Political sports violence

A threshing instead medals


THU, 08 JUN 2000

The final match of the European Handball Championship for Women reminded the Macedonian public of a silent war going on between a part of the Macedonian public and members of the international forces stationed in Macedonia, as well as of the links between sports and politics, but also of the unforgettable brutality of the local police.

AIM Skopje, June 4, 2000

In a return match of the Women's European Handball Championship finals held on May 27, the Macedonian team "Kometal-Djorce Petrov" defeated the Viennese "Hipo", but unfortunately that score was not enough for it to win the title.

On the other hand, this match will be remembered more because of the incident which occurred when the local fans tried to start a conflict with the Austrian members of KFOR who were cheering for Viennese handball players. Two teams of supporters were not separated according to regulations, but just by a few policemen who were standing between them.

However, their backup soon arrived. The policemen gave the ardent supporters a good beating which brought about an avalanche of criticism in the local papers. They thrashed everyone they could lay their hands on so that at least two supporters of the Skopje team ended up in hospital. According to the testimony of a 16-year old boy who was suspected of knocking out the President of the Viennese club, the police beat him unconscious as a result of which he suffered a brain concussion and kidney injury. Leader of the opposition Social-Democratic Alliance, Branko Crvenkovski, escaped the beating by a hair's breadth. He refused to share his impressions with journalists. The climax was a physical attack on Gunar Prokopp, President of "Hipo". Busy with "muscle flexing" the policemen soon forgot the reason they came to the game in the first place - to protect the Viennese players. An anonymous supporter had no trouble approaching the leader of the Viennese team and literally knocking him out! The unfortunate Viennese fell flat on his face and that picture went round the world in a flash. The victory ceremony was cancelled...

This is how the story of the "Macedonian Cinderella" got its sad ending. The handball players of the "Kometal-Djorce Petrov" team managed to make a dream come true: once a small second-rate team they had risen to the very top of the European handball for women. True, Trifun Kostovski, a successful businessman who is behind "Kometal" (and who is becoming a true sports patron) managed to create an entire string of handball pearls from the territory of former Yugoslavia and beyond. In short, Kometal's women handball players have become the local public's favourites. The Kometal's owner, Trifun Kostovski, who immediately after the incident sent his apologies to the Austrian guest Gunar Prokopp, was not available for comment.

The police report on the incident was not issued which has, unfortunately, happened several times before. The KFOR spokesman in Skoplje explained that there some hundred soldiers from the Austrian contingent in Tetovo and Skoplje were following the match. According to him, several solid objects were thrown at these soldiers causing light injured to three of them. Although the authorities are doing their best to prove that there are no hard feelings against members of the rear KFOR units (officially some 4.500 men), the citizens have shown their resentment on several occasions. Not long ago, in mid April, there was a veritable fight between the local men and drunk members of the American contingent of KFOR on the Skoplje main square. On that occasion a policeman who tried to separate the quarrelling men, sustained serious injuries; no one was charged for the assault on this occasion.

After that a courteous explanation of the KFOR Headquarters ensued which explained that members of the international forces were answerable to judicial authorities of their respective countries for their behaviour. Therefore the final match between Kometal and Hipo was rightfully considered to be a highly risky event. According to a delegate of the European Handball Federation, during the entire match he had excellent cooperation with a private security agency which the host of the match had hired, but the police had failed to apply security measures. The Spanish referees who were in charge of the match between Kometal and Hipo stated that after this experience they would never return to Skoplje again. The papers agreed that the incident had a political background because the supporters were shouting at the police: "Return to Tetovo" and "Branko come back!" referring to the change of power and return of the opposition Social-Democratic Alliance.

The incident could easily entail a rigorous punishment of the European handball forum. When on June 2, he learned in Vienna that the final punishment will be pronounced at the meeting of the European Handball Federation on June 16 and 17, in Paris, Secretary-General of the Macedonian Handball Alliance, Ognjanovski said that he had no doubt that it would be draconian. Also, there is no dilemma that the knocked out President of Hipo will pull all strings as an official of the eight-time European champion to have someone pay for his injury.

This is not the first time that Macedonian clubs that a punishment is pronounced to the Macedonian clubs. In any case, sports violence happened at other handball grounds around Europe, and it is becoming a characteristic of the "high risk matches". It is, therefore, logical that no one in the media tried to justify the perpetrators. Macedonia perhaps has greater fear of sports violence than other countries, because several times it turned into an inter-ethnic conflict. However, for everyone else the most important thing was the fact that instead of maintaining peace and order the police behaved brutally. Reports of international forums for human rights protection regularly emphasise that at critical moments police usually uses excessive force directly accusing the police for unprofessionally carrying out the entrusted task of securing mass gatherings. This time the fans paid for police mistakes, and nothing less but before TV cameras. Parents of some minor supporters who claim that their children were beaten up through no fault of their own, have said that they would press charges against certain police members.

It is obvious that the people were wrong to believe, or at least prematurely started to believe that a wave of democratisation has swept through men in uniforms. The incident that happened at the final match of the European Championship in the most popular sport in Macedonia was a chance for expressing the opposition against the participation of politicians in sports. In some earlier cases it became obvious that certain parties or their leaders have a great influence on the supporters and that, in return, these were frequently used for party activities. But, this has happened in other countries too. Nevertheless, leader of the opposition Liberal Party, Risto Gusterov, appealed to all politicians active engaged in sports to resign their offices because, as he had put it "sports and politics do not mix well".

Original article