Saturday 5th May 2012
PARTIZAN 0, 1. RED STAR BELGRADE
'Our early arrival at the hotel was also disapproved by the man in reception and a quiet tut only emphasised the inconvenience caused by such a miscalculation. Most travellers would be upset by this kind of welcome yet I found it comforting in the knowledge there was no pretence, no dishonesty and I would say it was somewhat typically English. It goes without saying that on my third visit in as many years I kind of like this place, no on second thought's I absolutely love it. '
Having experienced my first Belgrade Eternal Derby in November preparations for a return were eagerly set in place for today's somewhat less anticipated second league encounter at Partizans JNA Stadium. Having won the Serbian Super Liga for the past five consecutive years Partizan would use today's derby against arch rivals Red Star as the perfect opportunity to celebrate their guaranteed end of season victory.
Red Star supporters on the back of a recent semi final cup win against Partizan were here primarily out of loyal pride but also in the hope of putting a large dent in their eternal enemies party celebrations.
We arrived very early in a bustling Belgrade after a rather sleepless and torturous train journey from Slovenia. As we passed droves of people grumpily on their way to work ancient trams rattled noisily through the main dusty square below crumbling old grey buildings. It seemed the derby had very much taken a back seat to the up coming Serbian national elections and we were greeted by both stern looking and sinister child hugging politicians on advertising posters outside the train station.
This time unlike the last there were no wild dogs or many Roma beggars around and we later found out that these urban undesirables had been systematically cleared out of Belgrade in an attempt to clean up the city !
In dire need of some caffeine we found a local cafe and I attempted to ask for a coffee with milk . An attractive woman in her mid thirties with the very typical Slavic fashion of jet black hair, overly perfumed and heavy make-up served me but soon lost patience with my poor communication skills. She angrily hurried off to get her colleague mumbling under her breath as she went. Even with her slightly friendlier co worker my smiles were met with a look of pity and a shaking of the head but at long last we finally got our coffees and sat down to enjoy them.
Our early arrival at the hotel was also disapproved by the man in reception and a quiet tut only emphasised the inconvenience caused by such a miscalculation. Most travellers would be upset by this kind of welcome yet I found it comforting in the knowledge there was no pretence, no dishonesty and I would say it was all somewhat typically English. It goes without saying that on my third visit in as many years I kind of like this place, no on second thought's I absolutely love it.
Meat, Meat, Meat
After a well earned rest and shower we explored the city. It still amazes me the number of shops show casing the mainly Balkan diet of meat, cheese, coffee and cake ( with a generous helping of tobacco ). Meat is so prevalent in daily dishes that had Linda McCartney come from Serbia she would of been used by parents as a bedtime bogey-man and a means of scaring the hell out of school children before they went to sleep.
After 400 years of occupation by the Turks the Serbs have taken some of their invaders cuisine and incorporated it into there own. The main staple dish of mixed mince meat sausages called Ćevapičići, the hamburger like Pljeskavica, burek, Serbian coffee and baklava are probably the only welcome left overs from the days of the mighty Ottoman Empire.
Having a restaurant recommended to us by a Serbian friend the night before the match we bravely attempted to eat over generous portions of grilled meats accompanied with a self assuring healthy small salad. Though thoroughly enjoyable and delicious the meat overdose all washed down with gallons of coffee and sickly sweet baklava meant that the following day I could only manage a small snack or two ( near starvation levels by my standards ).
Even today Belgrade retains the deep scars of the Yugoslav wars. Bombed ex government buildings are still evident near to our hotel and lean precariously over the pedestrians below like menacing stooping stone giants. They were held only by some very fragile looking scaffolding and it was a miracle that with the heavy rumbling of Belgrade's traffic that they had not toppled over on some poor innocent bystander.
Over the two days we are here there are many conversations and debates with my Serbian friend over the causes and aftermath of the civil war. What is clearly evident is that this is thankfully no taboo subject and remains a topical conversation even with Belgrade's young.
Although Serbs generally have accepted some responsibility for some of the atrocities committed they feel aggrieved that maybe others have not and Serbia has taken far too much of the blame.
History is always written by the victors but this was an abysmal war where right and wrong became terribly blurred and now after 20 years all sides involved need to confess to having innocent blood on their hands.
How poor old Marshall Tito must be turning in his grave that his grand vision of a Yugoslav utopian state built on brotherly love and unity lies in complete tatters. Yet even he could only manage to put a tight lid on such rumblings by ruling with a firm hand and sometimes a stomping jack boot. How strange too would he find it that two of his former Yugoslav football clubs based on the sporting ethics of socialist youth should now be twisted by a few to promote Serb nationalism and the Orthodox Church.
Ironic that both clubs still retain the iconic symbols of socialism and name of Tito's Nazi busting liberation army without any objection from some of it's more extreme nationalist supporters.
Currently it seems that although on the verge of becoming an EU member Serbia is drawing increasingly into a period of a tug of war between Europe and an ever increasing Russian influence. Even matters concerning football Prime minster Vladimir Putin had recently attended a Red Star match and Russian gas giants Gazprom are now the main sponsors of the club.
With Belgrade experiencing very warm weather there seemed a more relaxed feeling on the way to this Eternal Derby. With such a huge lead in the Serbian Super Liga Partizan fans were here to enjoy the party and rub their rivals faces into the proverbial dirt.
Yet Red Star were not here just to make up the numbers and as aforementioned after the recent semi final cup victory there is increasing optimism that after a long five year wait they are finally catching up with their cities despised neighbours. Today's derby could serve as a testing ground for next season and to end the campaign with a little honour and a little hope.
A mixture of fans young and old walked happily along wearing no football shirts just every day tee-shirts and shorts. There was definitely less tension in the air than the last time helped by the fact both sets of supporters in the sunny conditions were not dressed in the customary all black hooded jackets and face scarves.
Even the normally terrifying riot cops huddled together in smaller groups stood quietly chatting, laughing and smoking. Some even had the freedom to sit down and enjoy the sunny conditions even though they must of felt like lobsters in a pot of boiling water with the amount of protective armour they adorned.
A few supporters acting more like naughty school boys than feared ultras discarded the occasional concealed smoke bomb into the road. The police duly responded by setting up check points more concerned with confiscating hidden alcohol than smuggled flares and weapons.
With a maximum capacity of just under 33,000 the JNA Stadium is considerably smaller than it's rivals at the Marakana. Having been constructed in 1949 there are signs that this ground is becoming a little worn although minor improvements have been carried out in recent years to allow inclusion into the Champions League.
What really gives the JNA some character is the fantastic floodlights which really stand out and added to the match experience as they gradually illuminated the approaching dusk in spectacular style.
With the two giants of Serbian football being the only contenders for domestic and European football it must be remembered that attendances at most games are very low and large super stadia is not required. However there has been talk of moving Partizan to a new sight with a slight increase in capacity to 36,000, a hotel and generally better sporting and corporate facilities.What is becoming clear is that waiting in the wings are a number of potential future investors and in my humble opinion it will not be long before there is a resurgence in the fortunes of both clubs.
Having made it through the security checks I wondered how the hardcore support of both Red Star and Partizan managed to smuggle so many flares and smoke bombs into the ground considering in the not so distant past there have been fatalities involving such potentially dangerous items. It appears that by bribing officials and security staff a blind eye will be turned on certain individuals entering the stadium. Thankfully after the death of a 17 year old boy ten years before both sets of supporters have sensibly drawn up a truce over the firing of rockets and fireworks into each others stands.
We sat in the quieter family friendly West side below the press section and Tito's box for a relative bargain price of 1,500 Dinars ( around £15 ) but expensive by Serbian standards. Again it must be remembered that apart from Eternal Derby games there is very little quality to attract supporters to the other league matches and it seems that sometimes Serbs would rather watch TV soaps than bother to attend a soccer game.
It is also alleged that there is a certain amount of corruption in the sport and games against the smaller clubs are sometimes fixed. Again with a far greater investment into Serbian football generally may result in improving the standard of other clubs within the Serbian Super Liga.
The ground is also used for other sporting events and around the pitch is an athletics track something that hinders the experience of watching a game being so far from the field of play. However with the JNA being so compact and this being the Belgrade Derby no one on earth could ever say this game would not be atmospheric.
After finding our allocated seats 30 minutes before kick off we could see that the JNA was only three quarters full yet still retained the unique electric atmosphere of the last time I was here in November. Celebrations were already under way on the pitch with an array of flag waving, music and black and white helium balloons. Yet all those present were in the knowledge that these attempts at family entertainment would soon be dwarfed by what was to come.
The two teams entered the arena like gladiators to the applause and jeers of the expecting crowd. The Red Star players and officials had to endure more celebrations and the away hardcore support the Delije did there best to out sing the opposing but more numerous Grobari. From the first minute of the whistle to the end of the game both sets of fans continually jumped up and down, singing as they did which was an amazing feat in itself and a wonder to behold.
It became apparent that the match was secondary to the finely choreographed chanting and later the customary pyrotechnic displays.
The first crowd skirmish happened in the first few moments of the match with what seemed like two small groups of opposing fans running aggressively towards each other. Both parties were thankfully stopped in there tracks by the formidable Judge Dredd type police whose positioning and presence alone was enough to deter the warring factions.
It was only later that we were informed what had happened. Apparently the official Partizan announcer in an attempt to wind up the Red Star following had played a turbo folk record concerning five years of sorrow ( pressing home Red Stars continual failure to win back the league championship ).
Had this been England the person responsible would of probably lost his job and been sent to prison for potentially causing a riot, here at the Belgrade Derby it was all part of the show.
On the side lines a glum looking Avram Grant continually popped out his head from the dug out like a tortoise from his shell. His appointment as Partizan manager came as surprise but cements the clubs intentions to progress with a respected and well known name. Behind us a few English infiltrators chanted his name and a puzzled looking Avram looked into the crowd trying to identify his new found friends. After being at the helm of a relegated West Ham he is now a hero of Millwall and Mr Grant may well be advised to ignore such mock adulation and concentrate more on the football side of things.
This Super Liga victory will undoubtedly bring his name back to the world stage and the preliminaries of the European cup await the Israeli. His counterpart the legendary Yugoslav and Croatian footballer Robert Prosinečki since his tenure in charge has improved Red Star consistently over the season and next years contest between the two giants will be definitely closer.
Sexy Floodlights !
The events on the pitch in contrast were pretty dire with Partizan having most of the procession yet unable to break through a resilient Red Star defence. The crowd seemed more intent on competing against each other and at 0.0 Partizan were ready to party into the night having secured a moral victory. However with Red Star scoring an undeserved goal in the dying seconds the mood changed drastically.
As the final whistle was blown irate Grobari fans kicked their seats in anger and frustration as there rivals celebrated as though they had actually won the championship. The mood was getting so ugly around us that we thought it wise to escape before the Red Star supporters decided it was time to exit their own surprise party. With a small unattended fire burning in the away end and the Red Star players running jubilantly to meet their fans we left the stadium.
Luckily we saw no trouble and with small groups of disheartened Partizan fans quickly headed in the direction of the magnificent St Sava's orthodox church in the distance.
We strolled leisurely back to our hotel and with some Serbian friends found a quiet local restaurant before our early flight back to London. Over a few coffees and beers we chatted happily into the small hours of the morning about girls, politics, Serbia, the Premiership, Red Star, Tooting and Mitcham F.C and the war. This scene was probably repeated a thousand times all over Belgrade as Red Star and Partizan fans alike relaxed after another sizzling confrontation. Funny how a game that can divide people to the extremes can also bring them so much closer together.
The streets reverberated heavily with the sounds of Euro pop, disco and techno as we said our goodbyes and ate a final meat borek. It was sad to leave but something tells me that it wont be long before I return.
Partizan Stadium. 8 out of 10. Dated but full of atmosphere.
Cost of Ticket. About £15 for a VIP seat. Stay away from the ultras at either end for a safer experience. Altercations are known to happen at these matches.
Cost of air travel to Belgrade. Wizz Air offer good deals from Luton and tickets can be purchased for as little as £40 return.
Cost of accommodation. Anything from a £10 hostel to an average of £30 a night in a decent standard hotel.
Food and drink are cheap compared to U.K pricing although remember the Serb's love of a very meaty diet. Not for vegetarians !
Some of the best flood lights I've ever seen. 10 out of 10