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The Eternal Derby

Updated: Dec 8, 2022



Hell itself opens up, spitting smoke and flame, and bellows a deafening roar. With the referee's whistle, the south tribune becomes a wall of fire and noise, a display of love for Partizan in the face of their bitterest rivals, Red Star.

The Eternal Derby, as meetings between Belgrade's - and Serbia's - big two teams is known, is no ordinary local rivalry. Its history is littered with violence and death, with what happens on the pitch often secondary to the clashes between two of the world's most notorious fanbases.

 

'Some people bring their kids to the derby, and I'm just like, “Are you fucking crazy?”' There are 48 hours until kick off and I'm being shown around Partizan's peaceful, empty stadium by a worker called Nened. He takes a long pull on his cigarette and looks out across the baize-like green of the pitch, eyes roaming the deserted stands. His work is in design and marketing not just the club but also for their widely-feared ultras on the south tribune, the Grobari. He's one of a number of people trying to improve the image of Partizan, but the job is a big one.



Partizan is a club very much at war with itself. The Grobari – which translates as Gravediggers – are in a seemingly endless dispute with the club's directors, who I'm told employ a very laissez-faire distinction between what is the club's money and their own. Red Star have won the last six league titles, and directors who keep selling the best players without reinvesting are seen as very much to blame. Such a run without a title is a stinging humiliation to Partizan, especially going in to a derby already 7 points behind their unbeaten rivals.


The sale of players and a very healthy youth academy are a major source of income for the club, but a lack of business sense means opportunities are missed. It is common for selling clubs to put in clauses to ensure they get a cut from future transfer fees further down the line, but when Fiorentina recently sold graduate Dusan Vlahovic to Juventus for £75 million, Partizan received nothing.


 

What you need to know

 

But even within the Grobari, there are long running feuds. Like all aspects of modern football, being an ultra has become a commodity. Grobari merchandise is sold and the fan groups take in the cash. Certain factions weren't happy when this began and left the south tribune, moving to the east stand in protest at fans making money off the name of the club without giving back. The factions remaining on the south tribune fight amongst themselves for control of the stand and the merchandise. One group had control for a number of years, but when their bus was attacked by Red Star supporters - themselves known as Delije - their flag was stolen and their reputation took a fatal hit.


Another group - the Principi - had been in control until about a year ago, running things like a mini mafia and taking all profits for themselves. Some Delije had interfered with business and their bodies ended up in a meat grinder, such is the nature of things at the most extreme end of this particular world. This, however, was a step too far and the leaders were imprisoned, leaving another power vacuum. The current leading faction are much less business minded, giving half their profits to Partizan supporters in prison – buying food, supplies etc – and the other half goes back onto the stand, funding displays during matches.


Standing on the empty south tribune, a fierce Balkan sun beating down, the ghosts of the past linger. Seats are melted from flares that have been thrown and burnt out, a metal fence runs across the bottom of the stand to pen people in. Nened points out the graffiti of different factions, explaining who they are and what they believe. They each have their own stories represented on these walls, along with plenty more outside. The Shadows faction have even claimed a wall in the affluent downtown restaurant district. 'These ones love to fight, of course,' he says, pointing to another faction's name on a south tribune wall. 'But they believe in doing it in a healthy way - no guns or knives.'


The whole stadium is a little tired, having been minimally updated since it was built in the aftermath of the Second World War. The floodlights have bits hanging off and look like they could collapse at any moment. 'We used to have a restaurant here selling food to people every day,' Nened explains ruefully as we walk around the outside. 'But when the Principi started grinding people up they kind of took on the kitchen as a base of operations, so it's been shut down for now.' He allows himself a dark smile at the bleakness of the situation.


This is a club in need of a lift. The derby against rivals who can't stop winning brings both hope and fear.



 

'This my souvenir from last time Partizan played in London,' booms the owner of my hostel when he learns I'm going to the match, his eyes suddenly alive with passion. A heavy, meaty hand reaches across his desk and thick fingers wrap around a coaster. He holds it up to me – New Scotland Yard is written around the edge with the Metropolitan Police's logo in the middle. 'They arrested us for I don't know what, then they let us go again. But I managed to steal this from them.' He's delighted I'm going to the game.


It's been a blisteringly hot late August day in Belgrade. A burning heat; the kind of heat that puts people on edge. As evening draws in, I take an old trolleybus from the city centre up towards Stadion Partizan. It rattles and clunks through town, a throwback to Belgrade's Soviet past. As we get close, traffic slows. The road up ahead is full of blue flashing lights. Police are standing at the side in full riot armour, shields in hand. They're everywhere. As we crawl by, one officer gives orders to his group and sends them off into the park around the memorial to former Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito, where they move between the trees like hunting dogs. The police are the biggest enemy of all among ultras, and this lot have come ready for whatever comes their way.


Suddenly a handful of black vans drive off, blaring sirens and flashing their lights. Something is happening. We get off the bus and head towards the stadium, with police lining every road and path, questioning everyone who looks even the slightest suspicious. I turn down towards a housing block, hiding some loose items from my bag in a nearby bush because I know they'll be confiscated in the bag search. When I try to return to the road I'm told to wait for five minutes. A firecracker explodes somewhere in the distance, some chanting rises up. Now I see what got the police excited. The Delije are coming.



Through the trees I see their silhouettes, marching as one down the road, sheathed in pyro smoke. Their songs get louder, revelling in being watched, in toying with this police attention. Someone lights a red flare. The police herd them to where they need to be.


There is still well over an hour until kick off but it's busy outside the ground. For the average league game, Partizan will get only around three thousand supporters. Tonight should be ten times that. I find my gate and ready myself for the bag search, knowing I might be pushing my luck with it. I have been warned by multiple people about this – the police will take anything that might be thrown. Coins, lighters, even Air Pods will all be taken. There is an elderly steward in a bright yellow vest. He peers in my bag and asks about my camera, then looks at me with pitiful eyes. He seems almost disappointed with himself when he gives an apologetic smile and says no.


I have a technique for this, however; these times when I've stumbled myself into the wrong - I put on my most innocent smile and act the dumb tourist. I mime taking photos, explaining the harmlessness, so he asks a colleague, who then asks a policeman whose expression says he absolutely does not have time for all this. After some discussion, I'm allowed in.

There are already thousands inside, making noise. The loudspeakers play rock songs that are all about Partizan. The Delije are also filling their section, going through their songs. As the players return to the dressing rooms after the warm ups, firecrackers are thrown from the east stand at the Red Star players, exploding loudly at their feet. The players jump and jog into the tunnel, but no one else gives it a second thought.



Both sets of fans have choreography displays to greet the teams as they re-emerge, but as the game kicks off the Grobari put on their real show. Countless flares are lit all over the south tribune, engulfing the entire stand in fire and smoke.


They then begin raining down on the police and stewards assembled on the running track below. The noise reaches whole new levels, and both sets fans put everything into their songs without pausing.



A flare lands on the pitch at a Red Star corner. A fireman runs on to collect it and no one thinks any more about it. Seven minutes into the game an ambulance drives round the pitch to treat someone in the south tribune. The singing doesn't even skip a beat.


Partizan struggle. This summer they have sold 14 players, replacing them largely with academy graduates. Any quality comes from Red Star and when a corner is cleared it's volleyed back goalwards, hitting the post and going in.


Away to my left, it takes the Delije a few moments to realise they've scored, so caught up are they in their singing, but suddenly the north stand is consumed by its own pyro show. Red Star take their lead into half time, at which point the family group sitting around me insist on buying me a beer. Not quite the threatening surroundings I'd thought I'd find myself in. As the players come back out, a row of children leaning on the railings, no older than around ten, all stick their middle fingers up at them.



The football is decent without being great, but that's not really why you come to see this game. Partizan grow into the match and, after a lengthy VAR decision, are awarded a penalty. It's scored to make it 1-1, and the flares from the south tribune fill the stadium until no one can see anything at all and kick off has to be delayed. If anything, Partizan should win it in the remaining minutes, but they play out a 1-1 draw, Red Star's first dropped points of the season.



I make it out of the ground and onto a trolleybus without having seen any trouble at all. It would be easy to wonder if all the fuss is somewhat overblown, but the stories of guns and knives are all too real. I remembered Nened telling me he does not think this will ever be a truly safe match, despite efforts to change things. Why is that? I asked him.

'It's just how Serbian people are. How they think, how they act.'


The Eternal Derby might have its risks, but it's an essential experience.




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