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Who Signs The Nation State?

Words: Joe Gorman

Images: Laxlan Petras

On Sunday 6 May, 2001, Perth Glory traveled east to play the first National Soccer League elimination final against Melbourne Knights. This was the most feared away trip in Australian soccer.

For players of Serbian heritage, such as Glory’s striker Bobby Despotovski, Knights Stadium, located in a grim, industrial scrapyard in the western suburbs of Melbourne, was never a welcoming atmosphere. The national colours and flag of Croatia were omnipresent, and the sponsors boards’ were filled with fraternal butcher shops, construction companies and travel agencies.

Chants of “CRO-A-ZIA, CRO-A-ZIA, CRO-A-ZIA” rose from dirty terraces, caught the wind, and faded over the vacant wasteland that backed onto the ground. Angry wire fences separated players from spectators. Perth Glory owner Nick Tana once called Knights Stadium “the cold hole of hell”.

Ivan Ergić, a former Perth Glory midfielder who went on to play for Serbia, recalled it as one of the most intimidating places to play. “I’ve played against Dinamo Zagreb, I’ve played against Sirojki in Bosnia, which is really extremist Croatian, and I didn’t have this kind of experience like in Australia,” said Ergić.


Image: Perth Glory’s Bobby Despotovski Kappa Season 2001 poster, 28 x 19cm


This particular game, however, turned feral. It began with a Perth Glory defender being sent off, turned ugly as flares were let off on the terraces, and then became dangerous as a rocket flare was launched onto the pitch, narrowly missing the players.


Image: Crena Zvezda fans in Maracana.
Crena Zvezda vs. FK Novi Pazar, October 2014
ph. Laxlan Petras

After the referee blew full-time on a nil-all draw, a group of wild Melbourne Knights supporters assaulted the Glory players on their way out of the ground. Despotovski was the focus of both the riot and its aftermath, as television replays clearly showed him gesturing to the crowd with a three-fingered salute often associated with Chetnik Serbs.


Image: Laxlan Petras, BOBBY DESPOTOVSKI (2018), 3’29 Video on CRT monitor

With the wars in Yugoslavia not long in the memory, the incident — and in particular Despotovski — became national news.

Born in Australia in 1971, Despotovski had grown up in the former Yugoslavia and began his career at the second division club Dinamo Pančevo. The money had been good, his day job as a cobbler relatively easy, and the quality of soccer excellent — perhaps the best second division in all of Europe.


Image: Despotovski’s Crena Zvezda training shirt at the Sports Without Borders conference on Discrimination in Sport in Australia at the Moonee Valley Racecourse, Australia, March 2015.

Yet by the time Despotovski joined the Yugoslav army to complete his compulsory year of service, the tempest of nationalism had ripped through the country, breaking apart families, beliefs, towns and the Yugoslav football league, which was replaced by national competitions throughout the republics.

“I went in the army and everyone was treated the same: Croatians, Slovenians, Bosnians, Serbs, everybody,” Despotovski later recalled. “All of sudden, three months into the army service, the army had to release Slovenians, and the border with Croatia closed. The banking system was collapsing, and they could not send money to their children.

“Obviously our banking system was working, so we give money to the Croatians to get out, buy themselves a ticket and go home. Which is a natural thing to do for kids. Everything escalates very, very quickly. I don’t know where they ended up. Did they reach their homes? Did they go back into the army over there to fight against somebody else? We didn’t know any of that.”


Image: ‘BOBBY D.’ poster
Source: Getty images

Respect for Tolerance (2016)
Installation view at WestSpace, Melbourne, Australia.

Self-harm had been the only way out for the remaining Yugoslavs. Despotovski had cut three deep wounds into his arm, causing the psychiatrist to declare him crazy and grant him his freedom. As war and inflation destroyed the economy and the soccer, Despotovski moved back to Perth in November 1992. Within a decade he had become a star player at Perth Glory. One headline in the West Australian newspaper called him “the soldier who came to play”.

Following the incident in 2001, he returned from Melbourne as a hate figure of the Croatian community and a hero to the Serbs. Soccer Australia fined him $2000 and death threats arrived at his home. He lived, as he once joked, “like Al Capone”. He never played at Knights Stadium again.


Image: Bobby Despotovski against the Mariners

The reason he gave that three-fingered salute, he later admitted, was because of a provocative anti-Serb banner he saw in the home end. A decade after leaving the Yugoslav army, he still could not escape the Balkan War.

“I was taking a corner,” he remembered. “What angered me was the banners on that particular day. They say how many Serbs they killed in Krajina. That’s why I did what I did it. That banner is completely wrong. They celebrating how many Serbian kids and women and people died. Are you kidding me? We live in the best country in the world, and you doing that?”

Until the National Soccer League was disbanded in 2004, and the A-League established in its place a year later, soccer in Australia was plagued by incidents such as these. For some people, such as Despotovski’s former teammate Ljubo Miličević, it was all just part of following a tribal sport. “I played in that game, and I knew some of the crew that attacked Bobby,” Miličević later recalled.


Image: The Melbourne Knights after winning the National Soccer League grand final on 7th May 1995.

“We never spoke about it. But to be honest, take away the fact that I grew up supporting Melbourne Croatia, that I knew people in the crowd that attacked the team, if I was [Bobby] I would have reacted no differently… you give as good as you get.”

Others, however, felt that the structure of the NSL, with its proud ethnic clubs, was keeping those communities in silos, rather than integrating them into broader society. In an era where the conservative government of John Howard was sewing discontent with multiculturalism, the ethnic soccer club was increasingly seen as the failure, not the success, of multicultural Australia.

Ultimately, the NSL was disbanded in 2004, and replaced by the A-League in 2005. Ethnic clubs such as Melbourne Knights were relegated back to the state leagues; privately-owned franchises such as Perth Glory were retained.

Despotovski was able to successfully straddle both eras. In 2004, he was part of the Perth Glory side which won the final NSL grand final; in 2005, at 36 years of age, he came out of semi-retirement to win the Golden Boot and player-of-the-year in the first season of the A-League.

During his career he won two NSL titles, represented Australia, and scored more than 100 national league goals. He is remembered as one of Australia’s most colourful and controversial attacking players.


Joe Gorman is an independent journalist. This is an edited extract from The Death and Life of Australian Soccer, published by UQP in 2017