Lost in…Belgrade (Red Star Belgrade)

Crvena Zvezda v FK Čukarički

Stadion Rajko Mitić / Serbian SuperLiga / 6th August 2017

The Maracanã in Rio de Janerio is revered as one of the true cathedrals of football. The stadium has hosted the boundless magic of the Brazilian national team since the 1950 World Cup (although that World Cup is still considered a national tragedy in Brazil) and is generally lauded as the home of Joga Bonito. Maybe, if history had been different, the Marakana in Belgrade would be equally hailed as the home of one of football’s joyous team. Such was the quality of the old Yugoslavia team that Red Star Belgrade’s home was nicknamed the Marakana because of the fluid football being played there by Yugoslavia (‘the Brazil of Europe’) and also because of the sheer size of the stadium, as it could then hold around 110,000.  Such was Yugoslavia’s footballing prowess in the 70s, it was them who Pelé chose to be the opposition in his final farewell game for Brazil at the Maracana in front of 130,000 fans.

Yugoslavia continued to impress for the next few decades and came close to trophy success several times. By the 90s they had one of the most formidable teams on paper, but dramatic political shifts off the pitch would see them disbanded. The collapse of Yugoslavia split up a national team that had the potential to be world and European champions in the upcoming 1992 Euros and 1994 World Cup. However, the exciting football of that Yugoslavia team would also transmit to the real homeowners of the Marakana: the famous Red Star Belgrade – or Crvena Zvezda as they are known locally.

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Crvena Zvezda.

As a child of the 90s, THE Eastern European team growing up for me were Red Star Belgrade. There was just something exotic about the name ‘Red Star’. In my lifetime, they are the only Eastern European team to win Europe’s top prize, as they defeated Marseille on penalties in Bari back in 1991 (the only other club from Eastern Europe to win it was Steaua Bucharest in 86). I’d just turned 3 when Red Star lifted the European Cup, so of course I do not remember it, but many of the players of that team would light up football away from Red Star during my lifetime. Players such as Vladimir Jugovic, Dejan Savićević, Robert Prosinečki and the ever volatile Siniša Mihajlović would all go onto further football stardom in my life. Essentially, Red Star were the Eastern European team that fascinated me most, so of course, any trip to Belgrade and they were going to be my priority. I’d get my chance to visit the hallowed stadium on a scorcher of a Sunday afternoon and watch them take on Belgrade neighbours Čukarički.

After a Saturday evening of watching football on top of a shopping at Voždovac, I woke up the next morning to find that the heatwave nickamed ‘Lucifer’ was still searing away; in fact, it was apparently the hottest day of the year in Belgrade. We headed into Belgrade centre on this scorching Sunday afternoon and my host for the weekend, Welsh compatriot Rhys, was still presenting me with another footballing option for the evening. As a Partizan fan, he was off to Subotica near the Hungarian border to watch Partizan play. But I continued to decline – my heart was firmly set on Crvena Zvezda. Plus, it was only right really with him being a former Cardiff City fan and me being a Swansea City fan that I picked the opposite team to him. Anyway, we enjoyed some food in a traditional Serbian restaurant with images of former military officials adorning the walls. Then it was time for Rhys to head a few hours north to watch his beloved Partizan, whilst I headed to my favourite place in Belgrade: Samo Pivo.

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My lunch to keep me fuelled. Some sort of pork and pepper stew. It was awesome.

I wrote about Samo Pivo (‘Only Beer’) in my blog about Voždovac and I’d once again just like to emphasise its magnificence again: it’s magnificent. I had another one of my beloved sour beers, just like the day before, but also worked my way through a couple of other ale choices of the myriad on offer. What a bar. Apparently, it was the first craft beer bar in the whole of Serbia and if there are any better, fairplay to them.

From here, I decided to slowly begin walking in the direction of the stadium, although I did deviate slightly as I headed into a dingy bar to armchair fan through the second half of the rather tepid Community Shield final between Arsenal and Chelsea. It was a quick stop off, but, with laughter still filling my lungs having watched Chelsea keeper Thibaut Courtois sky his penalty in the shootout to help Arsenal triumph, I soon carried on in earnest towards the stadium area.

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The walk to the stadium was not too interesting…

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…although big fan of retro apartment blocks like this.

The Marakana is located about 3.5km south of the centre of Belgrade, so I did have about a 45-50 minute walk ahead of me; there were no complaints from me though as it gave me the chance to see a few other parts of the city.  Belgrade is a hilly city, but that does provide you with some awesome views at times. One such view occurred when I climb a slight hill to arrive at the top and have an awesome view of the Marakana just across fro me with its floodlights soaring up above the surrounding neighbourhood. It was impressive, but initially looked a bit smaller than I expected (but more on that later). Also, casting my eyes a bit to the right, I could see the floodlights of Partizan Belgrade too – a sign of how close both clubs are to each other, despite the venomous animosity that both clubs have for each other.

Instead of carrying on down to the stadium though, I veered into the nearby park to check out the beautiful Church of Saint Sava. Apparently it is one of the largest church buildings in the entire world and it is a mighty imposing piece of architecture. However, I opted not to go inside and carry on down the hill towards Red Star’s place of football worship instead.

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Through the park…

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…to the mightily impressive Church of Saint Sava.

I was well aware that the sale of alcohol is forbidden in the near vicinity of the Marakana on matchday, so, having arrived in the area earlier than I had planned to, I took my last chance to have a beer. There wasn’t a lot of choice on the hill down to the main road that leads to the stadium, so my only choice was a pleasant Italian restaurant. I was still full from my pork and pepper stew from earlier in the day, but the food looked great in here. Sadly, I had to decline it, but the waiter was more than happy to provide me with a couple of Lavs. It was then time to cross the motorway and head directly for the Marakana.

After 3 days in Belgrade, I had seen virtually no signs of Red Star or Partizan in the centre, for reasons I fully understood. Even today on matchday I’d seen no Red Star fans mulling around – once again for reasons that I understood. So it was quite nice, as I crossed the bridge over the motorway, to finally see a steady stream of Red Star shirts and colours heading towards the stadium. I knew the stadium was now pretty much dead ahead of me and considering it’s a 55,000 seater bowl, I still couldn’t quite believe that I couldn’t see it from street level. I made my way past several little fast food outlets and little cafes, which were all filled with Red Star fans, and then up another small hill, which would apparently take my right behind the main West Stand.

And there it was – the Marakana. Once again, it still didn’t strike me as the colossal stadium that I had envisioned. I’d arrived at the corner linking the infamous ‘North’ to the West Stand and with an hour or so until kick-off there were militia police everywhere. If it was like this for a bog standard match, I can only imagine the police presence that engulfs the stadium for the ‘Eternal Derby’ against Partizan. I say that the stadium was slightly underwhelming (at first), but it was wonderfully rundown and weather worn, just how I like my stadiums. The main stand looked like it was rusting from the outside and it seemed that every surface was covered in pro-Red Star graffiti, usually with emblems of the various Ultras groups on show. It was then time to decide on where to stand for the game.

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And there is, the Marakana…

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The whole exterior looked a bit battered from the outside.

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Fans mull around outside as the Church of Saint Sava stands tall in the background.

Rhys had put me in touch with Sava, a regular in the lively North Stand, and had told me that he’d look after me well if I wanted to go in the North. Admittedly, I did want to go in the North, but obviously, for blog purposes, I needed to take photos and I was well aware of the ‘no photos’ regime of the North. The North is the home of the famed ‘Delije’ – probably one of Europe’s most renowned and infamous Ultras.

Delije is loosely translated as ‘heroes’ in English and a lot of the rhetoric around them seems to circulate around images of battles, warriors and honour and bravery. The name generally became prominent in the 80s and is now the universal umbrella word for the various Ultras groups who frequent the North Stand and join together as one. They are a huge part of what makes Red Star Red Star and the word ‘DELIJE’ is even painted across the seats in stand. Much of the Delije’s history is entwined with the shapeshifting politics of their nation and Serbian nationalism. The Delije even became a key recruitment ground for the almost mythical figure of Arkan and his ‘Tigers’, who were the disciplined paramilitaries who fought in the Yugoslav Wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Basically, Delije had and still have a lot of very, very tough nuts amongst them and they still have a reputation as one of Europe’s most notorious Ultras groups because of it.  Fair to say, they are very passionate about their club. You could write a whole blog (probably a book actually) on the Delije, Arkan etc. but a quick google of them and you’ll get the gist. To me, they were massively intriguing, yet pretty scary at the same time. With that in mind, I went and bought a ticket for the West and messaged Sava to let him know of my decision as he was running late. For a few Euros I had myself a ticket for the stand and with nothing else to do I decided to head in – of course via a vigorous search from the stewards with heavily-armoured riot police flanking them each on side.

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One of the many, many Delije pieces of graffiti around the stadium,

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Police outside the North Stand entrance.

Another reason why I had chosen this stand was the fact that I wanted to buy a Red Star scarf and it seemed that the only way to access the club shop was from this stand. As well as the club shop, there was also a full blown shop right by it selling Ultras gear – although I felt I wasn’t quite at that stage yet and I’d stick to the regular club shop. I did have a quick glance at the replica shirts, but I was quickly put off by the price (although they are beautiful) and instead stuck with my scarf, which I kept tied around my wrist as it was still far too hot to wear it around my neck.

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The Ultras shop…

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…just across from the official Red Star shop.

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And more Delije graffiti in the West Stand.

With no bar or beer to talk of in the ground, I then headed down into the stand and immediately took back all those thoughts I’d had earlier about the Marakana’s underwhelming appearance. Once you are in, it looks bloody huge! And awesome too! Undoubtedly, the reason why I had been so perplexed by its deceptive exterior was because the stadium is built down into the ground (apparently to save money on construction) giving the stadium a lop-sided appearance and making me feel very high up in the West Stand. The whole thing is one of those huge and joyous Eastern European bowls with some wonderful floodlights over head. It really is a truly awesome stadium. It made me more disappointed that I couldn’t have been here just two months earlier when Wales had played Serbia in this very stadium, where Aaron Ramsey scored a ‘Panenka’ penalty – in the very same goal in the very same stadium that the man himself had scored his iconic penalty 41 years before.

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My first glimpse inside the Marakana.

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New scarf thumbs up with the North Stand behind.

As I was gawping at the stadium around me, I received a message off Sava saying that I should meet him outside the West Stand as he had brought some beers (apparently drinking is not forbidden around the ground, just the selling of it). I explained that I was already in the ground, but it seems Sava just knows everyone at Red Star and a quick word with the steward and I was let out to join him. He apologised for his lateness and handed me a can of a beer I didn’t recognise it at all and had quite the shock when I started drinking it; that’s because it was a ‘rose wine-flavoured’ and was more of a spritzer than a beer (which I’m guessing is why the can had Špricer written on it in big letters). Not usually my thing, but it was actually very pleasant when cold and with the sun still blazing down.

Just as me and Sava sat on the wall outside the stand drinking our Špricer, I spotted my Scottish pal Iain, who was with me at Vozdovac the night before too, and he came over and joined us too. Iain had decided that he was going in the West too. As much as I could see he hated the idea, Sava said he’d be a good host and also join us in the West, although I repeatedly stated that he didn’t have to. But he insisted, before adding that ‘maybe’ we could go in the North for the second half….maybe…

Back in the stadium, we took our place in the West Stand right next to where the fencing separates it from the North Stand. As expected beforehand, there was only a few thousand in the stadium making the 55,000 seater Marakana look very sparsely populated on this Sunday evening. Although Red Star’s opponents FK Čukarički also hail from Belgrade, they are considered another sort of ‘nothing club’ in the league and not worth coming out for by many it seemed. Plus, Red Star had just triumphed over two legs against Sparta Prague in the Europa League qualifiers just days before and I can imagine some were still rough from their celebrations. I asked Sava how many fans he thought Čukarički would bring and he said, “Count them yourself.” I looked over to the far corner and with a bit of a squint I could count the 6 away fans (and one of those was pacing the top row on his phone as if he was debating leaving).

The teams began walking out and considering I felt far away from them, the noise of the the middle section of the North was very impressive; it seemed crazy how much noise they were producing with it all being orchestrated by the megaphone-wielding lad at the front. Again, I tried to imagine how loud the stand would be when full.

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Match action.

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The North Stand picking up.

2 weeks prior, I’d actually watched a large chunk of Red Star’s victory in first leg against Sparta Prague on TV and had been very impressed with some of the fast-paced and tenacious football they were playing. Apparently, this was a bit of a far cry from last season and already new manager Vladan Milojević was proving popular, after Red Star had made a 100% start in the league too. On this Sunday evening, Red Star were impressive again, although the opposition were not exactly making it difficult for them. Red Star had even rested players for the game after their travails in Prague just 3 days before.

Red Star’s domination took until the 18th minute to pay off, as they broke into the box from a freekick and Nemanja Radonjić was definitely brought down by clumsy defending. Penalty to Red Star. Up stepped Aleksandar Pešić, who had his initial penalty effort saved, before he followed up the save and smashed in from close range. 1-0 to Red Star and cue the more vociferous celebrations over in the North.

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More Marakana.

The rest of the half was fairly action-free really, although Red Star continued to dominate and really didn’t look like they needed to get out of first gear. We were now joined by Ilyas though, the Belgian football fan we had met at Vozdovac the night before.

Red Star are known for having certain nationalistic leanings in their chants. I had Sava translating some of the chants for me and the majoirty (on this evening at least) seemed to be just general pro-Red Star stuff than anything else – there was even less anti-Partizan chanting than I expected. One particular tune would get stuck in my head for days later, even though I didn’t know the words. As well as that, Sava also talked me through all the various flags being waved about in the North, as there were a lot. The half would finish with a huge banner being unveiled across the North, along with a more politically charged and abrasive song; the banner was an anti-Croat banner, with the fans commemorating the anniversary of the end of ‘Operation Storm’ which saw hundreds of Serbs killed.

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I’m not sure exactly what it says, but I was told that the banner and the chants were aimed at the Croats.

Half-time: Red Star 1 – 0 Čukarički.

The biggest shock of the evening occurred during the interval. Iain wondered whether fans were moving up the stand to escape rain. I laughed off his suggestion as after days of 40 degrees there had been not a single hint at rain. Then, a quick glance up at one of the floodlights confirmed that we did indeed have rain! RAIN! How I’d missed rain! There was then a soft rumble of thunder in the distance to suggest that the rain was here to stay for a while too, which it was more than welcome to.

As me and Sava chatted during half-time and we agreed to go for beers post match, along with Rhys who plays in the same football side as Sava, Sava began to talk of the North Stand again and I could tell he really wanted to head back over there. He began saying he’d make sure I didn’t do anything I shouldn’t do and I should join him. I was still wary, but then as the teams came out for the second half and the whole North Stand went up in a cloud of smoke from the a parade of flares being unleashed, I realised it was worth going to see probably. As smoke bombs banged around the stand, I agreed that I’d go with him. I could see that he really wanted me to experience too, so we said our goodbyes to Iain and Ilyas and then I let Sava lead the way…

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At the start of the second half, a couple of flares…

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…led to this….

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…and then the whole stand being smoked out.

A few words from Sava and we were out of the West and then a little chat with the steward at the North turnstile and we were in. I’d noticed from the West Stand that the edges of the North Stand had many women and children occupying the seats with many photographing the pyro show. Sava gave me a nod encouraging that I could take a photo or two on my phone from the safe edges, even though every pillar was daubed with a graffiti image of a red line through a camera. In this safety area was where I figured we’d stay, but that wasn’t the case…

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The East Stand run to the top row for shelter from the rain.

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Match action (far below).

The gradient of the curving slope of the stand was now apparent, as Sava led us towards the top row of the more congested middle area of the North Stand. Again, I thought this was where we would be saying, but Sava pushed on and soon I realised he was leading me straight to the heart of ‘mixer’ as I dubbed it. Everywhere I looked were flags of the Delije and now in the middle of it all the noise felt incredible. For the first minute I felt a bit overwhelmed and a bit worried about where I was, like a real shit Louis Theroux in one of those really uncomfortable situations, but I told myself to just go along with it and embrace the opportunity. I’m glad I did.

I’d describe the whole environment there in the North as quite a visceral one. After all, this was a stand that had once been dubbed as the ‘Epicentre of Craziness’. Passion and tribal love seemed to pour out of everyone around me – including Sava, who had now gone from a fairly quietly spoken lad to having his top off and singing with brutal passion, as the rain hammered down on the Delije. Not that a bit of rain was ever going to interrupt their relentless chanting and bouncing. In fact, what I’ll remember most about my whole weekend in Belgrade was being amongst their carnival of passion, looking ahead at the chant leader leading proceedings and the sight of the whole sky being filled with lightning overhead. The thunder seemed to be having a battle with the Delije for who could make the loudest bang. It all felt beautifully raw.

Of course, I was not just standing there like a dick; after that inital moment of getting my bearings I was joining in the pulsating bouncing and chanting. Fortunately, I’d arrived into the stand when there was a ten minute long chant of repeatedly chanting “CRVENA ZVEZDA”. I could easily manage that one and I soon got into it all.

Amongst such an atmosphere, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there’s a game going on too, but indeed there still was and Red Star were still bossing it. In the 73rd minute, with rain still hammering down, Red Star made it 2-0 with a lovely low cross from the left playing in Pešić to simply tap in his second goal of the game from 8 yards. Pešić hurdled the fence and made straight for the North Stand where he saluted the jubilant Delije.

In the 80th minute the scoring was wrapped up for Red Star, as Filip Stojković was played through on goal, before comfortably placing his left-footed shot far into the corner away from teh keeper. Interestingly, the sub who had setup the goal was former Wolves midfielder Nenad Milijas, who had played in the Premier League for the club (having signed from Red Star) and who I seemed to recall having massive expectations around him. It didn’t quite happen for him there to say the least. Anyway, back in Belgrade, once again the players were hurdling over the advertising boards to celebrate with the fans.

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Match action.

With 5 minutes left, we headed back up to the top of the North Stand to watch out the final few exchanges, before the final whistle blew and the players came over to perform the usual jovial player/fan post-win celebrations.

Full-time: Red Star 3 – 0 Čukarički.

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The players celebrate with the Delije.

After squeezing out one of the only exits of the North Stand, we poured out onto the street, where it was still pouring down. After so long of enduring a heatwave having spent the past week in Budapest and Belgrade, I decided that I was going to walk back to the centre and enjoy the rain, even as thunder and lightning still loomed above. I agreed to meet Sava later and undertook the trek back to…well…

I was back in Samo Pivo – again. Rhys had to drop off his company car near there and with his game in Subotica finishing at 8pm, when Red Star kicked off, we realised that this would be the easiest place to meet. I had been in there a matter of minutes before 11pm when he arrived back. Of course, I instantly labelled him Grobari scum, before we told each other about the games we had attended. Rhys then said that I hadn’t really been to Belgrade unless I visited Magic Garden and incidentally that was where we met back up with Sava and his friends.

Magic Garden was my sort of place with it hidden away inside some sort of crumbling old arcade, which then leads into a narrow, dingy bar that looks like it’s straight out of the 70s, although with a few gauche touches to make it slightly more hipster-y. Like me, Sava labelled Rhys scum before things turned to more general football chat. I was a huge fan of Magic Garden, but with an early train back to my Slovak home in the morning, I had to resist staying late and so we headed back to Rhys’ flat to end my final day in Belgrade.

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The way to the bar was through this decrepit hallway covered in grafitti. Can only be a classy bar on the other side of this…

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With my fellow countryman and my host in Belgrade for the day I was there, Rhys. He’s alright for Partizan scum. (And I had hardly drunk all day, so the weird face is not a drunken face).

I’d been so excited to visit Red Star and it lived up to expectations – even though it was one of the least interesting fixtures to pick. The stadium is a thing of imperious beauty and is different to a lot of the big European bowl stadiums I’ve been to so far. However, undoubtedly my highlight was being there in the North Stand as fans belted out their chants and waved their flags in a show of passion, as the storm fizzled and thundered overhead in the rain. It’s an image that will stay for me for a long time.

The Eternal Derby is fast approaching at the Marakana, and I think a return visit may be needed in the near future to experience the ultimate Crvena Zvezda experience.

Highlights: more Samo Pivo, ground fairly easy to get to, cheap tickets, stadium awesome inside, easy Red Star win, Sava as guide, the experience in the North Stand, the rain after the heatwave!

Low Points: not best fixture choice for crowd size.

See all my photos from Red Star Belgrade and the Marakana here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Lost in…Belgrade (Red Star Belgrade)

  1. Another good read …..takes me back to the only way is Serbia phase. Try an Eternal derby … but remember football is never quite the same afterwards (unless you can afford a plane ticket to Argentina). Cheers.

  2. Pingback: Lost in…Rača | Lost Boyos

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