Swearwords and Racism in Slovenian Football

Yesterday (18 April), the ranks of those who follow (willingly or unwillingly) Slovenian domestic football league news have been ‘shaken’ by the announcement that Ljubljana’s major club, Olimpija, is firing its coach, Marko Nikolić, following a racist slur he’d directed against one of the players on his team, Blessing Eleke, after he’d celebrated a goal perhaps a bit too enthusiastically in a match on 10 April. International football organisations spoke up; Nikolić was suspended for 7 matches, i.e. until the end of the season; all culminating in his sacking, announced by Olimpija’s president at a press conference yesterday. A strong message, it would seem, that racism can’t be tolerated.

There’s absolutely nothing to excuse Nikolić’s behaviour, but what raised my eyebrows just as much were some of the responses to what has been going on in the endlessly exciting arena of Slovenian professional football. Specifically, there’s been article published this morning on the Slovenian state TV’s website, which aggregates a few local sports pundits’ opinion on the Eleke incident – together with another recent one in which Zlatko Zahovič, the sports director of Slovenia’s other major club, Maribor, insulted one of his club’s players, Agim Ibraimi (who just so happens to be a Macedonian Muslim) via text messages. Ibraimi came forward with these and had them published in a local newspaper, but apparently things were smoothed over internally. All forgiven – except that one of the pundits in said article, Andrej Stare, called Zahovič (who is of Serbian descent) for being, essentially, a cultural impostor:

“I wouldn’t take a side here, though there seem to be some hitches in communication, since people from outside the Slovenian athletic-cultural environment use combinations of words and adjectives [SIC] in a different way than our norms would require [them] to. In Serbia, “jebemtimater” [“I fuck your mother”] means “how are you, you look well,” but here among us it’s an inexcusable swearword.”

Obligatory screenshot:

stare quote

Stare is called out, and rightly so, in the article’s comments. Kicking your greetings off with “I fuck your mother” – phonetically almost identical, by the way, in both Slovene and Serbian –  wouldn’t win you many friends in any corner of the former Yugoslav world. But Stare’s statement is just one symptom of a more widespread phenomenon that I’ve written about before: the ease with which discourse in Slovenia slips towards assigning a greater leniency towards swearwords among those South Slavs of non-Slovenian descent – most frequently, Serbs and Bosnians (though others, in the fumbling fuzzy reaches of the ideology, are certainly not exempt).

There are many reasons for why this ideology persists, some of which I explore in the article linked to above. But what I find intriguing about Stare’s comment is that he does not use this ideology to ‘explain’ Nikolić’s behaviour. Nikolić had, similarly, used a swearword to insult Eleke – but in his case, the racist dimension is seemingly amplified enough to block any kind of quasi-culturalist explanations. These are as equally available for Nikolić as they are for Zahovič, given that Nikolić is himself Serbian. But not, it seems, once the publicly fronted line of racism is crossed.

Why is Zahovič different? Well, for one, he’s culturally and nationally much more ambiguous than Nikolić. He was born in Maribor, Slovenia; he has played (and very well) for the Slovenian national team; Slovene is his mother tongue. And yet, still, he is, really, a Serb. ‘Euphemistically,’ a južnjak (‘southerner’). The -ič at the end of his name fools nobody; everyone knows it’s really just a hidden -ić (the ć/č distinction is probably the most highly contentious orthographic shibboleth between Slovene and other South Slavic languages written in the Latin script). That is why, for Stare, Zahovič is so much more pernicious: an impostor, a hidden Balkan-born brute who, no matter how hard he tries to fit in, will always remain from “outside the Slovenian… environment.” Nikolić went against the rules; he has to go. Zahovič, on the other hand… well, that’s just how they talk, isn’t it? What can you do? Shrug it away cynically, and move on, and mutter to yourself, oh but of course a real Slovene would never say something like this. Of course it’s just the crypto-Serbs polluting our nice, pure, polite athletic-cultural environment. Et cetera, et cetera.

Having to deal with stuff like this is tiring, because the prejudices are so deeply rooted and so entangled with a host of other things – linguistic nationalism, migrant xenophobia, anxieties about Yugoslav history, post-socialist politics, and so on and so on – that it’s difficult to diagnose clearly what’s involved. Be that as it may, outbursts of linguistic ethnicism such as Stare’s are deeply, utterly wrong. A person speaking in the name of a state television outlet (Stare works for Slovenian state TV) should really know better.

There’s still a long, long way to go before such issues are resolved. But we shouldn’t lose sight of them. Idiocies like these should be called out; and maybe, by doing so, we can chip away at least a bit at the deep inequalities in public discourse hiding behind the Balkanist ideology of swearing-prone Serbs.

Swearwords and Racism in Slovenian Football

4 thoughts on “Swearwords and Racism in Slovenian Football

  1. While I’ve no idea about the details of this incident – and certainly, if the guy is actually Slovene then that makes the comments odd at best and potentially racist – it is true that different linguistic cultures can take different approaches to obscenity. In the UK, there are huge differences in the use of swear-words depending on class and geography – I virtually never use any, but there are people a few streets away in a less nice part of town who literally seem to use several in every sentence. What would be grossly insulting to me is ordinary good humour to them (and conversely, what would be polite to me may well be interpreted as patronising (and effete) to them). The difference also applies between countries and languages – perfectly pleasant Germans I’ve known have to rein themselves in when speaking English not to sound uncouth, and have commented to me about how ridiculously polite the (middle-class) English are (there’s a famous Mark Twain piece about this).
    More directly relevant, a Romanian friend of mine has commented on what she sees as a particularly aggressive and uncouth set of behaviours that contribute to the idea of masculininity in south-eastern europe (including both Romania and Serbia), part of which is a greater use of insult and obscenity.

    I can’t say for certain if that’s true, although there’s certainly a stereotype of south east european men that is prevalent far beyond Slovenia. But the point is, while individual remarks may be betray some racist prejudices, it’s also important to at least consider that those prejudices may actually sometimes have some basis in fact.


    1. jonafras says:

      Oh, I’m sure there are differences in the way and frequency of use of swearwords between people. I’m much more interested, however, in the kinds of stereotypes and prejudices talking *about* these differences betrays, rather than such frequencies themselves. Silence regarding class is one problematic issue here, as are of course the moral evaluations hiding behind many observations of this kind. For this reason I think it’s problematic to posit it as a kind of quasi-scientific “explanation” for an in actuality much more complicated event. Wa bas.


      1. But can’t talking about something that’s actually the case just be a recognition that it’s actually the case, rather than a betrayal of a prejudice? It might be, as it were, a postjudice, surely?


      2. jonafras says:

        But even ‘plain facts’ can always be rhetorically twisted to support all sorts of agendas. In the case I wrote about, in particular, I don’t think it was merely ‘recognition,’ not in the way it was used. It may have presented itself as such, but given the loaded connotations of statements like this, I strongly doubt it.

        Actual research with regard to the frequency of swearword use in conversational talk between languages would be a godsend. It may even exist! But when a person like Stare says (or implies) “Balkan people swear all the time,” I’m quite certain they’re not basing their evaluation (for that is what it is) on any kind of empirical evidence beyond the anecdotal. And, more importantly, that isn’t even their goal.


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