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Monday, 28 November 2011


Saturday 26th November 2011

Belgrade Derby
Red Star 0, 2. Partizan Belgrade

Marakana ( Stadion Crvena Zvezda )

'On the way to the stadium battalions of 'Robo cop' styled police were placed in strategic places across the city adding to the menace and tension of the occasion.'

The Belgrade Derby ( Eternal Derby ) between Serbian super giants Red Star and Partizan is famously known through out the footballing world for it's passion, fierce rivalry and above all intense atmosphere. Surfing the net for snippets of info and having done a little research I mistakenly thought I was ready for this historic encounter and one of the most anticipated derbies in the world. Yet nothing could ever prepare me for what I was about to witness.

Before I begin it would be better to start looking at the history of the two clubs and the reasons behind the rivalry. Where as other great world derby games are based on primarily geographical, political or religious reasons the Eternal Derby is far more obscure and probably very similar to the Liverpool, Everton rivalry in England. Indeed it is very common to find whole families split down the middle or even for some to switch allegiances from one club to the other.

Partizan named after Marshall Tito's second world war resistance movement had the distinction of being at first the more official army state team where as Red Star were formed by an anti fascist youth organisation during the end of the war in 1945. However under the old Yugoslavia  football rivalries were more spread out across the whole federation with both clubs sharing high profile matches with other teams of the Republics but especially with Croatia's Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split.

It was during this period that such games were classed as clashes of the big 4 although both Red Star and Partizan held slight superiority over the Croatian sides, winning more cups and championships.
Partizan had the distinction of being the first Eastern European side to reach the European cup final in 1966 and Red Star were the first and only Yugoslav side to win the European cup in 1991.

During the civil war Red Stars name was unfortunately somewhat tarnished by their indirect connections with Serb nationalists involved in war crimes and atrocities.  On a wave of Serb nationalism prevalent in the early 90s right wing paramilitary groups were able to recruit from the terraces of the Marakana without the knowledge or consent of the club.

With the break up of both Yugoslavia and the domestic league in the early 90s far more emphasis was placed on the match between the two Belgrade clubs and this situation has continued to the present day. The obvious down side to the break up of the old Yugoslav republics was that with playing less quality opposition on a regular basis Serbian football has suffered greatly and the golden generation of the 80s and 90s is fast becoming a  fading memory.

Red Stars stadium known as the Marakana  ( in honour of it's Brazilian counterpart ) is from the outside a bland looking structure, somewhat dated and even deceivingly small. However behind the crumbling outer façade lies an impressive huge bowl like stadium that can hold 55,000 but has on past occasions before seating has reached 110,000.

We sensibly opted to sit in the West Stand where tickets are a little more expensive ( 1200 Serbian dinah which equates to roughly £10 ) and away from the more passionate and fanatical supporters ( known as the Delije or 'brave one's' ) that sat in the North and East stands.

The hardcore Partizan supporters known as 'Grobari' or Gravediggers ( because of the black and white kits resembling the old state undertakers uniforms ) sat contained in the South Stand. It also became apparent after the first goal that some Partizan fans had infiltrated the fringes of the Red Star areas ( on our so called 'neutral' West side stand ) although thankfully I saw no trouble.

Be prepared that this game due to Serbian TV can be switched to another time or even another day as little as 5 days before originally advertised. It may be wise to leave booking flights and accommodation to the last minute or plan to stay another day just in case. Tickets are surprisingly easy to obtain for such a famous sporting confrontation with sales for the game being sold virtually until kick off. To be sure it would be advised to purchase them 24hrs in advance for peace of mind.
                                                                         The  Delije

 Seat allocations seem to be widely ignored at such games. Get there long before kick off to have an area to sit ( although very few people sat down for this match !). I also found it strange that even though there was an alcohol ban outside the stadium for up to a 2 mile radius beers were being sold openly inside the ground. Other facilities included the usual fast food services ( no chicken balti here I'm afraid !) toilets and club shop.

Like the Spanish, some Serbs also went for the healthy option of eating sunflower seeds instead of the usual greasy burgers and hot dogs. With such an electric atmosphere such amenities seem non important and I gladly give the Marakana the first 10 out of 10 in all my blog reports.

The ground lies a few miles from the centre of Belgrade and can be walked to but a nostalgic vintage tram can be another option for those that want to conserve some energy. Numbers 9 and 10 should get you almost all the way there ( and the JNA stadium, Partizan's ground too ! ) A taxi too is another reasonably cheap sensible option although make sure it's an official blue signed one or be prepared to be ripped off.

Typically like most other European countries there are no football programmes sold at Serbian football games and sadly there will be no programme report.

Refreshments prior to this game ( when purchasing tickets ) were provided by the wonderfully named 'Duff' ( Domestic Urban Fast Food ) bar selling a good selection of beers and fast food Serbian meat dishes. Duff is found on the main intersection before both the Marakana and Partizan grounds.

Remember alcohol is not sold within a 2 mile radius on derby days !

 A 'Duff' Balkan Burger !

With the sides again virtually neck and neck in the Serbian league table and competing for a Champions league spot this game was a must win for Red Star with Partizan edging slightly ahead by four points. The legendary Yugoslav and Croatian footballer Robert Prosinečki now in the hot seat of the former European champions has the daunting task of trying to satisfy the demanding fans with limited resources.

Patience is probably a virtue when it concerns a member of the worshipped golden generation but it remains unknown how long it will be before the supporters finally vent their anger and frustration towards the boardroom of Red Star.

On the way to the stadium battalions of 'Robo cop' styled police were placed in strategic places across the city adding to the menace and tension of the occasion. With their black body armour and Roman like shields Belgrade's riot police looked more prepared for a foreign  invasion than a football match. As we approached the ground hoards of black adorned supporters converged into one great mass and it was virtually impossible to tell who was who.

The body search into the stadium was a far quicker process than anticipated and we went into the ground without any major problems.
Entering the playing area I could almost feel the tension in the air. A lone stranded Partizan official cut off from his colleagues on the pitch ran for his life as angry Red Star fans threw smoke bombs at him before luckily escaping down the players tunnel. Anxious stewards had the not very envious task of extinguishing the flares or evading the fire crackers with the Belgrade fire brigade watching nervously behind.

Moments before kick off the North Stand erupted into a sea of volcanic red as fans held up bright burning flares and let off fire works that would of graced any 5th of November celebrations in England. Clearly health and safety was not a top priority in Serbia but it provided a wonderful surreal spectacle and something I will never forget.

As the Partizan players entered the arena Red Star fans were thrown into a furious frenzy of hatred and chanted obscenities at their city neighbours setting off another barrage of sonic smoke bombs.
The Grobari at first eerily quiet waited and responded with their own chanting and percussion bomb throwing and it was a good ten minutes before the smoke had cleared from the pitch.

Even then I was surprised and unaware that the game had started with near zero visibility.Thankfully the aggressive looking but tolerant riot police watched from the side lines as some Partizan fans threw seating onto the athletics track and even started a large fire near to their own section.

Before the half time interval two officials engaged into a pushing match which had the knock on effect of stirring up the pent up frustrations of both players and fans alike. This lead to what seemed like a mini riot on the pitch as players and officials alike converged into one angry scrum.

Every minute of the game there seemed to be something happening either on or off the field of play and thankfully half time came to everyone's relief just so we could get our breath back. Unfortunately half the Partizan players did not have that luxury as they were prevented from going down the tunnel by a shower of percussion bombs and flares that rained down on them from the stands. Their team talk had to be reluctantly conducted in the dug out.

Yet with all this chaos and mayhem around me I felt strangely relaxed reassured by the substitutes who casually carried on with their warm ups like nothing at all unusual was happening.

Even with the expected Red Star welcome reception and hospitality for their despised city neighbours, Partizan looked the more organised and professional on the pitch. Surviving long periods of pressure and a missed penalty, the away side eventually took control and scored two deserved goals in quick succession in the 75th and 79th minute. The second goal seemed to kill off all resistance from the home team and gradually the Red Star fans began to leave in their droves.

I have read some reports that the 'Eternal Derby' to be placed 4th best derby match in the world. Having witnessed the ' El Classico ' in Madrid and watched the 'Old Firm' derby on TV, I find it hard to believe that there are any games that surpass this match for both passion and entertainment. The game itself could never be classed as a classic but as an experience this has to be one of the most memorable matches ( if not the most memorable ) I have ever been to.

The only frightening part of the game came for me at the dying moments as an unknown incident caused a panic and a terrified mass of anxious supporters ran for the exit. This brought home the reality that this was not simply harmless entertainment but a game that has unfortunately in the past had it's fair share of injuries and sadly the occasional fatality.

However following a few simple guide lines and showing a little respect to both the authorities and people of Belgrade this game should pose no problem for those that want to see an amazing game of football. At no time apart from the aforementioned small incident did I ever feel threatened or intimidated although I would recommend to have a seat in the side stands. I advise all those that plan to go not to wear football tops, act like idiots, or get overly drunk and confrontational.

A very big thank you to my friend Bogdan for kindly assisting us and making our time in Belgrade very enjoyable and one we will all never forget.

Belgrade is now easily accessible from the U.K with very cheap flights provided by Hungarian budget airline Wizz air ( Luton Airport ) for under £80 return if booked early. There are apparently plans for other airlines to offer cheap flights too such as Ryan air and Easy Jet in the very near future. Even British Airways sometimes offer cheap flights to Belgrade during sale periods or booked early enough.

Accommodation too is very reasonable with city centre hotels offering rooms from as little as £20 including breakfast and good standard hostels from as little as £7 a night.

With drinks and food much cheaper than the U.K and other major European cities, Belgrade is a very viable option for those that want to visit an interesting city rather than stay at home and waste their money down the local pub or bar.

This was only my second visit to Belgrade and I can only recommend it fully. On first impressions it can seem rather grey and bleak but a little time and investigation will result in finding centuries of interesting history, a friendly and proud people, vibrant culture and hearty food. For further information with advice on what to see and where to stay follow the link below. I can only add that I can't wait to go back.

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