This feature is part of A World of Ultras
Delije: a term that strikes fear across Europe and evokes all the images linked to football ultras. This is the name of Red Star Belgrade’s notorious ultras gang, and those fortunate enough to ever experience a match at the Marakana will take the memories to the grave. This is a unique set of fanatics and must be considered as one of the world’s finest.
In my opinion, you haven’t quite lived until you’ve witnessed the Delije first hand. As with most of the planet’s top firms, undertones of violence naturally play a huge part in the Serbian gang’s fearsome reputation, but brutality is just one facet of the Red Star experience and
History is often central to the DNA of football firms in this part of the world and Belgrade is arguably the greatest example. Political events have affected the city and its people for decades and that has been crucial throughout the life of Red Star. In fact, it was antipathy towards authorities that led to the clubs foundation.
Red Star Belgrade was initially formed as a Youth Physical Culture Society by members of the Anti-fascist Youth League in 1945, whilst World War Two was still being fought, and was an outlet to show opposition to the communist regime of Marshal Josip Tito. The club inherited a stadium, players and even club colours from the defunct SK Jugoslavija.
The formation of Red Star as a community is of huge significance, and even to this day, the club boasts teams in over 20 different sports. However, football has and always will be the crux of Delije loyalty.
Long-serving rivals Partizan were created just months after Red Star and were seen as the army’s club. Again, this historical context sheds light on why the passions in this derby run deeper than perhaps any other in Europe. But it isn’t only the rivalry with Partizan that is steeped in decades of conflict. Serbia has a bloodied history. Even before World War Two, the Balkan War had scarred the country whilst more recent generations still feel the consequences of the Yugoslav Wars and subsequent breakup of the former state.
Belgrade itself still bears the battle scars of the 1999 NATO bombings. Empty shells of obliterated buildings, which remain present in the city, serve as a chilling reminder of harder times and provide a sombre sight to visitors of the Serbian capital. As an outsider, it can only amplify the appreciation of the spirit shown by the city’s people.
Struggle has been ubiquitous with life in Serbia and those adversities aren’t exclusive to political agendas either. Decades of economic hardships have also affected millions over the years and these factors have all contributed to the sculpture of a warrior nation. Even in the modern era, this area is torn by political issues. A wearisome breakup of the Social Federal Republic of Yugoslavia lasted for over a decade before concluding with the declaration of Serbia and Montenegro as the new Federation of Yugoslavia in 1992. Fourteen years later, those ties were severed.
Frictions in the region are far from resolved, though, and the world saw this as recently as October 2014 as the international fixture between Serbia and Albania descended into utter carnage and resulted in abandonment after a drone flew a Greater Albania flag into the Partizan stadium. Understandably, the Serbians did not react kindly due to ongoing tensions surrounding the territory of Kosovo.
Whilst the images themselves do tell a story, the media representation doesn’t give a fair reflection of the area. Perhaps that adds to the magnetism of Serbia’s radical hooligan scene but for a lot of people in this region, football isn’t only a form of escapism; it is a way of life.
It is no surprise then that the Red Star ultras are revered as some of the toughest in Europe; after all, even the name Delije roughly translates to ‘hard men’. Nevertheless, the mindless acts of brutality often depicted by Western media could scarcely be further from the truth. Serbian ultras are smart, sophisticated people and that sentiment rings particularly true with the Delije.
On the other hand, you certainly wouldn’t want to get caught up in the war zone – especially on derby day. Physical violence has been a recurrent theme of the Eternal Derby with vicious acts being perpetrated by supporters of both Belgrade clubs. However, this isn’t a rivalry born simply out of trivial sporting feuds. In Belgrade, the choice between Red Star and Partizan is much more than choosing one team over another. Association to Delije or Grobari is an all-encompassing affiliation that defines you as a human.
Over the six decades of history, the animosity of Serbia’s fiercest rivalry has resulted in thousands of arrests, dozens of hate-fuelled clashes, and pools of blood shed over the streets and terraces of Belgrade. Fans have even died supporting their clubs throughout this fixture. What sets this derby aside from all others is the unrivalled levels of passion. On match day, the city comes to standstill like no other. Additionally, the euphoria inside the ground is one that’s unique to football in the Serbian capital.
Simply put: Belgrade is a great city, with equally great people, and boasts one of the best sporting showdowns in the world.
On the pitch, this rivalry doesn’t really spark any excitement for outsiders but on the terraces it is a carnival of colour and noise, regardless of which stadium it is played at. Both sets of supporters are heralded around Europe as some of the best and the atmosphere in these games is almost incomparable to anything else you could witness. However, for sheer magnitude, encounters at the Marakana just shade it. Likewise, the Red Star fans arguably shade the battle of supporters.
The real beauty of Red Star’s ultras is their ability to generate the furnace of emotions even with one stand. Whilst the Marakana is naturally full for the Eternal Derby, three stands of the huge 55,000 capacity stadium remain empty for the majority of other domestic clashes. Despite this, standing with the Delije is one of the greatest experiences that a football fan could ever enjoy – in or indeed outside of the sporting environment.
Fans and ultras congregate in the stadium’s north stand, which has Delije spelt out by the seats. Once inside, it is impossible to resist encapsulated by a truly phenomenal atmosphere that is utterly unique and distinctive to the Red Star supporters.
Graffiti murals on the walls in and outside the ground offer a truly breathtaking sight that, even without understanding words, depict clear images of a history ubiquitous to the lives and passions of these supporters. Likewise, the unrelenting chants break through the language barrier to assure you that watching Red Star is a truly special moment. This isn’t simply about winning or losing, this is about identity.
The most stunning part of standing with the Red Star fans, though, is the extravagant use of colour. Prior to kick-off, the cauldron of atmosphere is left bubbling by the waving of scarves and passionate war songs building up nicely for when the teams enter the pitch. A glimpse of the players emerging from the tunnel is the last thing you’ll see for the next few minutes as a seemingly endless barrage of flares light up the stand to create a literally red hot atmosphere. If ever the unparalleled passion of football supporters could be personified, this smoke-filled moment of deafening chants is it. The Delije proudly declares the love for its club and all it stands for.
Once the smoke has died down, the rollercoaster of emotions continues with various banners, tifos and choreography – all of which are driven along by the unbroken roar of chants. Sheer pandemonium.
After 90 minutes of adrenaline-fuelled passion, fans would be excused for leaving the Marakana bereft of energy as these levels of euphoria are draining on body and mind. Not for these fanatics, though, as the party goes on long into the night and can often include a trip to watch the club’s basketball side, which is yet another reminder of the fact being affiliated to Red Star carries far more weight than simply watching a football team.
On the continent, the football ultra movement is all about pride, loyalty, toughness, intensity, solidarity and passion. These are all qualities that the Delije naturally boast in abundance. Given the historical background of the country as a whole, as well as the formation of this great club, perhaps the unmistakably unambiguous scent of Red Star should come as no surprise.
When it comes to ultra culture, Red Star leads the way.
By Liam Newman @thatliamnewman