Continuing our History Workshop World Cup series, Richard Mills explores the role football played in establishing diplomatic ties between Tito’s Yugoslavia and the non-aligned nations of the Third World.

When Ndaye Mulamba was sent off in the 23rd minute of Zaire’s World Cup match against Yugoslavia, his team were already 4–0 down. The 1974 tournament, hosted by West Germany, was the first to feature a nation from sub-Saharan Africa, but the highly anticipated debut became a nightmare, as Zaire succumbed to a record 9–0 defeat in this, their second game. The squad had enjoyed the vocal backing of Zaire’s authoritarian ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko, but three consecutive losses provoked a hostile reception from the regime upon their return to Africa. Yet, Zaire’s debut was also notable in another sense: the game against Yugoslavia was the latest in a string of matches between member states of what became known as the Non-Aligned Movement. Football had played a seminal role in communist Yugoslavia’s efforts to nurture close diplomatic ties with dozens of decolonising countries over the course of the previous quarter of a century. Evidence of this could be found on the touchline in West Germany: their African opponents were coached by the Yugoslav Blagoje Vidinić.

Josip Katalinski celebrates and Tubilandu Ndimbi despairs as Yugoslavia go 7-0 up at the Parkstadion in Gelsenkirchen. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Until 1948, communist Yugoslavia was a loyal member of the emerging Eastern Bloc. Josip Broz Tito’s Partisan guerrillas had routed fascist invaders and domestic opponents during the Second World War, before forging a new multi-ethnic country headed by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. However, relations with their Soviet allies quickly soured, as Tito’s proud new state refused to follow the Moscow line unquestioningly. With serious disagreements over Yugoslavia’s foreign policy in the Balkans, the high-handed conduct of Soviet advisers in the country, and an economic relationship in which Yugoslavia was treated as a junior partner, Stalin eventually moved to oust the insubordinate Yugoslav leadership. He failed to do so, instead expelling Yugoslavia from the Eastern Bloc. Cut adrift politically and economically, Belgrade had to forge new relationships. In the immediate term, the country turned Westward, as capitalist states saw an opportunity to foment discord in the communist world by keeping Tito “afloat” through aid and trade. Unprepared to be a subservient Western lackey either, Yugoslavia embarked upon a “Third Way” in the Cold War.

The Yugoslav president presided over the founding Conference of what developed into the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961, as delegations from an astonishingly diverse group of twenty-four predominantly African and Asian countries gathered in Belgrade. The seed of this movement had been planted in the preceding decade, as Yugoslav diplomats found common ground in the United Nations with counterparts from Indonesia, Egypt, India, and elsewhere. As the benefits of cultivating relations beyond the opposing Cold War blocs became apparent, Yugoslavs travelled far and wide to carve out a new role for their country on the world stage. The 1950s witnessed a series of reciprocal state visits and the signing of cooperation agreements between Yugoslavia and a raft of decolonising states.

Yugoslav footballers stood in the vanguard of their country’s ventures into the Third World. These sporting ambassadors often won matches against their inexperienced opponents by high margins, but the encounters always had a higher political significance. The Egyptian national team visited Belgrade in 1952 and Yugoslavia reciprocated a year later. Egypt soon had a Yugoslav coach, while Egyptian players also hosted leading clubs from their new Balkan ally. During Red Star Belgrade’s tour of the country, the team took to the pitch with a banner that declared: “Long live a free and independent Egypt”. Matches in Sudan and Ethiopia followed, where Red Star played before packed mud terraces and were hosted by Emperor Haile Selassie. Yugoslavia’s sizable Muslim population helped the country reach out to the Islamic world, as clubs made regular tours to the Middle East.

Tito’s footballers received a warm welcome wherever they went. When a young national team toured East Asia in 1955, Indonesia’s President Sukarno entertained them at his personal residence, having flown the squad to Bali in the presidential plane. For experienced international Vujadin Boškov, this contact with likeminded states had a deep political significance:

For us the Asian tour was not just a great sports-tourism adventure. Every one of us, who has a political sense, returned … as a more rounded person.… We were, above all, enriched with new pride – pride in the fact we are Yugoslavs. The Asian nations don’t have many positive experiences of the white man.… But the Asian peoples know how to think politically, they know how to value friends, and they have never seen anything else in us, other than friends from Tito’s country.

Football also provided opportunities to welcome guests to the Balkans. The Burmese Prime Minister U Nu presented a trophy named in his honour at the Belgrade derby in 1955, while footballers from non-aligned countries regularly graced Yugoslav stadiums.

Beyond the symbolism, the provision of tangible assistance to developing states was something that Yugoslavia took seriously. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Belgrade dispatched hundreds of engineers, doctors and teachers to Africa and Asia. Its firms worked on large infrastructure projects, while students from non-aligned countries travelled to Yugoslavia to study in significant numbers. Among the many requests for expertise, developing nations were keen to benefit from Yugoslavia’s sporting talent, and football and basketball coaches became a common export. By 1969, forty-seven Yugoslav football coaches were working in seventeen different states. Among them were national team coaches in Iran, Iraq, Libya and Kuwait. The Association of Football Coaches of Yugoslavia worked tirelessly to satisfy such requests, but it proved difficult to meet demand. In 1968, Sudan asked for eight highly qualified coaches, while Zambia and Kenya made requests of their own two years later. When Mali’s president Moussa Traoré visited Yugoslavia in 1979, the acquisition of quality sports instructors was among his priorities. Thus, by the time Yugoslavia faced Zaire at the World Cup there was nothing unusual about the presence of a Yugoslav in the opposing dressing room.

Like Mobutu, president Tito understood the rich opportunities offered by the global game. As I argue in The Politics of Football in Yugoslavia, his movement harnessed football as a revolutionary tool from the earliest days of Yugoslavia’s revolution. Decades later, when the aged leader met the 1974 World Cup squad in West Germany, he joked: “Today, I am the captain of our national team!” Yugoslavia and Zaire disappeared from the map amid the violence of the 1990s, the latter changing its name to the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the post-Cold War era, the disparate Non-Aligned Movement had to reinvent itself and now plays a much-diminished role in the international arena. By contrast, football continues to be a formidable force. Zaire were the sole African representatives in 1974, but thanks to the World Cup’s expansion in the intervening years, the continent has sent five teams to Russia. There, they will compete alongside Croatia and Serbia, successor states that have thrived on the international sporting stage since Yugoslavia’s demise.

Richard Mills is Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of East Anglia. His book, The Politics of Football in Yugoslavia: Sport, Nationalism and the State, was published by I.B. Tauris in 2018.

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