MAYDAY

Belgrade Derby. At some point in my life, I was going to watch this game and through the bending of logic it made sense to watch this on the way back to Copenhagen via Belgrade via Budapest from Wembley.

The Eternal Derby needs little introduction. The two largest clubs in Serbia separated by some 400m to the South East of Belgrade’s city centre. Geography and success seem to be the biggest factors in this rivalry although some point to an historic division between Serb and Yugoslav nationalism as well. Regularly cited as one of the ‘most passionate’ matches in football, I was pretty excited to experience it.

Tickets were surprisingly easy to get hold of for the game at the Partizan Stadion (previously known as the JNA (Yugolslav National Army) Stadium. Or so I thought. Having reserved my ticket for Block M, it transpired that you had to pick up and pay for these tickets in person in Belgrade within 24 hours of reservation. Um. Fortunately, a quick email to the ticket office saw them hold the reservation until the day before the game when I arrived. Excellent service. That said, I think tickets were still readily available up until the morning of the game so I do not think you would have much problem of rocking up without concrete ticket plans.

After picking up the tickets on the Friday morning, I decided that the best way to enjoy the heat was to take the 3km walk of so from downtown Belgrade out to the two stadiums to have a poke around. The last time I was in Belgrade, it was pissing down with December rain. It could not be more different now as I staggered along in the Balkan heat. Since leaving Denmark at the end of August, I have been in constant perspiration mode. A statement, not a complaint. Anyone who has been in my company in that time may consider the opposite.

I went to the Marakana (home of Red Star) first. A classic concrete Soviet bowl (large) daubed with Red Star graffiti particularly that of the Red Star Ultras, Delije. Indeed, it is quite odd that the two words written in the seats of this stadium are DELIJE and GAZPROM. Two words that sit almost at the exact opposite ends of the football spectrum. Delije – loosely translated as heroes – are such a part of the fabric of the club that they have their own shop standing next to the official Red Star club shop. Guess which one was busier. I bought a T-Shirt, which I shoved to the bottom of my bag before making the short walk to the Partizan Stadium.

Home of Crvena Zvezda (Red Star)

I had read a few articles about the Eternal Derby before. There seems to be an underlying theme of violence (sometimes verging on glorification of the violence – “The World‘s Most Dangerous Derby“) behind the game and the presence of certain folk on the flight to Belgrade and around the city before hand seemed to support this. I was quickly made aware of the fact there is no smoke without fire as I started taking a few pictures of the entrance to the Partizan Ultras section of the stadium as one (seemingly innocuous) young man was set upon by about five others. I edged away, but not before this young man was given a face that meant he would not be too keen on seeing his Mum in the next week or two. This put the heeby jeebies in me and I made a sharp retreat back to the town centre for a couple of beers and some crossed fingers.

Gravediggers – Not the cuddliest of names.

On the day of the game, I went for a wander and stumbled across the excellent Samo Pivo bar where I enjoyed a beer/used beer to delete the memories of yesterday and the large number of large Russian speaking men I had seen casually wandering around town with their hooligan shirts on enjoying an ice cream! I had another beer at Slavija square which is at the outer edge of the 3km alcohol exclusion zone that is in place for the game. Apart from the large number of milling riot police, there was little to tell that one of the most anticipated derbies in Europe was set for that afternoon. I managed to sneak another beer from a kiosk on the promise that I would drink it from a plastic bag around the corner. How dangerously close I am from being taken as a tramp!

With about 90 minutes remaining, I headed (with some trepidation) towards the stadium. That trepidation was absolutely unnecessary. I was sitting in the block next to the Grobari (Partizan’s ultras) and had an adjacent entrance to where I had seen the fight on the day before. I saw no trouble this time and the milling fans bedecked in Partizan black made this feel not much more than a high profile game in any league (with the possible exception of the police presence including a helicopter circling above).

Day and night

The JNA Stadion is a cracker. A concrete Soviet bowl (medium) housing some 30,000 spectators. The Red Star fans occupied the North end away to my right. The two sides are nominally neutral although there was noone supporting the team in red where I was sitting. By sitting, I mean standing. And by standing, I mean standing on the seats. I do not think this is what is meant by safe standing. I was in situs nice and early. Early enough to see the Red Star players and staff run the gauntlet of lighters and coins that were flung each time they went to and from the tunnel.

The game was not great, but I think the spectacle is more about what happens off the pitch than what happens on the pitch. Let’s just say that if I was on a distressed ship then I would want to share that ship with either of these sets of fans. I assume that they all carry flares with them at all times. Just in case. Flares and smoke bombs. I guess smoke bombs would be less useful on board a sinking ship. The noise was pretty deafening for most of the game with the constant crack of those smoke bombs mingling with the repetitive chanting from the vast majority of the crowd. I felt absolutely safe and was thoroughly enjoying my life as darkness fell at the midpoint of the game.

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Spot the Sith.

I can only imagine that for the players this is not a particularly enjoyable game knowing the stakes that are riding on it. Character building is probably the term I would use. Not being a regular watcher of Serbian football, I don’t know what level these teams usually play at, but nerves seemed to play a part throughout meaning a game of few chances.

As the game drifted towards a stalemate, Leonardo found himself free in the box to (acrobatically) volley home from about 7 metres out. Scenes. Fortunately, those emergency, emergency flares had been saved for good reason and greeted Leonardo as he hurdled the hoardings and made his way to the adoring masses. The final few minutes were in obviously celebratory mood apart from the away end where a small fire that had been smouldering for most of the second half burnt out in some sort of weird recognition of Red Star’s chances. An acrid smelling Olympic flame if you will.

The final whistle was greeted by more adulation and more noise. Partizan’s players, staff, youth team, ball boys, grounds man and anyone else who swindled access to pitch side made their way in front of the Grobari and the party began. I stayed for a while to enjoy the spectacle before disappearing into the night.

Winners, winners :p

In summary, this was amazing. The pyro was second to none and the atmosphere was electric and passionate without venturing into threatening. I am sure there was trouble around Belgrade both before and after the game, there always is. But like many things, you either need to be looking for it or in the wrong place at the wrong time. I wouldn’t wear colours around Belgrade on match day. Noone else does. I would love to go back. Belgrade is a great city and it has a very special football match.

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