Uncivil war: Why Partizan Belgrade vs Red Star is more than a game

Partizan Belgrade fans start wars. Red Star supporters are the type to give it some. For the March 2003 issue of FourFourTwo, Jonathan Wilson reported from the derby that changed the world...

The first fights break out about an hour before kick-off. Away to the right, Partizan fans swarm up the seated end to hurl abuse and coins at the Red Star fans being herded through the street below. Gradually, the Partizan fans drift back to their seats, but as another pocket of Red Star fans passes, there is another charge to the top of the ramparts.

Nobody seems too concerned. People fight at derbies. That’s just what happens. There are thousands of police in riot gear in and around the ground, but they have a thankless task. Belgrade is made for football violence. Red Star’s ground, the Marakana, is only 400 yards from Partizan’s. Between them lies a park, amply supplied with small hills and clumps of trees providing cover for warring gangs.

Marakana Stadium

The game kicks off at 5pm, but Red Star fans begin to gather at the Marakana from around noon. FourFourTwo has lunch with two Yugoslav journalists, sisters Milena and Ljiljana Ruzic, in a small restaurant opposite the Marakana. Nearby is a patisserie once owned by the Serbian warlord Zeljko Raznjatovic – better known as Arkan – himself a passionate Red Star fan.

When Red Star played Hearts in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1996, Yugoslav fans going to Edinburgh received dire warnings to be on their best behaviour because Arkan, already accused of war crimes, was in their midst, travelling on a fake passport. As a result, Scottish police, primed for running battles against one of the most notorious hooligan groups in Europe, instead found Red Star among the most docile sets of fans they had ever encountered.

"To die for Red Star would be an honour"

The restaurant is packed with Red Star fans, but the mood is far from raucous. Groups are shepherded to tables not by the maitre d’, but by a tall thirtysomething in jeans and a leather jacket. Occasionally, with great politeness, he asks diners to move tables or shuffle up to make room for another guest. “He is one of the leaders of the Delije,” Milena says.

Partizan's ultras, the Grobari (‘Gravediggers’), were officially closed down after they fired a rocket into the Red Star end at a derby, killing an eight-year-old boy. It seems the rocket was smuggled into the ground by a Partizan official

The Delije (‘Strong Boys’) are the hardcore of the Red Star fans, their Ultras. Partizan used to have their equivalent, the Grobari (‘Gravediggers’, so called because of the church and cemetery that back onto the Partizan Stadium), but the group was – officially at least – closed down five years ago after they fired a rocket into the Red Star end at a derby, killing an eight-year-old boy.

The Delije still leave the boy’s seat empty when they visit Partizan. To make matters worse, it seems likely that the rocket was smuggled into the ground by a Partizan official. These days everybody is searched fastidiously. Approaching the ground is like boarding a plane – every few yards there is another security check, another metal detector. Even a packet of Lemsip capsules is confiscated.

Every now and again an older fan enters the restaurant. Invariably he is treated with great respect as he is helped to his table. The whole thing is reminiscent of the meeting of a large Mafia family, courtesy and food masking the violence that binds the group together.

My heart is weak: my doctors have told me I can't go to games, because I get very excited. I will be in the stand if it kills me. To die for Red Star would be an honour

- Former Delije member Mile Shnuta

The day before, FourFourTwo had met met one of these grand old men of the Delije, Mile Shnuta, now a doorman at the Marakana. He is in his sixties, his face yellow and apparently in the process of being sucked into itself. “I was one of the chant-leaders, ” his voice now scarcely more than a croak.

“Everywhere Red Star went, I went too. But now my heart is too weak, so my doctors have told me I cannot go to games, because I get very excited.” I ask if he will watch the derby on television. “No,” he smiles. “I will be in the stand if it kills me. To die for Red Star would be an honour.”

When talking to Red Star fans, death crops up a lot. The scars of the NATO bombing are still obvious in Belgrade, and the memory of the conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia still fresh; in a country so haunted by death, you might expect life to be accorded a little more respect than to be wished away on something as ephemeral as football.

The NATO bombings created immeasurable damage to Serbia

Football happens to be its raison d’etre, but the Delije, anarchic and violently nationalistic as it assuredly is, is also a community. It was the Delije that got Mile Shnuta his job as a doorman. Milena and Ljiljana both have tales of how the Delije have spirited them away from trouble. The Delije look after their own.

Political football

Historically, that makes sense. Red Star was founded at the end of World War II by the Communists, ostensibly as the team of Belgrade University. This swiftly became the team of the people, for which read "poor". The club itself was so impoverished that it might never have got off the ground had FK Obilic and FK Slavija not donated footballs that they’d carefully protected through the war.

Red Star have always been the team of Serb nationalism, while Partizan were federalist, in favour of a unified Yugoslavia

Nevertheless, Red Star rapidly established themselves as one of the two dominant forces in Yugoslav football. The other was Partizan, the army club, named after Tito’s guerrilla forces who had liberated Yugoslavia from German occupation.

Tito, who ruled Yugoslavia until his death in 1980, was a Croat, and the army – and hence Partizan – were always staunchly federalist, in favour of a unified Yugoslavia in the form of the federation of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro.

Although you’ll struggle to find reference to it today, Partizan’s president in the late '50s was Franjo Tudjman, who in 1959 changed the team’s colours from red-and-blue to black-and-white, and in 1991, leading the opposition to Serbia, became the first president of an independent Croatia.

Red Star have always been the team of Serb nationalism which, manipulated by Slobodan Milosevic, tried to seize control of the smaller, weaker Yugoslav republics with catastrophic consequences. 

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic (l) and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman (2r) in 1995

Three days before the derby, Yugoslavia play Finland at the Marakana. As they would in a derby, Red Star fans occupy the North Stand, Partizan fans the South. Most are in club colours; there is little Yugoslav blue to be seen. After Yugoslavia’s 1-1 draw against Italy in Naples the previous Saturday, you might expect the mood to be upbeat, yet the Yugoslav national anthem is drowned out by boos and whistles.

They hate Yugoslavia. They think it should be Serbia

- Journalist Milena Ruzic

“They hate Yugoslavia,” says Milena. “They think it should be Serbia.” As the game kicks off, the chant starts up, “Serbia, not Yugoslavia.” It is followed by traditional Serb songs. The nationalists may soon have their wish, although probably not in the way they want.

Yugoslavia, which once included Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia, now consists of just Serbia and Montenegro. The Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic has already promised a referendum on independence, which could come as early as 2004.

Such is the political background, but there is also the footballing rivalry. Mateja Kezman now plays for PSV Eindhoven, but he joined them in 2000 from Partizan. He played in five Belgrade derbies, and scored in each; Red Star fans despise him. Early on, an attempted kick goes horribly wrong, and the Delzje respond with hoots of derision.

Every time he gets the ball after that, he is whistled. Even when Yugoslavia take the lead through ex-Red Star hero Darko Kovacevic, celebrations are muted in the South Stand. Kezman, prolific at club level, has never hit top form for Yugoslavia, and it’s not hard to see why. “It is never easy to play in Belgrade,” he says diplomatically. “The fans can get very excited.”

The Delije take themselves seriously – but then, in the past 12 years they have brought down a government and kick-started the bloodiest European conflict since World War Two

At times it is almost comical how seriously the Delije take themselves. But then, in the past 12 years they have brought down a government and kick-started the bloodiest European conflict since World War Two. There had been Serb-Croat clashes at stadia throughout the 1980s as ethnic tensions rose, but many consider a Dinamo Zagreb vs Red Star game in 1991 to have been the real start of the Balkan conflict.

According to Croats, the largely Serb police stood by and watched as the Delije piled into the Dinamo end. Zvonimir Boban, then a Dinamo player, tried to intervene, only to be attacked himself by police.

Zvonimir Boban kicks out

Exactly what happened is muddied by exaggerations and propaganda on both sides, but what certainly is true is that Arkan was arrested during the fighting – suggesting that the police were not as passive as Croats claim. A few weeks later, Red Star, who had won the European Cup with a magnificent side that included Dejan Savicevic, Nliodrag Belodedici and Robert Prosinecki, beat Colo Colo of Chile in Tokyo to take the World Club Championship.

Arkan was guest of honour at the celebratory party at the Marakana, which quickly turned into a Serb nationalist rally. After the team had paraded their trophy, Arkan held up his spoils – a street sign stolen from a Croatian village. Soon he, and the ‘Tigers’, his paramilitary group, many of them apparently members of the Delije, would be back for more.

NEXT: Turning against Milosevic