It’s Friday afternoon on another super-hot Belgrade summers day. I wander down the hill to Red Star Stadium along with a hoard of football fans all dressed mostly in black. We are off to the first leg of the 2012 Euro Championship qualifier against Nicosia from Cyprus.
Red Star Belgrade are the most popular and successful club in Serbia, if not the whole of the Balkans. They have won 25 national championships and are the only ex-Yugoslav club to win the European Cup in 1991 when they beat Olympique Marseille in Italy. In the same year they also won the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo defeating the oddly-named Chilean side Colo-Colo.
Serbia has a heavy security presence at football matches, especially for Partizan Belgrade. Here at Red Star, the usual security men with their backs to the game line the athletic track between the crowd and pitch. Outside the riot police hang about looking mean along with the everyday police who look coy and as if they don’t want to be there.
But there is nothing to worry about as everyone enters the ground in an orderly fashion. Happily puffing on their cigarettes and munching on sunflower seeds, it’s a case of go stand where you find some room.
My supposed seat is in the north stand of the stadium is the active area. Where the hard-core Red Star supporters, known as “Delije”, man-screech together since the 1980s when hostile factions combined to become one large supporters group and that’s luxury which is rare in this part of the world – to sing together as one.
As the players come out onto the field, the Red Star supporters hold up their red or white plastic squares to make pretty patterns while singing their anthems. I had previously wondered how these patterned displays were co-ordinated and now it’s obvious. The plastic sheets they hold up are taped to the back of each chair. I got a white one. Held it up for about 2 minutes, until my arms got sore and tried to watch the kick off. The waving of everyone else’s bits of plastic continues until at least 10 minutes into the game and becomes an annoyance as I can’t see any of the action.
The Red Star Stadium is larger than their home-town rivals Partizan with 55,538 destroyed seats. The place is a concrete shambles really and a death-trap if you needed to escape quickly. There was one narrow exit for the whole active area and two metre high fence around the ground.
The fans revel in the Euro football fan tradition of bouncing up and down together and singing passionately, amusing themselves with their own spectacle rather than actually watch the game. And why watch when it’s a scrappy contest and full of atrocious passing.
Red Star insist on playing the ball down the centre all game and are constantly foiled as it’s not too hard to suss out their game plan. A little variety passing it off to the loose players out wide wouldn’t have gone astray.
The south end of the stadium is empty except for the 50-odd Nicosia fans looking lonely in their green and white colours.
At half time the score is 0-0 and the crowd sit down for once. A relief to my feet as it hurts standing on uneven broken chairs. I see one boy selling soft drinks and another selling hot dogs but no one seemed tempted as they had relaxing cigarettes while taking a break from their aerobic chanting. Too bad I wanted anything from the sellers anyway as they would have to climb over people to come to me. There is no such thing as an aisle anymore due to the overcrowding.
As the Austrian referee starts the second half, he deals out a couple of quick yellow cards. The players are frustrated as much as we all are waiting for a goal to celebrate. In the final seconds of the game a Macedonian Red Star player is sent off but makes no difference as Nicosia don’t have time to capitalize. The home team are lucky to come away with a 0-0 draw after playing pitifully when they had sporadic possession.
Leaving the ground, following everyone else down a narrow unlit pathway, into a vacant area leading down to a main road, a group of angry looking male fans are gathering and seem to be waiting. Waiting for a mini war with Cyprians I sense from their body language and lack of wanting to be anywhere else. The police are no where to be seen, unlike when a Partizan Belgrade game is on, the police block off and patrol a one kilometre radius from the ground.
I continue on my way and arrive home safe from an interesting night out Serb style. I look forward to seeing Partizan play in a few days time.