Kirsten Schlewitz attended the match between Red Star Belgrade and Partizan Belgrade, a bitter Serbian soccer rivalry known as the Eternal Derby.
Behind enemy lines
It's Saturday, a few hours before the Eternal Derby begins. After three days, the rain in Belgrade has finally ceased, so we decide to make for the stadium on foot. There's not much to see along the way; at least, not in terms of soccer. The city is alive with people enjoying the parks, strolling by with shopping bags and sitting at one of the thousands of cafes. But where are the fans? Shouldn't more people be heading in this direction?
We stop at the Red Star store to buy me a sweatshirt. It's already been decided that we'll walk from the Marakana, home to Crvena zvezda, to Partizan Stadium with the visiting fans. There, surrounded by police and other fans, it'll be fine to wear the bright red shirt. For now, I leave it in the bag.
Here in Belgrade, while it doesn't seem as though anyone is going to the game, an oppressive quietness creeps in nonetheless.
And that's the strangest thing about walking through Belgrade before the Derby: there are no colors, anywhere. Just try getting across Portland prior to the Timbers playing Seattle without seeing deep green shirts, their numbers intensifying as you approach Providence Park. In Birmingham, on the eve of a derby match between West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa, the bars are flooded with claret-and-blue stripes. It's well-known that Villa fans don't go into Baggies pubs and vice-versa, but there's no real fear of wearing your side's kit.
Here in Belgrade, while it doesn't seem as though anyone is going to the game, an oppressive quietness creeps in nonetheless. As we crest the hill and look down at the two stadiums, a third of a mile apart, there still seems to be few people about. The police, on the other hand, are ever-increasing in their presence. They'd lined the grounds of the magnificent St. Sava Cathedral and were patrolling its nearby park, notorious as a place where opposing fans come to fight, but here they were everywhere, lining up in their riot gear on the small strips of grass between streets, sitting astride horses at the stoplights, stationed alongside dogs inside the parks.
But as we turned up toward the Marakana, the police presence thinned, a worrisome development. This was the place the Red Star fans would meet before walking to the match. No one, save for a few scattered policemen, was about as we approached the entrance to the Red Star Sports Society, one of those stereotypical communist-style concrete buildings, strangely identical to an apartment building. It hardly seemed a place that housed Serbia's most successful soccer club, much less the umbrella organization for more than 25 different clubs in various sports.
Neither did the Marakana give the impression that it played host to a team that won the Serbian SuperLiga title just last season. The cement walls are gussied up with random spurts of graffiti, most denoting the supporters' group of the tagger's hometown. The ticket windows look abandoned, covered in stickers, and paint is flaking off the walls. There's none of the glamour so often associated with top clubs, and suddenly I'm relieved I'll be making the trek to Partizan Stadium.
That relief wears off rather quickly, however, when we realize there's no one about to make that trek with. Either the Zvezda fans no longer walk together from the stadium, or we missed our chance, despite there being nearly two hours left before the match kicks off. We walk quickly to the bottom of the hill, ignoring a group loitering by their car that hails us with an old chant, "Zvezda Srbija nikad Jugoslavija." We make no response to "Red Star, Serbia, never Yugoslavia." What if they weren't really Red Star fans, but Partizan ones, waiting to pounce? Would that lone policeman across the road make much difference?
But when we make it to the bottom of the hill and attempt to cross to the road visiting fans would take to their entrance, we're blocked by policemen. My comprehension of Serbian tends to fumble at the best of times, but with my heart pounding in my ears, I can barely decipher a word. It's clear, though, that we're not being permitted to join up with Red Star fans.
So we turn and follow the crowd, the path neatly outlined by yet more cops, riot shields propped in front of them. They're our only signal as to where to go, however, as we're led through a park, along a dirt path, up some steps near an apartment building, and waved down another flight of steps to approach the stadium.
These fans delight in calling themselves undertakers, for goodness sake. It's time to get out.
Where we're faced with a giant banner proclaiming "Grobari, to smo mi" (We are the undertakers).
Sure enough, we've ended up amidst the Grobari, the Partizan fans. Suddenly the cops seem awfully far away. I tuck my bag, bearing the incriminating Red Star logo, under my arm, draping my jacket over it. I've been told that women are usually not harassed, even when part of the opposing fan base, but I've wandered right into their domain. I'm not taking chances, not when it's not only the hairs on the back of my neck sticking up, but those all up and down my arms. There's nothing that about this place that speaks to a fun day out. The sky is bleached, the supporters are dressed in grey and black, there's a man on the top tier of the stadium giving two middle fingers to the world. These fans delight in calling themselves undertakers, for goodness sake. It's time to get out.
Where's the fun in this?
And so it's around the stadium, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible on the nearly deserted streets, devoid of all those policemen that had been standing so reliably along so many of the other routes. My shoulder is pinched and my neck may be permanently tilted from my attempts at shielding this ridiculous Red Star bag. What on earth had possessed me to buy a bright red shirt?
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The opposite side of Partizan Stadium emerges in front of us, swarming with fans. It's still difficult to tell, however, if they're the friendly sort. Then comes a noise from behind, as yet more policemen push us to the edges of the path. 'Dosao je i taj dan, umro je Partizan' -- the day has come, Partizan is dead! It's the Zvezda fans, finally completing their march to the stadium. I feel a sense of relief, echoed by the loosening of my fingers on the handle of my plastic bag.
But while we were finally amongst friends, the relief lasted but a few minutes. It was time to go inside. And despite these two teams having met well over 100 times, it seemed that no one had ever figured out how to get the fans inside safely. Or perhaps they simply didn't care. Either way, I was soon shoved into a mob of people, finding my nose buried in armpit after armpit. I'd never been so conscious of my height, or rather, lack thereof. Or, for that matter, the incredible ability of my body to produce steady breath. As the fans in front were shoved back by those coming from the other direction, and those behind continued their eager march toward the gate, I was stuffed in the middle. As a seasoned concert veteran, I felt I should've been used to this sensation, but somehow this mass of bodies felt different. There was no possibility of jumping the barrier up front and being sent by the security guard to the back of the crowd. Any wrong moves were going to lead to a confrontation with heavily armed men, not a pat on the bum and a gesture to get going.
Then comes the elbow to my eye. I've still got a gash on my leg brought about while celebrating a goal three years ago, I've found myself on my ass two rows in front of the place I'd been standing, and I've certainly learned my lesson about wearing open-toed shoes inside a supporters' section -- no matter if the temperature is over 100 degrees. But I'd never gone home from a match with a black eye. And I hadn't even had my ticket checked yet.
I was starting to question what on earth I was doing here.
Inside the clouds of smoke and flame
There's no denying that a major part of the reason for attending a live sporting event is the adrenaline spike that comes with it. You're holding your breath. Your voice rises in unison with the other fans. Your heart races as the player zips toward goal. It's in your throat as the shot is teed up. And suddenly you're jumping, screaming at the top of your lungs.
You also get that adrenaline rush by taking part in something that's just a bit dangerous. That's our normal experience of supporters' groups in the U.S. -- that little thrill from taunting the opposition, from letting off a smoke bomb, from slapping a sticker in the other sides' territory while looking over our shoulders to make sure we don't get caught.
the tension I felt outside Partizan Stadium was nothing like adrenaline and everything like fear.
But the tension I felt outside Partizan Stadium was nothing like adrenaline and everything like fear. I'd heard the stories. In 2001, in the very park we'd walked through, opposing fans had clashed, almost like two armies coming together at the front lines. There were injuries on all sides, including to the policemen trying to break up the fighting. One fan was in critical condition after being hit in the head with a bottle.
Sports are meant to be fun, but this experience had been anything but. All I wanted was to make myself small (not that difficult), avoid being hit by a blaze of fire, and get the hell back to my apartment. Preferably with all ten of my fingers and all ten of my toes. But considering I'd still be in possession of a bright red sweatshirt, there was no guarantee of safety once we'd left the protection of the numerous cops lining the streets.
Then again, there's also no reason to believe that the inside of the stadium would be safe, either. Fifteen years ago, 17-year-old Aleksandar Radovic was killed in Partizan Stadium, when a flare released from the South Stand traveled to the North, where the Red Star fans are situated. Rings upon rings of policemen would be able to do nothing when faced with a flying stream of fire.
To my great surprise, however, I found myself relaxing as we made our way through the crowd to an open patch of concrete. I stood on the seat, surveying the tattered flags waving, the isolated flares being lit, the banner across the way reading "crno vam se pise" (basic message: you're fucked). The knots in my shoulders started to unravel themselves. No longer did this feel like a war. I was back on familiar footing, enveloped with the desire for my team to beat the hated opposition.
It probably helped that I wasn't aware of what had happened moments before we went in. A group of Partizan fans made their way toward the north stand, home to the visiting supporters. They set off a flare. The Zvezda fans sent one back. No one was hurt and the police separated the sides after about a minute, but the scorched seats in the east stand were enough proof that things could get ugly, quickly. And if I hadn't taken the time to argue with a policeman, who didn't take kindly to me having the temerity to stop in the corridor while zipping up my purse, we could've been feeling the heat from those fires.
Considering they'd already forced me to chuck away a sample-sized tube of lipstick and had retained the coins of the girl in line before me, I'm not entirely sure what they thought I was about to do. Launch my phone over the railing and into the Red Star fans below? Perhaps they should've been more concerned with the flame wars going on inside.
As kickoff approached, it became clear that any attempts -- if they'd even been made -- to keep out flares and smoke bombs had failed spectacularly.
First came a few isolated flares from the Red Star fans. Then, before I'd even realized what was happening, we were engulfed in a cloud of thick red smoke. I could see a flag waving a few rows in front, but the pitch had completely disappeared, and even the lines of policemen and security guards just below had vanished. Instead it was just the pounding of feet against the plastic seats, heads bobbing in and out of the fog, and the chant, on a constant loop, of "Zvezda šampion!"
My eyes are watering. My throat is burning, despite having my new sweatshirt pulled up over my nose. It's a good thing I've always had a decent sense of balance, because it's a bit difficult to jump on a seat that's barely wide enough for an adult bum. But to not jump would be unthinkable, of course. You jump, you scream, you chant and you cheer, because this is your team and it is your responsibility, your mission, to spur them on.
Even language becomes a trivial detail. Even without ever having heard a word of Serbian, you're all speaking soccer. The screams of "shoot" and "foul" are, of course, easy enough to comprehend. But after just a few minutes, you'll also be yelling "HAJDE" right along with the rest of the crowd, and blowing air through your teeth when Luka Jovic screws up yet another chance. And by the end of the match, not only will you pepper each sentence with "jebo te," but you're also likely to have picked up at least six other different ways of using "fuck."
Here comes the breakdown
It doesn't matter which sport is your favorite or which stadium you're standing in or what colors you're wearing: there's a common belief amongst fans that your presence can make or break a team. Or if not your presence, it's the lucky socks you've not washed since the World Series win, or the sweater you were wearing the day the Stanley Cup was lifted. Many fans will laugh off their superstitions, but there's still a niggling worry that if you switch out your jersey, you can kiss goodbye to that Super Bowl appearance.
the ultimate goal is to create victory. And that's exactly what Partizan fans achieved.
Let's face it, your manky socks are likely doing little beyond offending those squished into the row behind you. But fans certainly can influence the outcome of a game. It's why playing behind closed doors is considered a punishment. It's the reason behind the 12th Man moniker. And it's why we even bother to show up at stadiums.
Yes, we like the camaraderie and the shared joy and the ability to let off steam with a frenzy of curse words and suggestions about the moral inferiority of your mother. But the ultimate goal is to create victory. And that's exactly what Partizan fans achieved on Saturday night.
About fifteen minutes into the match, the grobari began setting off a series of flares and smoke bombs. At first it looked rather like they were children waving sparklers on the 4th of July, but soon the smoke swamped both the flickering flames and the pitch below, forcing the referee to call a time out.
The display felt rather childish, as though the Partizan fans were more concerned with drawing attention to themselves and their superior fan status than in helping propel their side to victory. After all, the flames and smoke had coincided with the hosts' first decent attack on goal, and when play resumed, they'd lost their momentum. Red Star dominated the first half, although their moves tended to break down in the final third, as pumping crosses in to a rather short center forward did little to create quality chances.
At the break, both players and fans took the chance to recover their breath. I'd expected preparations for a post-halftime display, but it seemed cheering the actual match was now foremost in Red Star supporters' minds. Everyone jostled for a seat, some flopping on the concrete, some poised on the lip of the cold plastic chairs, others balanced on friends' knees. Cigarettes and lighters were passed freely, although there was no sign of food, alcohol or even water. Grim business, this supporting lark. Then it was time to perch on the end of the seat once more, welcoming the Red Star players back to the pitch with "još jedna pobeda i titula," another win and a title, continuing with "we've been with you everywhere, supporting you, we sing in your name now."
From the restart, Zvezda dominated once more. But then, in the 60th minute, the sparklers started once again in the south end. This time, it was the visitors who were headed for the net beneath the Partizan fans. Soon, however, the stand was a blur of red and gold flame, with smoke again rising out to cover the pitch. For the first time all game, I could hear the grobari chanting, despite the fact that the Red Star fans surrounding me were still bellowing their own songs.
And that was the moment -- the moment Red Star lost their composure. There was never a fight on the field or a red card or a penalty denied. But after the second wall of smoke, Zvezda lost their fire. And sure enough, it was Partizan that scored soon after. In the 77th minute, Danko Lazović conceded a free kick. It was Nikola Drinčić who stepped up to take, and although his shot went straight at Predrag Rajković, it was powerful enough that the keeper could do nothing to keep it out.
After the initial groans of disappointment, the North Stand went still. Cigarettes were plugged between lips, lighters dug out. Across the field, the Partizan fans screamed taunts, backed up by sporadic flames from solo flares. The silence lasted maybe 30 seconds, but it was enough to show that Red Star knew they were beaten. An equalizer never came, much less a come-from-behind winner.
Yet the noise reappeared. The chants reminding the opposing fans that it was Red Star that were champions. The voices screaming on their players, urging them to find a goal, reminding them it wasn't over. I'd come into this believing I'd simply find a set of fans carrying on for the mere sake of upstaging Partizan. But there were no more grand displays. Only a quiet desperation, born from the pain of knowing that this loss puts the side four points back of first place. The singing had to continue, but no noise could drown the feeling that, despite this being October, the title may have already slipped away.