Welcome to Hellgrade
“I will pick you up from here after the game, if you are still alive” remarks my taxi driver. I laugh, but I’m pretty sure he isn’t joking. I’ve just arrived at the Marakana for one of the most passionate and explosive derbies in world football. This is Serbia. This is Red Star vs. Partizan. Welcome to Belgrade.
Standing on the North Stand at Red Star Belgrade is an intense and passionate experience whoever the opposition may be, but when city rivals Partizan are the visitors, the city descends into chaos. The next few hours would provide the craziest night of my life, as I was privileged enough to witness a Belgrade derby first hand. Watching football may never be the same again.
With kick off scheduled for 6pm on a Saturday night, I thought by arriving at 3pm I would have plenty of time to explore the famous stadium and take some pictures before the madness began later on. I was wrong. The area around the ground is already packed, with thousands of fans and just as many riot police, many of them carrying guns. Despite the risk of getting repeatedly shot in the face, I decide to have a look at what the security outside the away end looks like at a Belgrade derby. It does not take long to find out, as I come face to face with the Serbian army, holding machine guns. I decide that maybe having a look at the away end wasn’t so important after all, and head back the way I came at a steady and not at all panicked pace.
The gates are already open, so I go into the stadium early, mainly to get away from all the machine guns but also to get a sense of this historic ground before it was filled with 45,000 flare wielding lunatics. You are heavily searched (twice) for pyro and weapons when entering the stadium, but the fans had been prepared for this, with all the flares required brought into the ground the week before when security was light, hidden in secret spots until the big day.
Serbia is an extremely proud nation, with the memories of the war fresh in the mind. This was evident at the Marakana, with imagery of the war covering many of the walls both inside and outside of the stadium.
I love the graffiti that decorates the walls of almost every stadium in Europe. It may not fit in with the squeaky clean image of Sky Sports’ beloved Premier League, but these images tell the story of the club better than any museum could. As well as being greeted by a range of fascinating art when entering the stadium, there were also members of ‘Delije’, the name given to Red Star’s leading fan group handing out leaflets. Of course I had no idea what it said, but the large Red Star flags taped to every seat in the North Stand gave me a pretty good idea about what I was required to do. It was also at this stage that I noticed the fire brigade, with each end of the stadium allocated a number of firemen. They would be busy.
Despite the fact that there were over two hours until kick off there were plenty of fans inside the North and South stands, the two ends of the ground traditionally occupied by the hardcore supporters of both sides, with the remaining stands officially ‘neutral’. I normally hate being inside a stadium too early, but on this occasion I was glad I was, because I was about to witness the most unbelievable thing I have ever seen inside a football stadium. Writing this report two days later, I still can’t really believe what was about to go down.
A gasp goes up from the Red Star fans, followed by a roar and fingers pointed to the sky. I follow their looks of amazement and notice a number of Red Star supporters parachuting into the stadium.
These instant Delije heroes land on the pitch, face the home supporters and raise a clenched fist. The North Stand salutes the airborne visitors, but the Partizan fans are not as pleased to see them. From where I was standing it appeared that the parachuting Red Star fans had begun to hurl flares into the away end, but I was later able to piece together that members of Partizan group ‘Grobari’ (Gravediggers) had surged onto the pitch in an attempt to steal and set fire to one of the flags that the Red Star fans had displayed during their descent. Trouble (literally) flares on the pitch, as the heavily armoured police battle with the Grobari, forcing them back off the pitch but not removing them from the stadium. The flares which were thrown at Red Star are returned into the away end, while the North Stand reacts with fury. Passion turns into hatred, and things were only just getting started.
As kick off moved closer and closer, I realised that the section I had chosen to stand in belonged to Red Star hardcore, and made the tactical decision to move over a block. This gave me the perfect view of the next moment of madness that would occur in the away end, as Partizan proved themselves to be perhaps the craziest club in Europe, if not the world.
I had been baffled by the fact that Partizan had two away ends, with a section of fans kept away from the main block of supporters. I had initially thought that extra tickets had been released in this section late on, but it was at this stage I remembered reading about a feud between differing groups of Partizan fans, linked both to control of the Ultras scene and organised crime. Unbelievably, the two sections of Partizan fans begin to attack each other, hurling flares back and forth and attempting to break through the masses of segregation and police to get to one another. Here they are at one of the fiercest derby matches in existence, and they are hell-bent of setting fire to their own fans. If I hadn’t seen it for myself, I would not have believed it.
This goes on for several minutes before the away end is finally able to make peace with one another long enough to direct their hatred at Red Star, who were really ramping up the noise as kick-off approached. The North Stand sings about how their team will take away Partizan’s title this season (Partizan have won the league six years in a row), as well as a chant which described Red Star as the team supported by Serbian’s, with Partizan fans coming from outside of the country. It was not a racist chant, Red Star’s support is incredibly diverse, but was merely an expression of Serbian pride, something which you can’t miss anywhere you go. I have been to places all over the world, but nowhere is prouder of who they are than Serbia.
Just when I thought things could not get any crazier, a football match broke out. The players emerge from the tunnel, and are greeted by the most impressive thing I have ever seen inside a sporting arena. Those flags I mentioned from earlier are waved in unison by thousands of people, huge banners are held up and a seemingly endless supply of pyro is ignited. This was not like England where one smokebomb fizzles for thirty seconds while the media loses their mind, this was an incredibly organised and hugely impressive pyro show. I could have happily gone home at this point and called the Belgrade derby the best football experience of my life, but the 90 minutes on the field remained.
I was totally caught up in the atmosphere, carried away on a tide of Red Star passion. I have no real ties to either club, but at this moment I hated Partizan. I wanted Red Star to win more than anything else in the world, roaring on the players as they took their places and the game began. I couldn’t even say “hello” in Serbian, but I belted out anthem after anthem to the best of my ability, lost in the moment and the passion which accompanies the Belgrade derby. It was not until several minutes into the game that I was able to take a breath and remember that I was here as a neutral to observe the atmosphere and watch a fixture I have always wanted to see. Of course I didn’t hate Partizan, but football can be powerful thing – and this was the most powerful experience I had ever been lucky enough to be a part of.
The singing is constant from both ends of the stadium, a noise quite unlike anything you have ever heard. A Red Star capo (fan leader for those unfamiliar with the term) takes the microphone and quietens the crowd. He signals for the supporters to link arms, which they do so. The heavily tattooed man to my left grabs me, and I grab the person to my right. On his signal, the North Stand bounces as one.
Seats shatter, concrete comes loose and the entire stadium sways. It feels as though the force of the bouncing Red Star supporters will demolish the stadium, but of course, they have been doing this for decades. It continues for several minutes, until the old ground can take no more, the bouncing stops and the next chant begins. If I had thought that had been exhilarating, nothing could prepare me for what would happen next.
Red Star break into the box, forcing a fine save from the Partizan keeper. The ball goes up into the air, and is headed back across goal. It looks destined to land on the head of a Red Star attacker and be turned into the net, but a Partizan defender gets to the ball first. He desperately attempts to turn the ball wide, but all he can do is put it into his net. Own goal. 1 – 0 Red Star.
The noise. Oh, the noise. It’s difficult to describe how it feels to be in the middle of a Belgrade derby goal celebration. You are blinded by the lights of a hundred flares, strangers flying out the thick smoke like ghosts. I must have been jumped on by an entire row of people, the celebrations going on long after the game had restarted. Flares rained down on the pitch, streamers flying through the air and the stadium once again bouncing, this time with the added emotion of leading the derby. The next 20 minutes seem to pass by in a dream, with not much happening on the field, but wonderful things happening off of it. Not even the Sudtribune at Borussia Dortmund can match Red Star for the sheer range of songs. Most clubs seem to have six or seven chants, but Delije have hundreds. Every minute of the game was different, and every minute was breathless and brilliant.
Half time arrives with the scores the same, with the players careful to walk off together. The reason for this became evident as one Partizan straggler reached the tunnel alone. He is pelted with firecrackers as he runs for the safety for the changing rooms, with the police forming a shield for him to duck underneath on the longest half time walk he will ever take. These firecrackers would explode throughout the match, with a noise you never get used to. It is not long since Serbia was at war, and make no mistake that being in Belgrade for the derby feels like you are stepping inside a war zone. This would be proved further still in the second half, with images that would go around the world, and caused my Twitter account to be flooded with messages asking if I was dead. The truth is, I’d never felt more alive than I did on this barmy night in Belgrade.
Ten minutes into the second half, Partizan fans lose patience with their under-performing side. The away end descends into a sea of fire, which I assumed was a response to Red Star’s earlier pyro show. I was wrong, this was not a show of support, but a full-blown riot.
Once the flares have died out in one away section, they are ignited in the second. But, as you will notice from the image below, one flare had not stopped burning. Because this wasn’t a flare, but a section of the away end set on fire.
This fire had a chain reaction, and before long Partizan were destroying the away end, filling the air with smoke and delaying the game. To be honest, I was sure the match would be abandoned. How could it possibly continue with the scenes of carnage in the away end? Failing to evacuate the ground would surely result in deaths, and I would have travelled across Europe to see an abandonment. But this is Serbia, and the usual rules do not apply here. As the flames reached higher and higher, the referee signalled for play to continue.
I have never seen anything like it. I probably never will again.
Finally, the flames are quenched by the fire brigade, turning giant hoses on the away end, all the while being taunted by the Grobari, the shadows of their dancing figures reflected against the flames like demons. Galatasaray proudly display a ‘Welcome to Hell’ banner at their games, but how can anything compare to this? If there is a more insane set of fans in world football than Partizan Belgrade then well, I certainly haven’t seen them.
I thought about what would happen if they scored an equaliser. What would happen if they didn’t? In the dying moments of the game, I almost had my answer to the first question. Red Star were already singing their songs of victory, when a Partizan player broke free in the box. Silence falls on Marakana for the first time in what felt like days. 45,000 people hold their breath, the forward shoots hard and low to the right of the goalkeeper. It’s surely flying in. Somehow, the man in net for Red Star is able to block it, turning it away for a corner.
The North Stand erupts. The keeper runs behind his goal, screaming like a warrior who has just slain a rival king. He beats his chest, pumps his fist and waves his arms to the Delije. Fireworks explode above him, as his stop is celebrated like a goal. It is no surprise that the corner comes to nothing, the mayhem inside the Marakana following this save could turn back a tidal wave, never mind a football.
There is still time for one more chance for Partizan to salvage a point, as a great pass looks certain to set free the striker once more. A Red Star defender knows his team will surely concede if he doesn’t act, and so he flies into the back of the Partizan player, chopping him to the ground to ensure he makes no further progress. He doesn’t even wait for the red card to be shown, heading to the tunnel and receiving a heroes welcome. One last chance and one last free kick. Everyone apart from the goalkeeper is up for it, but Red Star are able to get control of the ball, smashing it as far away down the pitch as possible.
The whistle blows.
Joy all around me. Supporters leap around in the way they must have done in 1991 when Red Star became champions of Europe. They have moved to within one point of the top of the table, and more importantly, they have won the ‘Derbi’. Celebrations continue long after the game, as the players from both sides clash on the pitch. Punches seem to be thrown, players are shoved and the usual scenes which accompany the end of a derby. Once the handbags have finished, the team salutes the crowd as they make their way off the pitch, they are the heroes of the hour and tonight the city belongs to them.
There is a reason this fixture is called The Eternal Derby. Not only will the hatred between the pair last forever, but so will the memories that attending this game will create. I was awake for hours after the game, with more adrenaline than if I had played 90 minutes myself. The peak of my football life had been reached, and if it is never topped then it doesn’t matter, because I will never forget the day I went to Belgrade and lived to tell the tale of a football war.
This is Serbia. This is Red Star vs. Partizan. Welcome to Hellgrade.