Attacks by Serbian nationalists on Croatian fans have overshadowed the otherwise well-organized European handball championships in Serbia. Serbian fans also disrupted the semi-final between their country and Croatia.
The European handball championships in Serbia have been overshadowed by nationalist violence. On Tuesday, around 50 Serbian hooligans stopped a convoy of Croatian fans in the town of Novi Sad. They were on their way home from their team's match against France, which Croatia won.
They attacked the fans with rocks, bricks and concrete slabs and smashed 35 cars. Three people were injured. Although Serbian police reacted quickly and arrested 13 people, four cars with Croatian number plates were set on fire the next day.
Police apologized for the violence and promised to ensure the safety of all fans. The media in Serbia has been speculating on the reasons for the attacks: some Croatian fans had goaded Serbian fans during a match. It appears that a 15-year-old boy, who had been wearing the tournament's mascot costume, Tasa the Eagle, was attacked.
Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic tried to calm the waters, but not without a hint of distaste for the Croatian fans. "The attacks on Croatian fans damage Serbia's reputation. We should be better behaved than the Croats when they host a tournament."
Better preparations needed
"Of course, this [the attacks] sends out the wrong message," Sonja Licht, chairwoman of the think tank Belgrade Fund for Excellence told Deutsche Welle.
"Unfortunately, attacks like this happen everywhere, not just in Serbia, not just in the Balkans, but everywhere in Europe," Licht said. She emphasized that the authorities acted swiftly and efficiently.
"But there were no preventative efforts, so that's not good. The authorities should try and find out what the hooligans have planned in advance," Licht said.
Five thousand police were on duty to guarantee safety at the Serbia-Croatia match on Friday, which Serbia won 26-22. Croatian fans had a hard time as their Serbian counterparts accompanied almost every attack by the Croatian team as well as the national Croatian anthem with whistles and booing.
Serbian player Zarko Sesum was hit in the eye by a bottle, thrown by a Serbian fan, who had intended to hit the Croatian coach. Sesum will not be able to play in Sunday's final because of the resulting injury.
The handball championships have become yet another stage for Serbian nationalists, according to Sonja Licht. But she stressed that Croatian fans also used these types of events to provoke others by singing nationalist songs.
"Worst of all, these thugs think they act in the name of their country, that it's about national pride. But, really, they're doing the exact opposite, they insult their own country."
Licht said that before the war started in the former Yugoslavia, hooligans were used for political gain in Zagreb and Belgrade. "That's why society needs to do everything in its power to prevent extreme nationalism."
Handball is a leading sport in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, Croatia and Slovenia were particularly successful. But Serbian players are in high demand at clubs across the globe now, making it hard for national coach Veselin Vukovic to get them all together for practice sessions.
His efforts have paid off, as Serbia has reached their first semi-final in the European tournament as an independent nation.
Croatia have also shown they are on top form in this year's tournament. They were runners-up in the last two European championships and world champions in 2003.
The last time Serbia (then with Montenegro) won an international medal with the men's team was in 2001, when they got bronze at the World Handball Championship in France.
Author: Nemanja Rujevic, Nicole Goebel
Editor: Joanna Impey