If you like sanitized, sterile football in a family-friendly environment, stay away from the Belgrade Derby. This rivalry, contested between the city's two biggest clubs, Red Star and Partizan, is not for the faint of heart -- it provides one of the most ferocious atmospheres in all of professional sports. While football in the former Yugoslav republics may have faded from most peoples' consciousness, the fans remain passionate. And their fanaticism is best displayed at the Večiti derbi, or Eternal Derby.
The Belgrade Derby is something special. Don't believe me? Watch this:
The festivities start hours ahead of the match, with both sets of fans trying their best to outchant the other end of the stadium. When the players finally emerge from the tunnel, the ground trembles as fans jump, shout, sing and sway. This isn't just any football match. The delije, or Red Star supporters, are known for creating spectacular choreography displays, while the grobari, the Partizan fans, put their pride in being quite literally as loud as humanly possible. And then there's the fire. Lots of fire. More or less everyone smuggles flares into the stadium -- sometimes weeks ahead of the game -- and as a result the stands constantly belch smoke and flames come time for the game.
A quick glance at Belgrade's ultimate rivalry
The Belgrade Derby kicked off in 1945, although one suspects the pyrotechnic displays weren't quite as dramatic back then. Partizan and Red Star have now met 145 times in the league, and will do so again on Saturday at Partizan Stadium. Here's a quick look at their record -- alas, no statistics exist to measure which set of fans were measured the most raucous on each occasion.
|Red Star Wins||Draw||Partizan Wins|
|Total (All Competitions)||104||56||72|
While history certainly favors Red Star, it's Partizan that have had the better of their rivals in recent years -- not in the Derby, where the crno-beli have won just one of the last six matches, but in the league itself. Partizan have won the Superliga title the last six straight seasons, with the grand prize being attempts at getting past the qualifying rounds of both Champions League and Europa League. They actually made it to the group stage of the Champions League in 2011-2012, but that's as far as Partizan's recent European success goes.
Red Star, meanwhile, had been reduced to bragging about their European Cup, secured in 1991. But this season, the tide has turned. Zvezda, who managed to lose to two freshly promoted sides at the start of the season, have now won fifteen games in a row. Their 2-0 win over Radnički earlier in the week, combined with Partizan's 2-0 lost to Napredak, puts them six points clear above their rivals at the top of the table.
"Zvezdino prolece" - the Red Star Spring
Then again, this late-season revival is nothing new for Red Star. Even back in the days of Yugoslavia, Red Star always seemed to pick up after the winter break. Many fans of other clubs, particularly Partizan, attributed this to help from the referees. During the days of the Yugoslav First League, Red Star took the title nineteen times between 1951-1992. With Partizan coming in second nine times (and winning nine times) during that period, it's no wonder they were searching for a reason that explained the zvezda domination.
It's not that far-fetched to think that there's a bit of match-fixing going on -- or at least, that the referees might be helping Red Star. Earlier this month, Partizan played host to Vojvodina. After just twelve minutes, Bojan Nastić was sent off, leaving the visitors with ten men. That's certainly no sign that Red Star are being helped, right, with their rivals getting to play a man up for most of the match? Partizan played poorly, but finally took the lead in the 57th minute thanks to a goal from Milan Obradović.
Then, in stoppages, Branislav Trajković fouled Mijat Gaćinović...about two feet outside the area. The referee gave a penalty anyway, which Milinković Savić duly converted. The last-minute goal meant two points dropped for Partizan, and combined with Red Star's win over Spartak Subotica, gave their rivals a three-point lead at the top of the table.
The zvezda advantage began just after the season resumed at the end of February. Partizan were winter champions, leading Red Star by a point after fifteen rounds. Then came the visit to Novi Pazar on February 23. The hosts contained the leaders for almost the entire match, until Andrija Živković put the ball in the back of the net in the 90th minute. The referee, however, called it back for a foul, indicating that Petar Škuletić had supposedly fouled the keeper while assisting on the goal. The match finished scoreless, and Red Star moved to the top of the table.
And thus began this season's "Zvezdino prolece".
But if you look around any football league for long enough, you'll likely find evidence of corruption and tales of conspiracies. If you're a Red Star fan, you might think Partizan are being helped along by officials high up in politics. It's no secret that the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) supports the crno-beli in various ways, and has put their people on the club's board since the nineties. Then there's Tomislav Karadžić, who was Partizan's president for a year before taking over as head of the Serbian Football Association in 2008 -- the same year that Partizan started winning titles again.
A conspiracy of...talent?
Putting the conspiracy tales aside for a moment, it's worth considering the fact that Red Star might actually earn the title this season.
What's particularly strange about these players, and the way they are performing, is that for much of the season, Red Star players weren't getting paid. In fact, in October, the players sent an open letter outlining the financial situation, including the pertinent detail that things had gotten so bad that there was no shampoo in the dressing room. Two days later, players' car windows were broken and bottles of shampoo were placed inside.
With debts of around €50m, its no wonder the club is having trouble paying their players. And unlike Partizan, who have an excellent youth academy that allows them to sell talented young players and raise a bit of cash, Red Star often make next to nothing on their players. Yet somehow they manage to keep finding funds to bring in experienced players (which may tie back into the conspiracy theories).
One of the most interesting recent players to be brought in is Miloš Ninković, who left Serbia at age 19 for Dynamo Kiev. Now 29, the midfielder negotiated a transfer to Red Star in the summer after a brief period on loan at Evian, refusing bigger offers from other French clubs. While Ninković is one of the more highly-paid players at Red Star, he's also stated that, if the club don't win the title, he'll return the money he's meant to have coming to him, which is estimated to be around €300,000 per year.
Despite tales of players not being played, there's a sense of commitment around the club that you don't often sense in so-called "modern football." After not being played in the fall, many Red Star players received offers to move elsewhere in the winter, mostly to China. But the majority of players stayed. Their reasoning sounds quaint and naive to those of us used to footballers chasing big bucks: they stayed to win the title, for themselves and for the fans, even despite the club's financial situation.
So Red Star, in the winter break, saw its players recommitted to the club, and to the pursuit of the title. Spring also brought the return of Darko Lazović, one of the side's best players, who'd been out for eight months with a knee injury. Along with Ninković, other experienced internationals returned to the club, including midfielder Nejc Pečnik and forward Dragan Mrđa. Nigerian Abiola Dauda was convinced to stay in winter, and together with Mrđa the two strikers have 27 goals.
The Red Star Spring may have a long-standing tradition, but, in this season at least, zvezda seems to have pulled ahead on merit. Sure, a couple of questionable calls might have cost Partizan a few points, but the real trouble is trying to compensate for the loss of Miloš Jojić, bought by Dortmund this winter. The 22-year-old has three goals in seven appearances (six of them from the bench) for his new side, and his six goals for the crno-beli have yet to be exceeded by another Partizan player. The club grabbed Petar Škuletić from Vojvodina and Nikola Drinčić from Russian side Krasnodar, but together they have just seven goals in the second half of the season. The addition of Danko Lazović from Zenit St. Petersburg hasn't helped much either, with the forward notching two goals and a red card in five appearances.
2 November 2013: the last meeting
But when the derby comes, all whispers of corruption are silenced, all frustrations with financial woes are stilled. The Eternal Derby is all about fandom. The ultimate goal of attending the derby isn't to watch some fantastic football. The aim is to do whatever necessary to spur your side on to victory.
And if it's anything like the last time these two sides met, there will certainly be plenty to grab your attention -- although much of it won't be on the pitch. When Red Star hosted Partizan back in November, a number of delije actually parachuted their way into the Marakana - only to be met by flares thrown by the Partizan fans. The away fans, separated into two sections, then began throwing flares at one another. It all wrapped up with Partizan supporters setting fire in several locations in the away end of the stadium, forcing the referee to halt play for ten minutes to allow the smoke to clear.
Oh, and somewhere in there, in the midst of the chanting, the flares, the flags and the men falling from the sky, Partizan defender Milan Obradović put the ball in the back of his own net. Red Star held on for the win, setting off their streak of fifteen wins in a row.
Uroš Popović contributed additional reporting to this article