The last penalty. Alternate History of Yugoslavia. (Loosely based on a book of Gigi Riva)

The twentieth century has been defined as the century of Sarajevo. The cycles don’t care of round numbers, of the time as we humans mark it. An era runs out when it must and doesn’t respect the dates. Conventionally, the twentieth century begins in Sarajevo, on June 28th1914, when GavriloPrincip shoots the archduke. In history books the cause-effect relationship is sudden: Gavrilo shoots and World War I bursts.  Conventionally, the century ends in Sarajevo, emblem of all the Balkan wars in the Nineties. Once again, an episode marked the divide between two eras. But this time there are no gunshots, on centre stage there are no politicians or soldiers. The protagonist is FarukHadžibegić, a Yugoslav football player which soon would become Bosnian. Is June 30th1990. It’s a day that gives signals to the world that will come. The last pieces of the Berlin Wall are still falling. Europe is on the road to Maastricht.

The Soviet Union of Gorbachev and Perestroika gets ready for the twenty-eighth congress of the Communist Party, the last one. By order of Slobodan Milošević, leader of the National-Communists, the Serbian Republic is on the eve of a referendum to approve the new constitution, which limits the autonomy of Kosovo Albanians. At the same time, the Slovenian President Milan Kucan and the Croatian FranjoTuđman meet and confirm the will to transform the Yugoslav federation into a confederation, first step towards the independence. The football World Cup in Italy panders to the geopolitical moods: the Soviet Union loses against Romania, former satellite country, and comes out in the first round; West Germany will win the cup. Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, writes for the Los Angeles Times that «the event feeds nationalism». In the case of Yugoslavia, the question is: what nationalism? In the chaos of symbols that the Western world struggles to decrypt, next to the national flag, blue-white-red with a red star in the middle, appear the Serbian one, same coloursin a different order and the royal crest with eagle,and the Croatian, with white-red checkerboard.

In the quarterfinals of the tournament Yugoslavia faces Argentina, the defending champion team, with the best player of all time, Diego Armando Maradona.The match ends in a tie, zero-zero after 120 minutes. Penalty kicks will decide the winner. Half luck, half skill. May it’s no coincidence if the match is played in Florence, the city of Machiavelli. The tension is high, even Maradona misses his penalty.  On the last lap of a story that seemed endless, the teams are two-two. It’s the turn of Gustavo Dezotti and the Argentinian forward doesn’t miss: 3-2. It’s up to Faruk, the accidental hero of this story.


Pause. Now I will tell you another story, as if I were a future Balkan Homer. There, where Europe meets Asia, Helen, the femme fatale. Here, where Europe is an announcement of the East, the fatal penalty.May it sounds blasphemous: how can a football match to decide the fate of an entire nation? It’s true, there would be many other intermediate steps to consider. It’s true, it doesn’t work in this manner, now, for those who think coldly. But one day, who knows. Time crushes the perspective, compresses the facts,  elects the symbols, relies on the popular narrative. Once upon a time there was a very popular game called football. Faruk had to save the existence of a nation by kicking a penalty. He missed it and the war began. The story might end like this, for our attitude to the scapegoats, to the epic reduction of complexity.It happened with the irredentist Yugoslav GavriloPrincip, it happens with the Yugoslav FarukHadžibegić. But, what if we try to rewrite the story?

Replay. It’s  a beautiful summer evening in Florence.  Faruk advances toward the penalty spot calm, relaxed, determined.He must write “to be continued” on the page, to bringstrength to the Yugoslav flags which timidly begin to be visible next to those of the secessionist republics.That kick to the ball is the push toward the change of mind, the back-to-the-future of people who have the same language, even if the they write in different characters, people who eat the same food, people who have different religions but all with one god and not so antagonistic as it will be later. Faruk looks at the goalkeeper and he doesn’t see anyone. There can be no one between him and his task: save Yugoslavia. No one can stop that ball so full of meaning. Faruk is not him right now, is the messenger of a divine plan. His feet are the gift he has received for the fulfilment of this mission, his lungs contain the breath of a nation suspended between itself and nothingness, his head is the  patrimony  to preserve and to return to those who have lost it in the negative-sum operation which is war. In those 18 square meters, FarukHadžibegićfrom Sarajevo must hole not a ball, but a political manifesto, a “no” to the announced destruction. He takes a run-up and kicks. Goal. Tie. From the bleachers:«Yugoslavia! Yugoslavia!» Faruk’s teammates, galvanised, don’t make other mistakes, the Argentinians did. Yugoslavia advances. Maradona says: «this time God had other plans». In the semi-finals, Italy doesn’t handle the pressure of prediction and Yugoslavia wins. The final is against Germany. The nation that was now unified against the one that entrusted his fate to a game.  As in all happy ending stories, Yugoslavia wins. Maradona was right: God’s plan is now clear. In all the republics of the federation is a delirium of joy. When heroes return home, with the cup, they retrace the itinerary of Tito’s funeral. In the country grows a sentiment of “Yugonostalgia”. Nationalists cannot go against the popular emotionality. So, no more war. And everyone lived happily ever after.

(Ok, it’s an impossible story, I know. We cannot go back. So, why write it? And why put a penalty at the centre of the story? Well, for the same reason why millions of people love football: because football is childhood. And in childhood everything is possible.)

By Igor Giammanco

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