Hooliganism at the tennis, I’ve seen it all now. Tennis crowds ain’t your normal sporting mob. They are, well, just polite. Well dressed too - if not a bit on the skimpy side. They turn off their mobile phones, clap diplomatically, maintain a perpetual smile even while they are waiting outside the Garnier tent for hours and say sorry when they accidentally give you a slight nudge as they are waiting in line for their café latte.
Croatians and Serbians have been having a crack at one and another for decades. But even I was surprised when a skirmish ensued outside the Heineken bar at the Australian Open. Is their no place where one can enjoy a slice of pita in tranquillity? I would have thought that there is nothing like the calming niceness and banality of a tennis crowd to defuse the passions.
But within 90 minutes of play starting on day one, there they were, at it again. After the skirmish the Cros were complaining that once again they had been attacked and not a NATO peace-keeper (or even Victorian copper) in sight; the Serbs whingeing that the Cros had got too big for their boots again.
There is no darker scourge than war and given the relatively recent bloody conflict between Croatia and Serbia, on one level it is not surprising that, fuelled by sporting emotion, old hatreds would come to the surface.
But what was deeply disappointing was the age of the protagonists. None of the people involved in the swearing and jostling appeared to be old enough to have a driver’s licence. Nearly all of them would have been born in Australia. Certainly, most of them would have spent their formative childhood years in Australia.
Sociologists will be puzzled for decades to come at how home grown Aussie kids who happen to have ethnic parents can be imbued with such animosity, after being raised in such a carefree, nonchalant and opportunity ridden place like Australia. This is especially given the relative harmoniousness within which Serbs and Croatians integrate in their respective homelands.
I’m tipping that the answer rests largely with the quest for pride and longing for acceptance. People, especially young people, want to feel good about themselves and to fit in. They yearn for a sense of connectedness, belonging and camaraderie; a desire to be treated well irrespective of their usefulness to others.
But sometimes you need to very careful what you wish for. Such is the case with nationalism, in nearly all its guises.
There is no scope for deriving pride from nationality. You only get to take credit for things you do, not what happens to you. Where a person happens to be born is ultimately nothing more than an accident or happenstance.
Moreover, no matter what your take is on Croatian-Serbian history, there is one thing that is certain. The conflicts were brutal, claiming untold lives. But the past can’t be changed. Anger and hatred are always ugly. Hanging onto these emotions on account of past events - no matter how brutal - has no redeeming features. It just increases the carnage of the past by making victims of the current generation who continue to hold self-defeating grudges, instead of revelling in the freedom and endless opportunities that exist in Australia.
Like all people, Croatians and Serbians need to focus on prospering in the present and future, rather than allowing themselves to become victims of past conflict. It is irrational to do anything else.
If people want to define part of their personhood by their ethnicity, that is fine but they need to focus on their culture as a way to expand their horizons and experiences and enrich their understanding of the human condition. And to this end, there are plenty of splendid things for Croatians and Serbians to focus on. Paradoxically, despite the animosity between them, culturally and historically there is far more that unites than separates them.
Projecting the positive aspects of Croatian and Serbian culture and history will ensure that people from these regions continue to enrich Australian society instead of ruining the amenity of others seeking to partake in festive and sporting activities.
So next time the Cros and Serbs come across each other at a sporting venue instead of goading one another they should share a pita, fire up the BBQ and grill some cevapcici, sink a few plum brandies and kick the soccer ball around the park - or better still get the Sherrin out and play kick to kick. That way everyone else will join in and they’ll really see just how similar we all are and they can define themselves by their common humanity, not nationality: oi, oi, oi!
Mirko Bagaric, is a Croatian born Australian and (wanna be) gun tennis player who likes pita.