By Timothy Hartley –
“Get to the ground early,” we’d been told, and so we made our way to Red Star’s Marakana Stadium an hour and a half before kick-off. Police in full riot gear barred our way at the roundabout. A low but increasingly deep rumble of sound drifted down from the opposite hill. It was guttural, beastly as if dredged from the bowels of the earth. We heard them before we saw them. A dense cloud of white smoke drifted down over the trees and buildings on the hill in front of us announcing, “We are Partizan. And we are here!” They call it the Eternal Derby, and as the first bottle thrown by the away fans smashed just metres from our feet, I knew this was going to be a lively Saturday afternoon’s football.
We could now see, hear and smell the flares. Dressed in black, Partizan’s ultras, the Grobari, turned the corner onto the roundabout. They cranked up the volume, a lone drum beat, the chants and abuse now directed squarely at us. The police had controlled them but they had a point to make. The phalanx of hatred exploded with a volley of bottles, sticks and flares. The shower was short lived as the police moved them on and up towards the ground. The policy was obviously one of containment. A few of the Red Star fans dashed around the snack bar to have a go. They soon scurried back, two of them nursing their faces as the police beat them back towards us.
And then… nothing. We were held for a short time until the Partizan crowd had been herded into the stadium. The traffic started up again. The suburban street returned to normal. The old couple with plastic bags continued on home. Conversations started up and we all stepped gingerly over the broken glass to make our way to the football match. Just another derby day in Belgrade.
We’d walked this same road to the stadium the previous day to buy our tickets. Outside the home terrace, twenty riot police, batons drawn, were being briefed by their commander. One young police officer was twirling his stick in boredom, or anticipation. I made a mental note not to make eye contact with any of them.
Inside the stadium the Red Star club shop sold the usual football paraphernalia, but amazingly the ultras have their own place beside it on the concourse. The wall has a Banksy-type mural of a supporter brandishing a large stick, his hoodie raised to shield his face. Inside there were shirts celebrating the terrace culture, more masked faces, and some babywear with our baton-wielding friend on it. Babywear!
Not Sold Out
Amazingly, for one of the must see derbys in world football, this was not a sell-out. We showed a British driving licence and bought the £4 tickets. I was confused. How did they know that we were not Partizan fans going into the wrong end to make trouble? Inside the ground, my son Chester and I peered through the fences to see yet more riot police being drilled on how to form a line down the side of the seats. “Segregation,” I said all knowingly. “To beat them back?” “Or us,” said Chester with a smirk.
Having listened to the advice from the ticket office, we made it to the ground early and spent an hour basking in the last of the summer sunshine. So this was the Eternal Derby? Apart from our noisy introduction to Partizan it was all rather unremarkable, but as kick off approached, things moved up a gear. A youngster pulled his hoodie over his head and climbed the heavy fencing at the corner of the stand. He produced a black shirt, presumably Partizan, and set light to it. As the flames rose the crowd whooped its approval. A photographer danced around trying to get that one shot of the fans shimmering behind this glowing symbol of hatred. And where were the police and stewards? They watched from a safe distance, as did the fire officers who were stationed every ten yards or so on the running track around the field. The action was off the field of play, so I guess it was all right by them.
Five o’clock finally came and the players were greeted with a massive banner rolled backwards from the front row. It showed a tiger biting a zebra. Presumably the black and white zebra was Partizan and the tiger, er, Red Star. As the game kicked off, we on the sidelines held up small sheets of red and white plastic which had been stuck to our seats to form a massive tifo (a human mosaic). Giant flags were waved from the centre of the stand and the crowd sang non-stop for the whole first half.
Vieira (no, not the Arsenal player of old,) fired Red Star ahead with a delightful chip. The crowd went mad. Then Alen Stevanović equalised for the visitors just before halftime. On cue, white flares were lit up across the bottom of their terrace. The sun had dipped below the stand and the yellow white smoke mushroomed down to the goal, onto then across the pitch and towards us. Reflected eerily in the floodlight a slow motion wave of dirty fluff was coming to get us. The bulging cotton wool cloud blotted out the pitch but we could hear the whistle. It was a single short, sharp blow. The game was stopped. The referee gestured to both sets of players, directing them, not to the dressing room, but to the dugouts. I guess this must be the norm. The opposition get to say they stopped the game. We wait a little bit until the smoke clears and the game resumes.
Both sides had missed several good chances but that seemed to set us up for an explosive second half. Red Star erupted after Vieira restored the Red Star lead with a superb volley with the outside of his foot from 25 metres, which left their keeper, Zivko Živković, clutching thin air. Another eruption of joy and pyrotechnics—it was a cauldron of passion and yet at no point did I feel threatened. With a near battalion of riot police to keep us apart, there was never any danger from the shouts and flares, which were more than a hundred metres away from us.
There was a group of Partizan fans at the far end of the stand to our left, away from the main body of supporters and outside the heavy police cordon. They sang and gesticulated towards us but were separated from the Red Star supporters who filled most of that side of the pitch, by only a thin line of stewards. They could have easily broken the cordon to get to us—but they didn’t. Despite the threats and gestures, they seemed happy to play their part, literally from the sidelines.
The Delije were Formed in 1989
Red Star’s ultras are known as the Delije (Heroes). Formed in 1989, as part of the upsurge in Serbian nationalism in this part of Yugoslavia, the Delije brought together the various hooligan groups. Some claim that it was, in fact, they who sparked the Yugoslav War in 1990 after a violent clash with Dinamo Zagreb fans just months after the first multi-party elections in Croatia. The self-proclaimed Heroes take pride in their involvement in the war. A paramilitary battalion of Delije fought in both Croatia and Bosnia. Inside and outside the Marakana stadium, the walls are covered in murals. Red Star ultras vie with with Partizan’s Grobari in a new war, a graffiti war, across the city of Belgrade.
When Red Star scored their third goal—midfielder Aleksandar Katai making a solo run with and hitting a stinging low finish—Partizan knew the game was up. On 70 minutes, as if on a pre-arranged but silent signal, the Red Star fans lit their flares. The man next to me drew his hood tightly over his face. As he lit the plastic tube he tapped the guy next to us on his shoulder to move him aside. He did this very gently, respectfully almost. Our man was keen that no-one got caught in the sparkles and went home with holes in his shirt. His thick sparkler jumped into glittering life and we all moved a step away so that he was outlined in his own white light and space.
On the final whistle the jubilant Red Star players ran towards our terrace. They linked arms and bowed before us in honour of the fans. The Delije ringleader who had been marshalling our chants all through the game threw the megaphone over the fence to the captain who joined in, rallying his teammates. This went on for a good ten minutes. And then there was quiet.
As we trouped out of the Marakana there was no singing or chanting, certainly no stone throwing. The fans’ anger had been contained wholly within the stadium. A young man with a shaved head and one of those nasty tee shirts with a fearsome face on it bumped into me. He stepped aside quickly and apologised profusely. It was all rather strange. Gone were the bloodcurdling threats and the hand gestures, the synchronised chanting and the burning of shirts. An orderly crowd was making its way home from the theatre.
I am not so naïve as to think that these fans do not hate one another. Kick-off and the second half of this April’s Eternal Derby were delayed by smoke bombs. Thirty-five police were injured and forty-five supporters arrested following running battles inside and outside the ground.
Two Minutes Hate – The Eternal Derby Like an Orwellian Novel
The whole day I spent in and around the Marakana reminded me of George Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate.” In his novel 1984 he Hate is a mass daily ritual that rallies the collective rage of the people against supposed enemies of the Party. Everyone is encouraged to shout and rage at images of the enemy on a screen for two minutes. It served to channel the rage that people may feel, away from the Party and towards non-existent enemies. In Belgrade the orchestrated hatred and the authorities’ apparent tolerance of this behaviour, felt just the same—a safe outlet for pent up aggression.
Many of the Delije were about my age, old enough to have fought in the Bosnian wars of the early nineteen nineties. Some of them definitely did. Saturday afternoons like this may have become an outlet for anger, an army reunion perhaps, definitely a chance to wave the flag and make noise. Maybe the Eternal Derby is unwittingly saying, ‘We’re all safe in a wholly Serbian republic. Let’s just shout our rage out rather than fight.’ Does football serve as an outlet for our collective rage? Is it a diversion from real issues, deflecting us from questioning the deeper social problems and welcomed by the state? I have no idea. But I will tell you that The Eternal Derby was one of the most exhilarating sporting occasions I have ever witnessed.
Tim Hartley is a long standing Cardiff City fan who also gets his kicks in non-league and European football. He has written for the Guardian and When Saturday Comes and reported on a match he watched in North Korea for Radio 4’s ‘From Our own Correspondent.’ Follow him on Twitter @timhhartley