A Tale of One City: Belgrade

A Tale of One City: Belgrade

This feature is part of A Tale of One City

It’s March 1992, and the Marakana falls eerily silent. Sixty-thousand fans have packed into the stadium in Savski Venac, a central area of Belgrade, to roar on Red Star Belgrade and their ferocious rivals, Partizan. The usual hellish carnival of boisterous hatred ceases due to the emergence in the stands of one man.

Some supporters stare in disbelief, some applaud gleefully; others simply don’t know how to react. Once they realise who it is, the ground swells with cheering. The shadowy figure stands up inside his director’s box and greets the unanimously positive reception, then continues to watch the football match that many have forgotten is taking place. Usually, nothing can stop the madness inside the Belgrade derby, but this is no ordinary visitor to Red Star’s stadium; this is Željko Ražnatović, better known as Arkan.

Ražnatović was the commander-in-chief of the murderous paramilitary force, the Serb Volunteer Guard, and had arrived at the Belgrade derby at a time when Serbia was locked in a vicious Eastern European conflict known as the Yugoslav Wars. His presence inside the stadium was met with a dramatic crescendo from both sets of supporters. The paramilitaries that surrounded Arkan in the north stand were fully uniformed and armed, but there was no need for them to use their heavy artillery on this occasion. They had done something remarkable to the followers of Partizan and Red Star; they had united them. This was a unity borne out of hatred, the fans bound in harmony by a vitriolic disdain for the common enemy: the Croats.

‘I was there that day and it was remarkable when the supporters of the two teams, who hate each other so passionately, cheered together in unison. They had never done so before and I don’t think they have since. The game finished goalless, which was hardly surprising. The players could barely concentrate; most of the Red Star players were watching what Arkan was doing in his box, not what the opposition were doing in theirs,” said Igor Todorović, a Serbian football commentator to The Observer in 2004.

“We were united by nationalism and hatred of the Croats. There was an amazing sense of power within the ground, as if football supporters were changing the world. And in a sense they were, even if the situation was never to be repeated, even during the Kosovo conflict.”

Todorović’s anecdote illustrates exactly how the Belgrade derby, between two of the bitterest rivals in world football, transcends the sport of football. During that time, in 1992, the derby was an arena for which to voice opposition towards the Croats, to convey the message of nationalism, and to rally support for the self-styled Tigers paramilitaries, led by Arkan. Serbian football fans grew to be the most powerful and influential hooligans in the world and, to this day, remain profoundly frightening, violent and abusive.

The Serbian Volunteer Guard, or the ‘Tigers’, were made up largely of the Red Star ultras, the Delije. Under the banner of the Tigers, they would go onto commit some of the worst atrocities during the wars of secession in former Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav War raged in the 1990s, and the Belgrade derby was partially responsible for some of the worst instigators of war crimes during the conflict.

While Serbia may not be quite as dangerous in the present day, the game is still widely regarded as one of the most dangerous football matches on the planet. To paraphrase Kirsten Schlewitz in SB Nation, ‘smoke and fire are always certain at the Belgrade derby days, but your safety is not’. But that will always be the case. As Serbia has moved away from the conflict, the Belgrade football fans have moved away from each other. There are no more acts of unanimity between these rival sets of fans; only deep, passionate hatred.

When Partizan meet Red Star, the noise erupts in a manner simply unparalleled in any other derby in Europe. The Marakana and the Partizan Stadium rock and tremble with noise, explode with fire and become enveloped in gloomy smoke, all adding to the most intense and volatile atmosphere in European football. Welcome to the Eternal Derby of Belgrade, or ‘Hellgrade’ as some have dubbed it.

In Belgrade, you are defined by your allegiance to either Red Star or Partizan. The history of the derby originates back to the Second World War when the football clubs were formed as a consequence of political institutions. Red Star, or Crvena Zvezda – formed in 1945 by the United alliance of anti-Fascist Youth – took the place of SK Jugoslavija, one of many pre-war Yugoslav clubs under suspicions that they were collaborators of the enemy by Yugoslav revolutionary and statesman, Marshall Josip Broz Tito. Red Star adopted everything from the fans and the stadium to their iconic red and white colours, from SK, and became a symbolic institution of Yugoslavia.

A few months later, in October, Partizan Belgrade was born. They didn’t know it at the time, but it was to be one of the most significant events in the history of Eastern European football, for it gave the sporting community the genesis of the Eternal Derby.

The newly-founded Partizan emanated from a group of young generals from the Yugoslav’s People’s Army – or the National Liberation Army – all sharing a love for football, and the naming of the club was a no-brainer; it was to be named after the Yugoslav Partisans, a communist military formation that fought during World War Two. After the war, the two clubs became the dominant forces in Yugoslavian football, along with Hadjuk Split and Dinamo Zagreb, two massive footballing forces that are part of modern-day Croatia. These clubs became known as the Big Four, but there was always an inner rivalry bubbling between Red Star and Partizan.

The first meeting between the clubs came in January 1947, while the scars of war were still bleeding throughout Europe. Red Star won 4-3, and the hatred began. The two clubs have been consistently principal actors in Yugoslavian/Serbian football over the past 70 years – either in the Yugoslav First League, the First League of FR Yugoslavia or the Serbian SuperLiga. There have been countless showdowns in the league, the cups and, while Partizan have shared in the success of the two clubs, Red Star remain the most successful club from former Yugoslavia across all European competition, and are the only side from that region to have lifted the European Cup.

However, it is fair to say that, albeit with regret, violence and racism often overshadow these derbies and football as a whole in Serbia. In October 2012, the spotlight was shone on Serbia after a mass brawl broke out between their under-21 side during a match with their English counterparts. The English press slammed the actions of the Serbian players and coaches as “disgraceful” amid allegations of racism towards Stuart Pearce’s players.

Unfortunately, this type of behaviour is not confined to international football and is a recurring motif in the history of the derby. A derby in April 2015 was marred by horrendous scenes of violence, inside and outside the Marakana. Organised riots between Red Star’s Delije and Partizan’s Grobari delayed kick-off by 45 minutes as rabid supporters launched missiles and stun grenades at police, leaving 35 officers injured and resulting in 41 arrests. Everywhere you looked, there was carnage. Hooded and masked fans emerged through the billows of red smoke, hoisting flares as the stadium turned into a war zone.

Looking at the pictures from that shocking night, outsiders can only wonder how the ultras lose sight of what really matters in the Eternal Derby in Belgrade. There remain hardened, extremist factions of supporters who go to the games to brawl and make the headlines for the wrong reasons. Fans covered in blood and being battered by a police force that is left with little option is hardly a suitable advertisement for the Eternal Derby, or for Serbian football as a whole.

Contrary to what some may think, however, the majority of fans actually want to see the football and are distressed by what happens in the stands time and time again. For instance, Nenad Mijaljević, a lifelong Red Star supporter, has strong feelings about the actions of the ultras and longs for a day when the Eternal Derby is recognised for the quality of the play on the pitch, rather than the weight of destruction in the stands and on the streets outside the stadium: “I detest violence and I get really disgusted when I see problems with the ultras. That said I have never felt that my own safety has been endangered. I just hate seeing people breaking the seats in the stadiums. The football hasn’t been great lately, so that might be a reason why even more attention is turned to the stands and the bother in there,” he said.

Both the Red Star and Partizan fans have accrued a reputation for troublesome behaviour; while the ultras are responsible for some of the more opprobrious aspects of the derby, they are also the orchestrators of one of the most explosive and exciting footballing spectacles in the world. The ‘choreographers’, as they call themselves, are responsible not just for cheering on their team, but for whipping the rest of their fellow fans into delirium.

When derby day is imminent and the stadium shudders with the sheer magnitude of emotion, the choreographers smile and remind themselves that they live for such a moment. It grips the supporters and sucks them in. It is unavoidable. Whatever stand you are in, cheering Red Star or Partizan, this is an intoxicating occasion. It is about who can chant the loudest, who can portray the most emotion.

Mijaljević summed the atmosphere up eloquently when I asked him what he felt on derby days :“I sometimes go into the derby day with almost no emotion. But as I approach the stadium, I feel like a wave is hitting me. It’s something all football fans feel at some point. But the magnitude of that cocktail of emotion, tension, pride, rivalry, noise… it’s probably bigger than just about any game in football – and you cannot stay cool. It just sucks you in and you let everything out during those 90 minutes.”

Inside their blazing cauldrons of footballing fandom, the Red Star and Partizan fans use these derby games to expel their tension and stress. Enter the stadium and forget the everyday problems of normal life; it is 90 minutes to think about nothing but football. When you compare that to the shadowy underbelly of racism and hooliganism that media outside of Serbia find impossible to divorce from this game, you get a brighter and more positive portrait of the match itself.

That portrait should be positive, too, because the derby exists in Belgrade, a special city that is often overlooked when people are sketching up their European bucket lists. Home to the magnificent Belgrade Fortress – a jaw-dropping citadel which provides a stunning view of both the Sava and Danube Rivers – and the monstrous Church of Saint Sava, Belgrade is a special city with a pleasant, peaceful atmosphere, far removed from the war-torn Balkan region during the Yugoslav war. Its identity as a beautiful city contrasts starkly with the endless stream of footage focusing on a small section of over-zealous fans clashing outside stadia.

The river rafts are populated with numerous culture spots, museums, cafes, bars and restaurants. It is an old city brimming with political and cultural history and, while it has endured the horrors of war, it remains an adventurous, charming outpost in Eastern Europe. It seems fitting that a derby of this standing in the European game should have such an exquisite location for a home.

It has also grown, in recent years, to become one of the top party cities in the world, a location chock-full of exciting clubs that make the city come alive at night. The splavovi or ‘rafts’ in English, are pulsating hubs of music and dance that reflect the energy and spirit in the city. That spirit manifests itself during the football matches too, and the stadia stands alongside the National Theatre or Kalmegdan as must-see locations on a trip to Belgrade.

These stadiums have hosted some of the most memorable games in the history of European football. A particular stand-out was the 100th derby, between the two rivals in 1995. Darko Kovačević and Mitko Stojkovski scored for Red Star to overturn the Partizan lead and complete a satisfying 2-1 victory as they lifted the league championship that year. The Marakana was in seismic form that night, bouncing to the beat of 80,000 raucous fans on a special occasion for the derby. While Zvezda took the spoils, both sets of fans united under the one roof to celebrate the great derby and appreciate the history.

In recent years, Partizan’s youth system has been a rich source of young talent. In 2013, 19-year-old Lazar Marković and Aleksandar Mitrović, then 18, left for Benfica and Anderlecht, respectively. Stevan Jovetić, Matija Nastasić, Adem Ljajić, Stefan Savić and Zoran Tošić were all at Partizan as youngsters.

“Before the [Yugoslav Wars], there was money to keep the players as more individuals put money into the clubs, plus they had to be 27-years-old before they could leave,” Mijaljević told Andy Mitten of ESPN. “That has changed, but you only need to see how it can be done in Croatia, where Dinamo Zagreb hold onto their players for longer and sell the best ones for €5-10 million.”

However, in Serbia, the league simply isn’t of the same standard as Germany, England, Spain or Italy, and Partizan and Red Star are both forced to sell their best players sooner or later. They are what has become known as “stepping stone clubs” in a culture where the financial powerhouses rule the transfer market with an iron fist. But it is an inevitability both clubs are forced to live with. It may have adversely impacted the overall quality of the meetings between the two clubs, according to Mijaljević: “When you add the intensity and the pressure of the game to the equation, you get 22 rather young players who aren’t playing as well as they maybe should be playing.”

He is right. The atmosphere in the Eternal Derby is as intimidating as they come and a lack of experience sometimes shows. With the pyrotechnics blazing and the cries of thousands of fervent fans ringing in the ears of inexperienced footballers, the outcome is going to be less than exhilarating. That is perhaps why Partizan has unquestionably had the better of their rivals in recent years, winning the Serbian SuperLiga seven out of the last eight years. That is a staggering display of dominance from Partizan who have strengthened their grip at the top of Serbian football, alleviating some of the torment from watching their rivals win the European Cup back in 1991.

In a city of glorious, supple beauty, the Eternal Derby remains football’s most notorious fixture, for the wrong reasons. Too often the games themselves are neglected to focus on what is happening in the stands, as the ultras create a chaotic, and ultimately terrifying, culture of extreme footballing fandom. There are sections of the fans, however, that live for the football. They yearn for that unique, bracing wave of emotion in the build-up to the games. They hang scarves on their walls and watch videotapes of old matches with their team’s heroes; the likes of Momčilo Vukotić, Predrag Mijatović, Zlatko Zahovič and Saša Ilić for Partizan, or Dragan Stojković, Dejan Stanković, Robert Prosinečki and Nikola Žigić for the Red Star faithful.

A cleansing of football hooliganism would rid Serbian football of something which greatly tarnishes its reputation in the modern game. The ultras can serve a purpose, too, for they are responsible for the incredible atmospheres; but is it ultimately worth it when police officers are injured and fans stagger out of the stadium wearing their own – and, in some cases someone else’s – blood? The ultimate goal should be a derby where the pre-match proceedings are not tainted with brutality. An Eternal Derby that is broadcast throughout the world, showing images of goals and celebrations, not fire and wreckage. Unfortunately, for Serbian football and the history of the Eternal Derby, that day seems rather far away at this stage.

By Matt Gault @MattGault11

With thanks to Nenad Mijaljević of @RedStarEnglish for his insight. Follow Nenad @nenadsuperzmaj

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