United and Red Star: friends forever

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On the morning of November 19 1991, two double decker coaches pulled onto the wintry Old Trafford forecourt. They had taken three days to reach Manchester on their journey from Belgrade, capital of a diminishing Yugoslavia.

On board were 120 Delije, hardcore supporters of European champions Red Star Belgrade. Serbia – their country – was on an irreversible slide into war, with Serbs cited as the aggressors. But it was still an undeclared war against the remnants of what was fast becoming the former Yugoslavia: Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia.

The Red Star fans had travelled to see their team play in the European Super Cup final. Normally, the winners of the Cup Winners’ Cup and the European Cup played games over two legs for a trophy that has never really caught the public’s imagination, yet UEFA decreed Belgrade unsafe and ordered the game to be played over 90 minutes at Old Trafford.

A pathetic crowd of 22,000 attended a treat of a match, seeing United completely outplayed by the genius of Prosinecki and Savicevic. Yet United won 1-0, a Brian McClair penalty.

“Anyone who was at that game must still be wondering how we managed to win it,” wrote Sir Alex Ferguson in his autobiography. “I know I am. In the first half, the Yugoslav’s star player, Dejan Savicevic, was absolutely sensational and it was a miracle that we came in level at half-time.

"I had to make a tactical move and once again it was to Mr Reliable, Brian McClair, that I turned. I told him to withdraw into the midfield to squeeze the space that Red Star had been exploiting. He did that to such good effect that we gained some decent possession and a measure of control. Then he scored the only goal of the match to claim a fairly outrageous victory.”

Not that the defeat seemed to matter to the Serbs in the south stand. Fired by intense nationalism, the 120 fans easily outsang United.

We shouldn’t have been surprised. Six months earlier Red Star’s fans had been the principle attraction of a dull European Cup final against Marseille in Bari, a venue chosen because of its brilliant stadium built for Italia ’90 rather than its good transport links.

It suited Red Star though. Close on 30,000 of them had travelled across the Adriatic by boat from Bar, Serbia & Montenegro’s only port. As luck would have it, Bari was the only placed served by boat from Bar.

The final was an unfair reflection of Red Star (Crvena Zvezda in Serbian) because that team could really play – their 2-1 victory away to Bayern Munich in the semi-final was the brilliant blend of cynicism and sublime skill, yet against Marseille they were devoid of their usual attacking verve and allowed players like Prosinecki to be stifled.

Red Star won on penalties, but their reputation wasn’t enhanced.

More interesting that night was their fans. They knew war was coming and they mongered for it, singing a barrage of anti-Croatian and nationalist songs, as well as displaying flags in a brilliant choreography. Their fans loved Prosinecki, yet he was Croat. In the famous photo of the celebrating Red Star on the running track on front of their fans in Bari, eight of their players extended the two fingers and a thumb Serb salute. Prosinecki didn’t.

As the buses left Old Trafford six months later, news came through on BBC World Service that the Croatian town of Vukovar had fallen to the predominantly Serb JNA army. The town’s 50,000 population had shrunk to 15,000, the remainder cornered under a continued barrage of gun fire. Three thousand died.

“Red Star had always tried to be free of any political body, but our brothers were fighting so we cheered,” Red Star fan Ilija L told me when we met in a Belgrade café in the summer of 2006, “but we knew that most of us would be going home to fight in a war. We loved football, but it would have to become our second priority.”

Many Red Star fans did go to fight, members of their firm joining up with Arkan, leader of Red Star’s hooligans. The son of a colonel in General Tito’s air force, Arkan rebelled in his youth and travelled around Europe, making ends meet as a bank robber and a hit man.

Arkan was forced to learn the main European languages because of his undercover work in Europe. He spoke fluent English, French and Italian, and was also familiar with German, Swedish and Dutch.

Arkan returned to Belgrade in 1986 and became leader of the Delije. They became feared and when the war started he formed a group called the Tigers. Arkan wasn’t at Old Trafford. He led the attack into Vukovar, playing his part in killing hundreds of innocent Croats. The war made Arkan notorious on an international level.

It was a war in which football was never far away. Many claim it started at a football match between Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade. With tensions growing, Red Star fans brought huge numbers of Belgrade licence plates and fixed them over the Zagreb plates of local cars, tricking Zagreb hooligans into attacking their own.

The outstanding Zvonimir Boban, the Dinamo captain who went onto play for Milan, became a national hero in Croatia when he launched a flying kick at a Serb Policeman who was beating up a Dinamo fan. Tensions only rose after that.

After the war, Arkan's tigers were officially disbanded in April 1996 with the threat to be reactivated in case of a war emergency. In June of that year he took over a second division football team Obilić who were soon promoted and then became Serbian champions.

UEFA, under American pressure, prohibited Obilić from participation in Europe because of its connections with Arkan’s alleged war crimes, so Arkan stepped back and made his wife Ceca, a Serbian pop star, president of Obilic.

Obilic played matches against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid – and although players of those team were not intimidated or threatened, rival Serb teams were.

Arkan's ‘business’ was initially based on controlling protection rackets, money extortion, and the smuggling of oil and luxury items. Later he pursued more legitimate business, and had about 400 people working for him. He owned casinos, discos, gas stations, pastry shops, stores, bakeries, restaurants, gyms, as well as a private security agency.

Arkan was assassinated while having a coffee in the Belgrade Intercontinental in 2000. Speaking to the English journalist Gavin Hills four years earlier, he had claimed to be a Manchester United fan. Hills, a superb writer who drowned off the Cornish coast aged just 31 in 1997, told me to do two things: go and see Arkan and go and write about Cliftonville and Linfield in Belfast. I got to do one.

Yet this article isn’t just about Arkan, nor a history of the death of Yugoslavia, but about Manchester United’s links with one of European football's great clubs.

Red Star Belgrade have fallen since those days in 1991 with the break-up of Yugoslavia significantly weakening their league. Where once they played foes like Hadjuk Split or Dinamo Zagreb, now they play teams from towns of 5,000. Red Star’s average gate is only 10,000 – although they get 35,000 for the visit of rivals Partizan.

Even that figure doesn’t fill the still impressive 55,000 capacity Marakana stadium – named because locals thought that the football played there was as good as anything in Brazil.

There are calls for an Adriatic league so that they can all play each other again, but UEFA are unlikely to sanction that. Regions seeking independence don’t tend to think of the knock-on effect for football.

United didn’t play in the Marakana in 1958. It didn’t have lights so the game was played at the JNA stadium, home of their rivals Partizan. Having won the tie 5-4 on aggregate – thanks to a 3-3 draw in front of 55,000 – the players celebrated reaching the semi-finals of the European Cup by going out with their Red Star counterparts for an official banquet where the Yorkshire trio of Jones, Taylor and Pegg gave a rendition of ‘Om Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At’.

As midnight approached, captain Roger Byrne asked Matt Busby if the players could leave the function and go out to experience the Belgrade nightlife. Most of the married ones headed back to their hotel – the Majestic – while the younger ones went to a nightclub called The Crystal. The club has long gone but the hotel still stands and has barely changed.

Belgrade has a population of 1.58 million. It’s a modern capital, but you sense it was better 20 years ago before the war, the Nato bombs of 1999 and economic sanctions. Evidence of the bombs is easy to find – on the night United won the European Cup, American bombers which took off in Oxfordshire picked out several strategic sights in the city. The bombs unnervingly accurate, picking out individual offices. Luckily, the Marakana wasn’t one of them, despite being located close to the centre.

Graffiti covers the walls outside the stadium with the names of Red Star’s numerous groups. Many are anglicised, like the ‘Belgrade Boys’. A few rogue Partizan fans have sprayed their own.

It’s an intimidating place, nothing like the tourist attraction Old Trafford is these days. A small door in the main stand was open so I had a look inside to see Red Star’s souvenir shop. Aside from one assistant, there wasn’t a soul around. Few tourists do Belgrade these days. The girl behind the counter suggested the club museum.

The museum curator was waiting for his first visitor of the day. His eyes lit up, he switched the lights on and welcomed me in. The museum was superb and there was a significant amount of United memorabilia.

The first item you see is the pennant which Roger Byrne presented when Red Star visited Old Trafford in January 1958 when United won 2-1 in front of 60,000. It’s beautifully woven with details of the game and shames the pennants from other English clubs – like Newcastle’s cheap plastic one. Given that match programmes from the game in Belgrade are worth over £2,000, the pennant must be worth five figures. “We’d never sell it,” said the curator. A second pennant was from the European Super Cup game in 1991, again intrinsically woven.

A silver plate, presented by United’s Oxford and Banbury branch to Red Star in 1983 as an appreciation of their continued friendship, is also in the museum, as is a ceramic tankard from United to mark a friendly game played at Old Trafford in 1987 – and not to thank them for our first foreign signing, Nicola Jovanovic, who came from the Red Star in 1980.

This game was organised to sate the appetite of United fans denied European football after Heysel, yet it was a flop with just 10,000 attending. “It used to be that Manchester United fans would turn up at Old Trafford to watch the shirts dry,” wrote David Meek in the Manchester Evening News the following day, “not any more.”

Another piece of memorabilia is a gold football, inscribed with both club badges. It was sent on February 6 2003, the 45th anniversary of Munich and is inscribed ‘Friends Forever’. United excel at gestures like this. And Red Star have surpassed themselves by selflessly giving over large chunks of their own museum to Manchester United. There’s a glass case dedicated to Munich, with ticket stubs and original autographs from the United players on display.

Red Star and United are unlikely to meet as frequently in the future. The Balkans has always produced great footballers, but the best players now leave Serbia by the time they are 23, with Red Star’s wages unable to compete with even second tier European leagues. The Champions League favours the richest leagues, the coefficient method of ranking meaning the rich will get more games and get richer, the poor fewer.

What can’t be altered though, is United’s long standing friendship with Red Star, borne out of tragedy and built on mutual respect and sympathy.