SITTING in Sarajevo Airport gathering my thoughts after one of the more poignant trips I’ve made to follow Celtic abroad over the past forty years.
Trip began on Monday with an early drop-off to catch a flight to Heathrow. From there, it was onto Vienna and finally Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia & Herzegovina, arriving around 2200 local time. Leaving the aeroplane, I’m aware of other passengers taking photos of the Republic of Turkey jet parked adjacent to us. Turns out it belongs to the Turkish President who is in Sarajevo with many other leaders around the Balkans for a political get-together. The Albanian Premier would be one who would get caught up in the Celtic spirit the following day, photographed with supporters in the city. Apparently, he is a friend and/or colleague of Rudi Vata.
Earlier, I had picked up a message from an old Celtic mate who told me that his nephew and his pals had run into a bit of bother at the stadium, advised by security staff there that it was ‘dangerous’ for them before being chased by a gang. Slightly concerning. The vibes I had picked up on social media beforehand were very much that our supporters would be warmly welcomed in the city, largely as a result of the widely-publicised, ongoing support for the oppressed Palestinian community.
I had arranged for an airport pick-up and, sure enough, the chap is waiting with the sign. I feel like a VIP, ironically the name of my hotel in Sarajevo. He’s very quiet and I’m knackered, with no local language skills so, unusually for me, there is a strange silence in the car as we make our way into the city.
Then he asks me in broken English where I’m from. I say Scotland and the atmosphere changes at a stroke. ‘Ah, you are here for the game tomorrow!’ Smiles appear from nowhere and then for the next twenty minutes or so we use the international language of football to communicate our shared passion for our clubs.
Turns out that the driver, Atif, is an FK Sarajevo supporter who will be going to tomorrow’s game. We talk about the history of Celtic with respect to Yugoslav football, Vojvodina, Red Star (but not Partizan – I’ve not got over that yet!). I happen to mention Dragan Dzajic and the World Cup game between Yugoslavia and Scotland in 1974 and Atif tells me that he was actually there that day in Frankfurt with his dad, as a 12-year-old boy.
Football is the ultimate ice-breaker.
We head through a part of old Sarajevo which helps explain why this city is sometimes called the European Jerusalem. All minarets and domes, this could be Istanbul or somewhere in the Holy Land. Not at all what I’d expected. It is late evening – bedtime – but still very busy around the old Mosque area. ‘Tourists!’ says Atif with an air of disapproval. I’m different. I’m here for the game. I’m ok!
I’m greeted with more smiles at the hotel, which lives up to its name with the VIP welcome I receive from the lovely Elma. She is half my age but treats me like her son. ‘You look tired. Are you hungry?’ I make the fatal mistake of saying ‘yes’, assuming that the hotel restaurant is still open. I also ask her about changing money to the convertible Bosnian Marks, which are used locally.
I had been advised by the hotel beforehand that these could be picked up no problem, however, I suspect neither they nor I had factored in arrival times. Next thing I know, Elma has taken a banknote from her own purse to dispatch one of the guys to the shops. I protest, slightly embarrassed but she’s having none of it. ‘You do as you’re told when you’re here!’ A beautiful girl with a beautiful heart, Miss Sarajevo has welcomed me to her city and I am already a friend.
Within minutes, the man returns with two bags, each containing a delicious roll filled with local spiced sausage. I’m then handed a croissant, packed off to bed and told to help myself to drinks from the minibar. If Carlsberg did hotel welcomes…
Tuesday is matchday. Before I head to the Celtic Pub in the city centre, I’m keen to understand more about this fascinating place and its turbulent history, so after breakfast I pick up some local currency and a free walking tour (you can take the Bhoy out of Springburn…).
As I enter the booking office, the first thing I notice is a Celtic/FK Sarajevo half-and-half scarf hanging on the wall, taking pride of place. I point to it and make a comment about the match and that’s me sorted with Eddie the tour guide.
He is also going to the game later. So is everyone else it would seem. It’s already 30 degrees in the shade but Eddie is proudly wearing the scarf, much to my amusement and the total confusion of the various Americans and Scandinavians who are my ‘free tour buddies’. As we walk through the oldest part of the city, like something straight from Aladdin with bazaars literally selling lamps, there are Sarajevo fans in their colours everywhere, walking around with jerseys and scarves, or sitting in the bars and cafes. It is 10.30am. This has the feel of a big game much deeper into the competition.
We head down towards the river. One of the bridges near the beautiful main City Hall is adorned with FK flags. Unusual to see that in a two-club city. Zeljeznicar are possibly the better-known of the two main Sarajevo teams. I remember them playing against Hearts and possibly Kilmarnock or St Johnstone in the past. They play in blue but Sarajevo is most definitely maroon and white today.
This tour is focusing on the history of Sarajevo up until the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir presumptive to the Austrian throne, and his wife, ‘taken out’ as they passed the Latin Bridge in the city centre, the incident which began the First World War.
Whilst I knew the main headlines, I wasn’t aware of any of the background. I’m told that the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was a 19-year-old Bosnian Serb who was seeking to end the rule of Austria in his native country. Half-in-half Eddie explains that the politics surrounding the event, your version of the story and viewpoint on the merits or otherwise of Princip will vary greatly depending on your background.
I picked up that he is regarded as a hero in much of Bosnia and Serbia, whilst considered a terrorist in other Balkan territories, such as Croatia. One man’s freedom fighter etc. Gavrilo was just days short of the minimum age for capital punishment, so instead of execution, after conviction at his trial he was shipped off to what is now the Czech Republic and imprisoned in the most inhumane conditions. He died there less than four years later having already lost an arm to tuberculosis, still only 23 years old.
The tour ends around noon and I have to think about picking up my match ticket from a local hotel. As we say our cheerios at the tour HQ, I am aware of the crowd lining the street. Eddie advises me that another mass grave has been found near Srebrenica and that 33 bodies are being transported to the Potocari Memorial for a burial and remembrance ceremony on Thursday, the 24th anniversary of the massacre.
The morning laughs now seem completely inappropriate. I join the crowds on the street to watch as the procession moves through, a lorry carrying the coffins is draped in the Bosnian flag and flowers surround the tragic cargo. There is silence apart from the sound of quiet weeping. It is horrendous. I want to understand more and make a mental note to take that tour tomorrow.
I collect my match brief from the Hotel Europe and head back to my own hotel to change into the Hoops and drop off my passport and anything else surplus to requirements for the matchday trek. It’s time for some lunch so I head back along the main drag. I find a spot outside the Cathedral which looks just the job. There are a couple of Celts in there already, one young guy wearing the new yellow away kit, which looks brilliant.
There are three supporters sitting around the statue of Pope John Paul II, revered in Sarajevo after his visits to bless the cavity after the siege, according to Eddie. It’s a cracking photo opportunity which I think the guys themselves would appreciate and enjoy so I ask the ‘Pope’s Three’ for a quick pose. Another moment is recorded for Celtic awayday posterity.
Enjoying some pasta and water – I have inadvertently picked the only restaurant in the city centre which does not serve beer – I notice a lone Celt striding along the Main Street. He is probably in his early sixties and definitely what we would call in Glasgow a ‘character’, resplendent in that fabulous shamrock change kit from the fifties and, appropriately enough, early sixties, sleeves rolled up to the elbows ready for action and topped off with a straw hat. As he proudly passes my table I note that he has ‘TULLY’ printed on his back of his shirt. Pure class. I’ll come back to this gent later in the story.
Fed and literally watered, it’s time to head to the Celtic Pub. En route, I pass statues of Laurel and Hardy dressed up in the colours of Celtic and Sarajevo. I have a chuckle at the thought of ‘another fine mess’, given some of my European trips over the years. Hopefully, not tonight. There are scarves displayed in many of the bars and even a mobile beer trolley is advertising the game. I finally find the ‘club shop’ where the half-and-half scarves are being sold, so that’s a bonus for Celtic-mad daughter. I don’t usually manage to pick one up for the qualifiers.
The Celtic Pub is tucked into what we would call an arcade, off the main drag. It’s after 3pm now and the place is in full swing, mostly Celts but with one or two locals. I pitch camp at the back and head to the bar for a cold beer. Bartender asks me what I need but my upbringing tells me that the big guy next to me wearing the Hoops and a kilt has been waiting longer so I tap his arm and indicate it’s his turn. He bursts out laughing and tells me that he works here. He is collecting the cash as the troops get their beers in. The pub uniform is basically a Celtic strip and a kilt. I’m wondering whose idea it was to open a Celtic pub in Bosnia. Never fail to be amazed at the places in which these pop up.
The subject of Celtic pubs is perhaps a good point to pause for a brief diversion. With the venues for the first qualifying games curiously switched by the clubs two days after I had booked my travel and accommodation for the original dates, the trip to Sarajevo had inconveniently fallen at the end of a five-week working holiday in Italy.
The close-season break, work and childcare commitment stars had all aligned to allow me to make some progress with my writing projects, whilst getting a bit of sun and the opportunity to brush up on my schoolBhoy Italian language skills.
I had headed to Lake Como on the Monday after the Treble Treble and I was immediately pointed in the direction of the Shamrock Bar in Lecco by some Italian Celts who had taken the stadium tour with me a few months previously. I managed to spend a couple of nights in there, the Champions League Final and a session from the Irish band, Macushla, my excuses for the visits, as if any were needed.
These nights could be the subject of a story in their own right, however, suffice to say that Marco runs perhaps the best Celtic/Irish pub I have ever visited, with Guinness and music to die for and wall-to-wall Hoops (and Calcio Lecco) memorabilia. I am made to feel welcome from the minute I appear in the bar, lifts are arranged to take me back to my hotel and I end up with an offer to travel with them to the match in St Gallen in early July. I so want to do that but respectfully decline, given that my arrangements are already made and I’m heading to Germany to catch a flight home the next day. Captain Sensible CSC.
I do meet up with the guys in St Gallen, but only after another branch of the worldwide family have done their bit for the cause. In Leipzig last year, I bumped into a Fondue Bhoy (Can’t say the other word apparently) you may recall the iconic t-shirt from that diary. Turns out that FF is Steve and through the magic of Twitter, he and his colleagues at the Swiss CSC have organised a party for travelling Hoops fans in the Irish Pub in the city centre.
He has also sorted out a match ticket for me after my failed attempts to navigate the club website in German. Steve is also playing a set in the pub to entertain the troops before the game. As always, after a beer or two, the Norman Naemates CSC finds a pal/victim to chew the fat with. This time it’s Stephen from Coatbridge and we hit it off. We’re soon joined by Bob from Portsmouth, who I recall meeting in Trondheim. It’s a small world being a Celtic travelling fan.
The international bonds stretch beyond Coatbridge and Pompey, as we are joined by Peter from Antwerp and Joe from Lubeck in northern Germany. Peter is promptly christened ‘Pedro the Belgian’ – no, I don’t know any Belgians called Pedro either – whilst Joe’s claim to fame is that he was at the game in his hometown where the Huddle was first performed, in 1995. He was also at the second game, which apparently is often credited with that distinction, but repeatedly swears that the Huddle was born in Lubeck.
There are Dutch boys who happily boast that they have brought their Buckfast all the way from Holland for the party and invite us to partake. My Buckfast days never started, fortunately, beer is more than enough to keep this lightweight happy. Steve the Fondue Bhoy pours his heart and soul into his live performance and is going down a treat with the Continental CSC, whilst his colleague is selling scarves by the barrowload.
Coatbridge Stephen and I appear to be the only Scots in St Gallen, as a surreal but cracking day is had by all. My friends from Lecco duly arrive and it’s great to catch up with them again, giving them a laugh and more likely a headache with my broken Italian. Soon it’s time to head for the game, new friends made, one of the highlights of travelling to watch Celtic. Another great afternoon in the company of good people.
Back in the Celtic Pub in Sarajevo, there is no sign of Lubeck Joe who had said he was travelling. However, there is a familiar face already in, the man known only to me as Lederhosen CSC, following our first meeting in Salzburg last year, full kit, the works. I then bumped into him in a pizza parlour in Trondheim, as you do. Bizarrely, I don’t think we have ever exchanged names, despite the fact that he waves across to me like a long-lost friend before posing for the by-now-customary photograph.
Once again I get speaking with a citizen of the 33rd county, or close enough to there. Paul and I are initially keeping an eye on one another’s seat and belongings as the bar starts to get lively but soon we’re sharing a beer and chatting about the game. Now there are many Sarajevo fans in the pub as the loudest jukebox I have ever heard is on overtime.
Twice we hear the Labi Siffre hit, ‘Something Inside So Strong’ belting out, raucously endorsed by the crowd. It’s often associated in my head with Neil Lennon and some of the nonsense he has had to endure since signing for Celtic in the best little country in the world. Today I’m thinking that it is a perfect song to describe the Bosnian people who have been through so much suffering, yet remain amongst the friendliest I have ever encountered.
The atmosphere is extremely friendly as the supporters mingle, people-watch and take photos. Soon Paul and I are sitting with two home fans, Ade and Adam. Ade is wearing a maroon t-shirt with both club crests on it. They are very complimentary about Celtic and the reputation of the supporters. We address the more pressing problem of how we are going to get to the stadium as the heatwave has become a monsoon at the worst possible time. We are assured that this is walkable and offered the opportunity to head to the game with them. This we do, with just the one pit stop for ‘refuelling.’
We head into the stadium, where the Winter Olympics were opened back in 1984. Back before their world changed. There is no cover whatsoever, it is pouring down and we are wearing strip and jeans. Great planning. We had been told that the ground would be full but it’s probably three-quarters so, with a few hundred mad away fans easily identifiable as the only people there without a jacket or brolly. It’s great to see Celtic wearing the Hoops for an away game in Europe, looking like Celtic.
We are surprised that Nir Bitton is in the defence with Kris Ajer playing wide on the right. Celtic start well but there’s a feeling that a goal is coming just before it does, up at the far end. The stadium is like Hampden in the sense that you are very low down and far away from the action behind the goals. Looks like a corner wasn’t properly cleared, but between the weather and the distance I’m struggling to say much more than that. Not good. The place is jumping as the home fans celebrate.
We head up to the very back of the stand, which is an improvement of sorts. Just in time to witness that jewel of the Celtic away trip, a meaningful goal. Young Mikey Johnston does well to emerge with the ball before crashing a wonderful shot home. Cue bedlam amongst the strange wet people. Early in the second-half, we’re feeling much better about life, as French Eddie holds onto the ball for an eternity before clipping it home.
This might be the day when we win away. My passport may not be confiscated on return, as had been threatened…by my sons! With a few minutes remaining, there is a killer third, this time Scotty Sinclair rearranging his body to drag the ball home. Soon the players are heading across the sodden track to throw jerseys into the crowd. This has been a great night.
We leave the stadium on a high and immediately are caught up in the local ultras heading home, normally not the best idea in the world. But this feels different. There are a few handshakes and no hassle and soon we are enjoying a beer in a Sarajevo fan pub. The atmosphere is friendly but low-key. Paul swaps his jersey with a local and we are rewarded with another round of drinks on them.
Eventually, we walk back into the city centre, a final pint, handshake then we go our separate ways. I decide on a nightcap in the Celtic Pub, just to see what’s happening there. The bar is quickly overrun by local fans having a singsong as the roles are reversed from earlier. There is a cracking atmosphere only ruined when some ‘travelling people’ – I won’t use the word used by the locals – start to harass me for my Hoops, which I am not for giving up. As they leave, I realise that my mobile phone has left with them. Gone – into the night. I am totally gutted. It had been a brilliant day. Time to head home.
The next day is time to understand a bit more about the horrific war in the early nineties. I am both looking forward to it and dreading it. There is a minibus full of us taking the ‘Fall of Yugoslavia’ tour, a four-hour job. The tour guide is another Eddie, and he speaks candidly about the events leading up to and throughout the conflict, covering an incredible amount of detail.
I’ll stick to the key themes, the nations making up what I remember as Yugoslavia ending up in the most horrendous war as the country broke up following the deaths of Tito and communism and old wounds were re-opened with dire consequences.
Sarajevo itself was under siege for the best part of four years, cut off from all of life’s essentials for much if not all of that time, whilst facing constant bombardment and attack from the hills surrounding the city. The main road along which Atif had brought me on Monday night was known as ‘Sniper Alley’, where the maxim was ‘if you can see the hills, then the snipers can see you.’
Within a few minutes we are at the Markale market in the main thoroughfare where 64 civilians were killed as they went about their daily business in 1994. There is my first Sarajevo Rose, the impacted area of the bombed ground is covered in red resin to mark the site of the massacre.
We passed the beautiful moorish City Hall and Library, which had been completely destroyed, 2 million books up in smoke. Eddie told the first of several inspirational tales, Vedran Smailovic, ‘the cellist of Sarajevo’ played daily in the ruins of the building to try and maintain the spirit of the people. He fled the siege in 1993 and now lives in Warrenpoint in Ireland. A classical quartet then picked up the role.
We crossed the Vrbanja Bridge where two young lovers from opposite sides of the conflict, Admira and Bosko, Sarajevo’s Romeo and Juliet were shot as they made a bid for freedom, to be married. Their bodies lay there for days, too dangerous for anyone to be moved. The incident was picked up by a foreign correspondent and the couple became a symbol of the city and the plight of the people.
We headed back to the scene of last night’s match, the Olympic Stadium, one of so many Sarajevo landmarks which were destroyed as the Serbian forces tried to crush the very hope from the people. The Ice Hall, where Torvill and Dean skated to a perfect Bolero in 1984, and the Stadium itself, all reduced to debris and requiring rebuild. I was silent as Eddie told me that the training pitch adjacent to the stadium was now a cemetery, the traditional hillside burial grounds abandoned as unsafe, as, like all people-gatherings during the siege, the mourners frequently bore the brunt of sniper attacks.
We moved up into the Olympic mountain, from where much of the carnage was deployed on the city below. We walked down a section of the former bobsleigh track, now a bleak concrete reminder of the conflict, used as a shield for the artillery gunners. Within eight years of being the centre of the world for all the right reasons, the celebration of global sporting excellence and friendship, from April 1992 until February 1996 Sarajevo was the location for the longest city siege in modern history.
We headed out to the airport for another fascinating part of the disturbing story. This was the only area around Sarajevo deemed as ‘neutral’ to allow international mercy flights to land with medicine and provisions. The map displayed by Eddie showed how the narrow airport channel also provided a gateway to safety for Bosnians trapped in the city and was seen as a potential escape route into the hills, many captured or killed as they tried to cross the runway through sheer desperation.
Through such desperation comes inspiration, the building of a ‘tunnel of hope’ completed under the airstrip to emerge on a private house on the other side, was a crucial factor in allowing utilities, supplies and people to move in and out of the city. After watching a film showing how this was achieved by some heroic people under the very noses of the enemy, we were then invited to walk from the house through the tunnel – think horizontal coal-mining shaft – for around 25 metres. That was enough.
We drove a short distance into the suburb of East Sarajevo, Eddie pointing out the Serbian flags and Cyrillic street signs, as essentially a Serb conclave has been created as part of the peace treaty, the Republic of Srpska. Whilst still part of Bosnia & Herzegovina, this feels to all intents and purposes like a different country. There are posters glorifying the Serbian army general, Ratko Mladic, convicted as a war criminal for genocide, on the walls of the local school. This is a complicated, insane situation.
I asked about the Miss Sarajevo song by U2 and Luciano Pavarotti, one of my personal favourites. He advises that the Dublin band played in the Olympic Stadium in 1997 – as did Iron Maiden, who were actually ‘smuggled’ in during the conflict – having being moved by the true story of a basement beauty pageant – Miss Besieged Sarajevo – taking place despite the risks involved to draw attention to the plight of Sarajevo whilst the world looked on, captured on the award-winning Bill Carter documentary of the same title. The girls’ message was brutally clear, ‘Please don’t let them kill us.’
The worst was saved for the last, with the story of Srebrenica. In July 1995, as tens of thousands of desperate Muslims converged on the designated ‘safe zone’ of Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia near the Serbian border, over 8,000 men and boys were systematically taken away and murdered, to be buried in mass graves, which are still being discovered to this day, hence the procession on Tuesday. It was the worst case of genocide in Europe since the Second World War. It took place in the lifetime of my children.
Once again, the free world watched as this unfolded. I felt ashamed to my bones.
The following morning, Thursday 11 July 2019, is the 24th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. After breakfast, I pay a visit to the gallery next to the cathedral which shows images and films of the massacre. There are perhaps a dozen or so other folk there, many wearing the white flower symbol of support, but the room is silent, the headphoned-audience adding to the surreal atmosphere. I watch a short movie called ‘Ten Minutes’ which graphically sets out how life changed for a young boy and his family in that time as they struggle to survive, with the juxtaposition of someone having a riot of film developed in Rome, a fellow European capital city.
I do not have enough time to do the gallery justice but I am glad I paid a visit.
I have one more job to do before I head for the airport, to pick up a bunch of flowers for Elma, my own Sarajevo Rose, who has been an absolute star throughout my stay in her city. This simple but heartfelt gesture of thanks is warmly received, I have made her day. Best money spent on the trip.
Soon Sarajevo is behind me but those images will be here for a while yet I suspect. I have much to ponder as I fly to Vienna and as we wait to depart, a chap with a Celtic polo shirt sits down in the adjacent seat. We exchange some small talk about the trip and I find out that his name is Mark and he is originally from Paisley but now based just outside London. I find out that he was in Sarajevo to tie in with his brother Hugh, a guy in his early sixties who was there proudly wearing his shamrock away kit with ‘TULLY’ in green letters on the back and his straw hat.
‘Well, it’s funny you should say that, Mark…’
Dedicated to the victims of the Siege of Sarajevo and the massacre at Srebrenica. Rest in peace.
Follow Matt on Twitter @Boola_vogue
You can use the archives on The Celtic Star to read back on Matt’s brilliant European Diaries from last season. Matt is currently working on his first Celtic book which will be published in the autumn.