost sedate in the run up to kick off. The Maksimir ticks almost every box for a bad ground. Stands separated from the pitch - even raised up above it for some reason -, no roof to keep any noise in, open corners and about as uncomfortable as you could make a stadium. As the players some out, there are just four very lonely looking away fans in the distant south stand. It's quiet enough that you can hear the slapping of hands as the players greet each other on the pitch.

When the game starts, the BBB in the north stand come to life, but in a very strange way. They run through a song, the west stand politely claps the performance when they finish, and then they run through another, to another polite ripple of applause. It's like an orchestra going through some old favourites to a friendly audience. All very organised and passionless.

But they're just limbering up. Within minutes, the drum beat rolls down the stand, the flags go up and the real singing starts. And none of it stops for even a moment until half time. The west stand, on the other hand, whispers nothing more than the gentle hum of conversation.

By now more Rijecka fans have been let into the away end, now numbering around 100. Amazingly, they put on a performance that makes them heard in their tiny numbers, singing just as relentlessly as the BBB. In total there are under six thousand people here in a stadium that can hold over 30 thousand. The noise the two sets of ultras produce is incredible given the circumstances, but it feels somewhat like a doleful howl into the empty night.

As a contest, the match feels like a pro boxer sparring with a child. Dinamo, a Champions League team preparing to face Chelsea and Milan, are essentially free to do as they please on the pitch. We'll take that ball back off you, thanks. No, you can't have an attack.

They score three, looking like it could have been eight if they'd really tried. Rijecka bundle one in from a corner, just reward for their remarkable supporters. A Rijecka fan then lights a flare, bold and brave among such a tiny number of people. A few minutes later the BBB respond. Smoke bombs go off, followed by the pyro display. It is nothing compared the Belgrade derby, but this is just an ordinary league game. From the depths of the smoke, a firecracker is thrown onto the track, a sudden explosion which makes a steward jump.

And then the fire recedes, leaving a blanket of smoke hovering above the ground and a smell of cordite in the air. After a brief flash of chaos, the organised singing falls back into its rhythm and the drums and flags see Dinamo through the rest of the game. This is not a football experience worth a trip to Zagreb on its own, but the Bad Blue Boys show is remarkable all the same.

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