March 20, 2020
The Belgrade Derby between Red Star and Partizan is famous for producing one of football’s legendary atmospheres, with the noise and pyro from the stands often outdoing the spectacle played out on the pitch. It’s a fixture I have always wanted to see for myself, and I was lucky enough to get the chance to do so with Homefans in February.
As an English football fan, we have seen money pour into the English game in the decades since the advent of the Premier League, but while this has brought global superstars and a world-class standard of football on the pitch, off it, atmospheres have arguably suffered as ticket prices rise and stadiums become more family-friendly and sanitized. As a Burnley fan, I have seen us progress from playing at earthy, lower-league English grounds as a child, to Anfield, Old Trafford and the Emirates in recent years, and while the football has been great, I sometimes miss that old-school, edgy atmosphere that’s hard to find these days.
The Belgrade derby provides this in spades, with old stadiums full of character and life, populated by fans who support their teams with fervour, noise, and passion, and hate their rivals just as much! Both clubs have seen their continental influence wane somewhat since the days when both Red Star and Partizan were reaching European finals, but the city still stands still when the famous old rivals lock horns.
Friday- the first day
I arrived with a group of fellow travellers early on Friday, giving us the rest of the day to get our bearings and explore the city. Our guides Ivan and Andrija were full of local knowledge and recommendations, so we found our feet and tried out a few of the local tourist hotspots (and bars!), seeing Red Star and Partizan scarves, shirts and graffiti around every corner. After a long day of sightseeing and walking, we spent the evening in a bar with our guides and fellow travellers, getting to know each other and talking about football into the early hours. The reputation this fixture has was obvious, as people had travelled from as far away as England, Portugal, the Netherlands and even Russia to be there!
Saturday – the second day
Saturday started with a bang as we toured the magnificent old grounds of Red Star and Partizan. Starting at Red Star we got an informative tour of the impressive trophy room and intimidating tunnel from Red Star’s club historian, before posing for pictures with the tank located just outside the stadium (of course!). No guides were needed at Partizan as Ivan and Andrija talked us through the history and tradition of their club, allowing us to take to the hallowed turf for photos before seeing the impressive murals on the walls outside.
We spent the day touring some of the historical sights of Belgrade, including Tito’s burial site and the old fortress on the banks of the river, before settling down for a traditional Serbian dinner with our fellow travellers. The food was great and the setting atmospheric and we enjoyed a great meal before setting out for a night on the town. When the beer is so cheap and so plentiful, how can you say no…
Sunday – Derby Day
The build-up to the derby started with some food and a few beers at a lovely little bar by the hotel, as anticipation set in for the evening in store. The streets were eerily quiet as we drove to the stadium, but upon disembarking, there was a real crackle in the air, and you could feel the atmosphere thicken with every step you took towards the Rajko Mitic Stadium. Once inside, it was like nothing I’d ever experienced- even an hour before kick-off, flares and fireworks were going off and the atmosphere was raucous. Ivan and Andrija had explained the tensions and in-fighting between sections of the Partizan support, which helped to explain why chairs started flying between two sets of away fans before the game had even started!
As the teams came out the Red Star fans unveiled their tifo and then the fireworks, pyro, and flares started in earnest from both sets of ultras, alongside non-stop singing and chanting. The game even had to be stopped minutes into the second half as hundreds of flares rained down from the away end, with players hardly able to see each other in the smoke which subsequently wafted over the pitch. The game itself was stop-start and ended in a frustrating 0-0, but you didn’t have to look far for entertainment- the action in the stands was relentless and awe-inspiring- it has to be seen to be believed.
A couple more beers were enjoyed around the hotel as we came to terms with what we had just witnessed. One of the great things about going on the trip with such a diverse group of fans was being able to share our experiences and how things compared to the football we all watched back at home – I don’t think any of us had seen anything quite like that! What an atmosphere and a fitting end to a great trip to a great city. Already planning our trip back for the reverse fixture…
Written by Tom Whittaker