Arkan an unlikely hero

 

Football is, of course, only a game. Oh yeah? Try putting that proposition to the family of Gonzalo Perez, the Unidad Deportivo youth coach shot dead as he left the club grounds after a morning training session last week. Or try it on those Yugoslav football officials, players and referees who last week expressed their relief that Yugoslav football was now rid of the intimidating presence of Serbian paramilitary military leader and football club owner, "Arkan", killed two weeks ago.

For the time being, Colombian police have established neither a motive for last week's murder of Perez, nor the identity of his killer. We know only that 52-year-old Perez, who had also worked with Nacional Medellin and Independiente Medellin, was shot by a man on a motor cycle as he left after morning training.

In what was clearly not a good week for Colombian soccer, their Olympic side crashed out of the Latin American qualifying tournament for Sydney 2000, beaten 9-0 by Brazil.

Back on this side of the Atlantic, less cheerful images grabbed attention at the Olympic Stadium in Rome where a banner reading "Honour to the Tiger Arkan" was displayed just before Lazio's 3-1 win against Bari last Sunday. Arkan, real name Zelijko Raznatovic, was, of course, an indicted war criminal, wanted on a series of charges related to ethnic cleansing atrocities allegedly carried out by his paramilitary group, the Tigers, in the Croatian town of Vukovar in 1991 and in northern and eastern Bosnia in 1992.

Arkan was also, however, a former hardline Red Star Belgrade "fan", who later went on to buy himself the Belgrade club, Obilic. Two seasons ago, Obilic sprang a huge surprise when winning the Yugoslav championship, finishing in front of Red Star Belgrade. An article in the Yugoslav weekly Vreme last week suggested that Obilic's title win owed much to Arkan's intimidatory capacities, as well as his money.

Arkan had only to turn up to watch his side play, claimed the report, and both the referee and opposing team would be intimidated. We could believe that.

While Rome's Mayor Francesco Rutelli, himself a Lazio fan, called on the police to remove banners such as the Arkan one, the suspicion remains that for extreme right-wing elements amongst the fans of both Rome clubs, AS Roma and Lazio, Arkan is about to become a folk hero. Some hero, some folk, some funny old "game".

Paddy Agnew can be contacted at pagnew@aconet.it