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Bohemian Rhapsody: Notes from the Belgrade Derby

Juraj Vrdoljak



Belgrade, Serbia's capital and the largest city amongst the countries that were once part of Yugoslavia, is also one of the capitals that people from the West tend to describe as a „gem of the East“, It is often overlooked by tourists more fond of playing it safe and sticking to the Croatian, Montenegrian or Greek coastline when deciding to skip over to the eastern, „more exotic“ banks of the Adriatic. Either that's the case, or the most hipsterish amongst them try their luck with the so called „Paris of the East“, Bucharest.

Belgrade certainly has its charm. Although once you swerve away from the Kalemegdan fort or the Sava/Danube river bay there is a sense of a stagnation; a feeling that Belgrade once peaked, but after reaching the highest point was left to find its way by improvising, basically over night. Like its old cafes and diners, Belgrade's authenticism resides in its bohemic spirit, partially based on reminiscing about the good old days over a shot of „rakija“, whether those were really that good or not.

As it is the case with all of the ex-Yugoslavia countries, football is a huge part of the everyday life. And as it is case, more or less, in every place where the leather ball is kicked by foot, football culture is a solid basis for getting a quick reflection on the state of the society in general. Same is in Belgrade, a city that is also the home of one of the last authentic derbies in Europe; one between Partizan and Red Star. Mind you, the word „authentic“ can go both ways.

That's one of the reasons why I decided to finally pay a visit to the Belgrade's eternal derby. I've been to some of the most historical football grounds all around Europe, but I've rarely caught myself thinking about visiting such a well-known football clash based less than 400 kilometers from Zagreb, the city I've been  living in for the past seven years, and a neighbouring capital.

And yeah, while the fact that I'm Croatian and more importantly an avid Hajduk Split fan (a historical rival to both Partizan and Red Star) could provide some answers to those aware of the political circumstances on Balkans, I assure you that isn't the case here. Although a „war child“, born in the late 80s, just ahead of the bloody war that tore Yugoslavia apart, I never once got stuck in the mindset that would fuel mindless hatred just for the pure sake of it. And the idea of seeing another fiery derby, or partita storica as the Italians would say is very appealing to any fan of football.

As I mentioned before, by visiting a stadium you can get a good glimpse on how the society breathes, and that's the case here as well. After I sorted out my press pass for the match with the help of good people from the Mozzart Sport newsroom, one of the biggest sports news website in Serbia, I met with Dejan Stanković – oddly enough, not the legendary Lazio and Inter Milan player but my colleague that shares both the same name and surname with the retired international  – to get a better insight on how the coverage of the Belgrade Derby day goes. And naturally, to share a few beers afterwards. „Let's meet down on the station in front of the House of Flowers (a memorial and a resting place of Josip Broz Tito, president of SR Yugoslavia)“, he said. „After all, it is appropriate considering the context“, he added with a laugh.

Not much further down is the stadium at Humska street, home of Partizan better known by its old name „the JNA“. Naturally, riot police is all around, with the police helicopter overriding the crowd noise. But what strikes me is that the two sets of fans are virtually pouring down towards the stadium without visible divide. Oddly enough, considering the hatred between them. I ask my tour guides, Aleksandar, Darjan and Milan – colleagues as well – is this situation usual. „It depends“, Milan says, „sometimes the fans comes each from their own direction; sometimes not.“

I did refrain from the talk once the crowd got thicker, I admit. Speaking with a distinct Dalmatian dialect could cost me an unwanted historical debate with a „renowned historian“ from any of the two ultras groups specialised in Balkans history, which was at the bottom of my priorities as a football fan/journalist with no interest in such debates whatsoever. Luckilly, it all went well.

„I love Maksmir. When you enter the stadium, it smells of football. There is a smell of sweat, urine and numerous generations that had built the club“ Georg Koch, an ex-goalkeeper of Dinamo Zagreb once said of the Maksimir stadium. He did make a general point that all true football romantics share, although his flattering words are more than kind considering the horrifying state of Dinamo Zagreb stadium. Something similar could be said here; the press box is merely an expansion of the terrace; the view of the pitch is often blocked by a fan in front, the friable bathroom is way down on the floor below and if you expect wi-fi, you're asking too much. „The guy who is in charge of that“ says Aleksandar, who was assigned to write a match report, while at the same mimicking the bottle chug. „He then changes the password and forgets to notify people“, he adds.

We settled down half an hour before the game. The sun glazes over the pitch where the players of both teams are warming up. The stadium is packing; although Partizan made a weak start to the season and Red Star is still shellshocked from their early exit in what was supposed to be the most amibitious European season in years, the stadium is filling up nicely. Derby is another thing, as it is everywhere.

Just out of nowhere a tall guy comes asking if I had, by any chance, took his seat by mistake. Turns out his place was just in front of me, and just as he took one step further down, the fans on the east terrace below us turned around and started chanting ecstatically „Come back, come back“. It was Aleksandar Pavlović, a former Partizan basketball team player with a solid enough history in the NBA. My knowledge of basketball prevented me from recognizing him in the first place, but it was a funny anegdote nevertheless.

One thing I noticed is that they print out the match programme; a thing I regret not being present on Croatian derbies. No matter how bad the quality of football can get and how fast you wish to forget some of the derby matches, those programmes are a valuable asset to anyone who wish to have a real reminder. One part of the annoucement says: „Every derby is a story for itself. And with the 152nd edition of Belgrade Derby ahead of us, we wonder – what will prevail this time? Is it the Joga Bonito or the beat of the African drums?“ A reference to the two Brazilians in the Partizan roster as well as Guelor Kanga, the Gabonese in Red Star midfield. While the Balkans are perhaps the last resort in which the more orless anonymous Brazilian signings are still considered to be exclusive signings, there is usually little of Joga Bonito actually delivered.

It wasn't a wrong assesment here neither; but while the football was pretty abysmal, the atmosphere was according to the expectations. Songs echoed from both ends of the stadium, which at first doesn't look like a stadium that can hold more than 30.000 spectators. One thing is very notable when it comes to fans – the police seems to be oblivious to the use of flares. Fans that are using them don't even bother to cover their faces, as it is the case around Europe mostly because of the prosecution that follows, but not here – police just seems to be lined up only in order to prevent the potential riot between the fans, with no visible interest in the deviations that are not in that category.

However, there was a slight glimpse of Brazilian magic present. Just as the threat of a drab 0-0 draw was real, Leonardo Souza – Partizan's attacking midfielder – scored a late injury-time goal to send the home fans completely wild. After the dust had settled and the fans that invaded the pitch in order to celebrate with their hero returned to the stands, there was little time for Red Star to really try and get back together. The referee Milorad Mažić soon pulled the curtains, and the roar of approval from the black and white part of the stadium erupted. „Even the Gazprom funding or the faded fame cannot help you“ Grobari mocks the lines of dissapointed Red Star fans quickly leaving the ground.

There is something kind of ironic – even symptomatic – in that Grobari chant that mocks the perpetual life in the past, because it can be applied to Partizan as well; just like it can be applied to numerous other clubs in the region. Football went on, leaving the glory days of clubs like Hajduk, Dinamo, Partizan and Red Star drowned in a pool of bad decisions made by incompetent and corrupt boards for years. And it's the same with the society, really; the fans should be the ones that will turn their heads up front towards a better future, not depending on shady fundings or local politicians to lead those historical clubs to new glories. But until then, derby games like this will unfortunately only  be nothing but a wild and spectacular chapter of a boring book written by an lousy author; a meet-up by clubs with a rich history, but a decaying present.