Making the grade
Partizan Belgrade 2-0 Red Star Belgrade (16:03:11)
Forty-eight hours after discovering Manchester's two sides would meet in an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, United fan Nick Coppack flew to Serbia to witness a truly explosive derby...
Belgrade still bears the scars of a 77-day bombing campaign carried out by NATO air forces in 1999. Buildings, reduced to empty shells at the time, stand in a permanent state of disrepair, reminders of the latest chapter in Serbia's bloody history. As I pass another crumbling structure, the sun piercing its open heart, my taxi driver recalls: “It felt like aliens were attacking. We couldn't see the enemy and we couldn't hear them. Bombs would just fall from the sky – you'd feel the explosion, duck for cover and pray. If you could open your eyes and walk again afterwards, you were lucky and thanked God.”
You'd think a football match would pale by comparison, then. But no. On the morning of the Serbian FA Cup semi-final first leg, a game that's pitted the two giants of Serbian football – Partizan and Red Star – against each other, an official from one of the clubs tells me: “Tonight is not a football match. Tonight is war.” For a brief moment, I smile. But he's not joking.
In 1999, a 17-year-old Red Star fan died when he was hit by a burning flare, launched by Partizan supporters from the other end of the stadium. Ten years later, in April 2009, when the two sides met in the league, police made 95 arrests, as violent scenes before, during and after the match overshadowed Partizan's 2-0 victory. Fire fighters had to intervene at the final whistle as Red Star fans set alight part of the north stand.
Outbreaks of violence have become so prevalent at this fixture that last October the mayor of Belgrade, Dragan Dilas, called for the derby to be played behind closed doors. It was an idea that gained plenty of public support but ultimately didn't come to fruition.
Make no mistake: Partizan against Red Star stirs the emotions like few other occasions in world football. Those intrinsically involved know this well, and ahead of this latest meeting Red Star manager Robert Prosinecki (one of the finest footballers to emerge from the former Yugoslavia and a member of Red Star's hallowed 1991 European Cup-winning side) appeals for order in his pre-match press conference.
"I would like to see a capacity crowd and rival fans cheering their teams without fighting each other or causing any sort of trouble,” he says. “No matter who wins we hope it will be an afternoon to remember for all the right reasons.”
I arrive in Belgrade on Tuesday afternoon, just after Prosinecki's press conference and a little more than 24 hours before kick-off. The journey with Swiss Air from Manchester – a two-legged affair broken up by a transfer in Zurich – is painless. Enjoyable, even. My return flights cost me £171 (taxes included). A taxi to my hotel in the heart of Belgrade takes about 20 minutes and sets me back the equivalent of about £11. For £2, the airport bus is considerably cheaper (although the taxi fare is still a bargain by British standards) but takes longer and is far less comfortable.
On my first night in Belgrade I figure that in order to stomach a game known around the world as the Eternal derby I'd best get a good meal down me. Luckily, Serbian cuisine is made to measure. Meat and cheese figure prominently on menus and I eat vast quantities of both at a quaint restaurant on Skadarska, a cobbled street that feels as if it's in rural Serbia rather than bustling Belgrade. In each of its restaurants, musicians play rousing traditional folk songs to accompany your meal. Mine, two giant courses and a pint of Niksicko Tamno – a gorgeous, syrupy dark local beer – causes £12 worth of damage to my wallet.
Over another drink in Republic Square – sprawling outdoor coffee shops and al fresco dining are all the rage in Belgrade – I mention to my waiter that I've travelled from Manchester for the derby. He can't believe it. “Why?” he asks, aghast. “It's nothing special. Your football is much better.” Maybe so, I tell him, before explaining that the Belgrade derby has long been a fixture that's fascinated me. “Good luck then,” he says. “But be careful. Keep a low profile.”
On matchday morning I wake early and head to the ground to collect my ticket. Stadion Partizan and Red Star's home, the Marakana, lie 2.5 miles out of town. If the rival sets of supporters – Partizan's Grobari (“The Grave Diggers”) and the Delije (loosely, “Brave Men”) didn't have a reputation for settling differences a little more vigorously, you'd probably say the stadiums are within spitting distance of each other. Both boast rich histories yet neither structure (by Western European standards, at least) can lay claim to modern facilities. Ostensibly, like much of Belgrade, they hark back to the past, character oozing from their cracked, crumbling and graffitied façades.
Make time to visit both grounds (taxis are cheap and convenient but trams 2, 7 and 9, as well as trolley buses 40 and 41, will also get you near enough). The Marakana, once able to hold in excess of 100,000, now has a capacity of 55,000 although averages fewer than 10,000 most weeks. “If we're not playing Partizan, people aren't bothered,” a Red Star employee tells me. “Ticket prices are low [from £2 up to £10 for the VIP treatment] but Serbians can be lazy – they'd rather watch reality TV.”
The Marakana is impressive, though, and imposes by sheer virtue of its size. Its museum is well worth a visit, too, and contains countless trophies and tributes to Red Star's finest achievements. Ultimate respect is paid to the 1991 European Cup-winning side, a team containing the likes of Prosinecki, Darko Pancev, Dejan Savicevic, Vladimir Jugovic and Sinisa Mihajlovic. The museum also houses a respectful tribute to the Manchester United side decimated by the Munich air crash in 1958, a day after facing Red Star in Belgrade.
That match was actually played at Partizan's home (Red Star's floodlights, however tall, were deemed insufficient), a smaller ground that, in recent years, has hosted both Europa League and Champions League football. Like its big brother down the road, though, it lacks good looks... aside from a bold glass front at the stadium's north end that's as much of a contrast in architecture as Yugoslavia's performances were at the 1986 (did not qualify) and 1990 World Cups (quarter-finalists).
The Marakana - home of Red Star Belgrade
Or if you prefer: Стадион Црвена Звезда
It's at Partizan's home where this Belgrade derby, the 170th, takes place. And three-and-a-half hours before kick-off, at a time when, in England, only the keenest fans and odd car-park stewards are visible, the streets around Stadion Partizan are heaving, Mainly, mind you, with those entrusted to keep the peace. As well as regular police, the riot squad – dressed like a Serbian approximation of RoboCop – stand guard in fours on almost every street corner for a one-mile radius. And then there are the camouflage-clad “special forces” - steely stares permanent, powerful guns at the ready.
“They expect trouble,” my taxi driver tells me as he drops me a short distance from the ground. “See these buses? They are for the police. There aren't enough in Belgrade so they bus reinforcements in from nearby towns and cities.” At the last derby, 5000 police were in attendance.
Mercifully, they aren't required on this occasion. Or, perhaps more accurately, their role is about prevention rather than cure. Their heavy presence, if not heavy handed, is certainly persuasive. The derby passes off without any major flashpoints.
Heavy presence, if not heavy handed
Partizan Stadium aka "Fudbalski Hram" (The Temple of Football)
That's not to say I feel safe strolling the streets prior to kick-off. I've walked through Stanley Park in Liverpool with Manchester United fans, braved the “chicken run” at Upton Park and been chased through the streets of Dubrovnik by angry bottle-hurling Croatia fans. But I've never felt as tense or on-edge as I do here. Young men – at least 95% of the crowd are male – huddle in small groups on the road and in nearby parks, hooded and surly, almost uniformly dressed in black. No colours, no chants, no hint of any allegiance. The tension is extreme.
Only once inside, after negotiating at least two lines of body searches, do fans belt out their anthems. And early. An hour before kick-off, each end – Partizan in the south, Red Star in the north – is half full, as fans jostle for vocal supremacy. Officially, Red Star have an allocation of roughly 7000, but with tickets in Serbia going on general sale there's nothing stopping fans buying seats in one of the stands alongside the touchline and either crossing the line of segregation or, as is the case here, unofficially extending the away end into the northern ends of both the east and west stands. Tickets, even for the derby, can be obtained on the day and should cost you no more than £10 at face value.
Fireworks crack and fizz constantly in the build-up to kick-off and fans crank up the volume when the teams appear. Led by a man with a megaphone, the home support chants incessantly and gestures towards the other end of the ground. I can't understand Serbian, but I'm willing to bet they're not wishing their opponents good luck.
Partizan's Grobari (“The Grave Diggers”)
Then come the flares. In a choreographed display of colour, the Delije unfurl streamers, wave white balloons and set off flaming red beacons. Partizan fans respond by bouncing up and down in unison. The ground shakes.
I'm sat in the press area, at the top of the east stand and close to the hardcore Grobari. And with so much to look at in the stands, I almost miss the first goal after four minutes. Prince Tagoe, one of two Ghanaians to appear in the game, shows great reactions to divert Milan Smiljanic's long-range shot past Red Star goalkeeper Sasa Stamenkovic from the edge of the penalty area. Advantage Partizan.
The passion off the pitch extends onto it. Every tackle is committed and strong, every over-hit long pass chased as if it were inch-perfect. Referee Milan Karadzic dishes out 10 yellow cards and, in separate incidents, he and one of his assistants are involved in a shoving match with Red Star players.
The home side go into the break 1-0 up. Refreshingly, there are no half-time penalty shoot-outs, raffle draws or stadium announcers wishing happy birthdays. Instead, fans chant and chat over the top of cheesy Euro-pop, many snacking on pistachio nuts sold by the street vendors outside.
Within four minutes of the restart, Partizan double their lead. Again the goal comes via Prince Tagoe's head and again the Grobari celebrate wildly. So much so, on this occasion, that the game has to be halted for five minutes as smoke from several flares engulf the arena and render the pitch unplayable. Fire fighters are positioned at both ends and are kept busy all night, extinguishing flares thrown onto the running track that surrounds the pitch.
The match ends 2-0, although both teams have more than their fair share of chances to find the net. Partizan's press officer later tells me I've been lucky enough to witness the most open and entertaining derby in years.
At the final whistle, the home side run to the south stand to celebrate with their most vociferous supporters, some of whom vault the barrier to join the party or request pieces of kit as souvenirs. One fan obtains his hero's shirt, only for another to wrestle him for it and, after emerging victorious, toss it into the crowd.
The Delije aren't kept inside the ground or herded away via special routes to minimise the threat of violence. Instead, as it did before kick-off, self-preservation dictates a necessity for everybody to exhibit outward neutrality: Partizan fans struggle to suppress smiles, Red Star fans frowns.
Meanwhile, I'm left to reflect on an exhilarating evening. I've watched football on four different continents but have never witnessed the sort of tension and fervour as I did in Belgrade. It's certainly not a fixture for the feint-hearted – Partizan v Red Star is one of football's most fiercest rivalries and matches can be extremely dangerous – but if you maintain a low profile and keep your wits about you a trip to Serbia to watch the Eternal derby is something you'll never forget.
I'm almost tempted to describe it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but that would be a lie: after all, they'll do it all again when the second leg takes place at the Marakana on 6 April. Fancy it?
Same again on 6 April chaps
Nick writes for ManUtd.Com
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