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How Soccer Explains the WorldAn Unlikely Theory of Globalization
How Soccer Explains
the Gangster's Paradise
Red Star Belgrade is the most beloved, most successful soccer team in Serbia. Like nearly every club in Europe and Latin America, it has a following of unruly fans capable of terrific violence. But at Red Star the violent fans occupy a place of honor, and more than that. They meet with club officials to streamline the organizational flow chart of their gangs. Their leaders receive stipends. And as part of this package, they have access to office space in the team's headquarters in the uppermiddle- class neighborhood of Topcider.
The gangs have influence, in large measure, because they've won it with intimidation. A few months before I arrived in Belgrade to learn about the club's complicity in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, Red Star fan clubs had burst into the team's training session. With bats, bars, and other bludgeons, they beat three of their own players. After their havoc, they aren't typically shy about advertising their accomplishments. In this instance, the hooligans told reporters bluntly that they could "no longer tolerate lack of commitment on the pitch." It took only one phone call to organize an interview with a handful of them in their first-floor meeting room at the Red Star headquarters.
The Belgrade neighborhood around Red Star is cartoonishly ominous. An enormous gaggle of crows resides on the stadium's roof. When goals are scored and the crowd erupts, the birds flee -- across town, it's possible to gauge the results of a game based on presence or absence of an ornithological cloud above the skyline. On the other side of the street from the stadium, the family of Arkan, the most notorious warlord and gangster in Serb history, lives in a castle he constructed, a nouveau riche monstrosity with tiers of towers and turrets. When I loiter near the house for too long, a large man in a leather jacket emerges and inquires about my business. Because of the atrocities committed by Arkan's men, I describe myself as a lost tourist, nervously ask him for directions, and walk away briskly. On the evening of my visit, the sky is gunmetal.
My translator had arranged for me to meet with Draza, a leader of a Red Star fan club that calls itself the Ultra Bad Boys. He had persuaded him with the overblown promise that an interview would bring glory unto the club and world renown unto the achievements of the Red Star fans. Six of Draza's loquacious colleagues join him. At first glance, the Bad Boys look entirely unworthy of the first part of their name and too worthy of the second. Aside from the big red tattoos of their gang name on their calves, they seem like relatively upstanding young men. Draza wears a fleece jacket and chinos. His head of overgrown yet obviously manicured hair has the aura of a freshman philosophy student. As it turns out, he is a college student, swamped with preparations for exams. His comrades aren't any more menacing. One of them has a bowl haircut, a pudgy face, and an oversized ski parka that he never removes -- he looks like the kind of guy who's been shoved into his fair share of lockers.
Perhaps to increase their credibility, the Bad Boys have brought along a gray-haired man called Krle, who wears a ratty black San Antonio Spurs jacket. Krle's sinewy frame gives the impression that he fills his leisure time with pull-ups on a door frame in his flat. Many years of living a hooligan life have aged him prematurely. (When I ask his age and occupation, he changes the subject.) Unlike the naïve enthusiasm exhibited by the teens, who greet me warmly, Krle blares indifference. He tells my translator that he has only joined our interview because Draza insisted. His one gesture of bonhomie is to continually pour me warm Serbian beer from a plastic bottle. After I taste the beer, it hardly seems like such a friendly gesture. But because of his angry gray eyes, I find myself drinking glass after glass.
Krle serves as senior advisor to the group, a mentor to the aspiring hooligans. Putting aside his intense glare and unfriendly demeanor, I was actually glad for his presence. My interest in Red Star centers on the 1990s, his heyday as thug, when the fan clubs played a pivotal role in the revival of Serbian nationalism -- the idea that the Serbs are eternal victims of history who must fight to preserve a shred of their dignity. With little prodding, Draza speaks openly about the connections. Unfortunately, his monologue doesn't last long. Exerting his authority with volatile glances and brusque interruptions, Krle seizes control of the conversation. He answers questions curtly.
"Who do you hate most?"
A pause for a few seconds' worth of consideration. "A Croatian, a cop: it doesn't make a difference. I'd kill them all."
"What's your preferred method for beating a guy?"
"Metal bars, a special kick that breaks a leg, when a guy's not noticing." He sharply stomps down a leg, an obviously well-practiced move.
Because the beer has kicked in, I try to get closer to the reason for my visit. "I noticed that you call Arkan 'commandant.' Could you tell me a little more about how he organized the fans?"
His look is one of deep offense and then unmitigated fury. Even before the translation comes, his meaning is clear. "I shouldn't be answering your questions. You're an American. And your country bombed us. You killed good Serb men."
As good a reason as any to redirect the conversation to another topic. In an aside to my translator, which he didn't tell me about until after our interview, Krle announces, "If I met this American asshole on the street, I'd beat the shit out of him." Krle then drops out of the conversation. At first, he stands impatiently on the far side of the room ...Continues...
Excerpted from How Soccer Explains the World by Foer, Franklin Excerpted by permission.
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