So the Lav is slipping down a treat in the Three Carrots in Knesa Milosa when Nenad, an affable Red Star fanatic, hands me my ticket for the derby match tonight, “Don’t worry it’s free” he says when I look to pay him. “How’s it free I ask?”, “Ah, tickets they appear like magic here”. Soon we pile onto a bus downtown and within minutes we are at the Stadion Crvena Zvezda, an hour before the 7pm kick off and it’s loud already inside and out. There is, of course, a heavy police presence but I see no trouble and do not feel intimidated in the slightest, everybody is just excited.
Everything is in place for a night to remember, giant old school eastern-bloc floodlights loom over the proceedings and the atmosphere builds. The Delije (“Heroes”) are gathered in vast numbers in the north stand and their bitter rivals the Grobari (“Gravediggers”) are at the other end. The south stand has been shorn of its seats so the visitors cannot throw them onto the pitch. What is noticeable is that there are two sectors of the Partizan fans, the bulk of the Grobari are under the electronic scoreboard but to their right and separated by an empty sector and lines of riot police and stewards are a smaller section, the Zabranjeni (The Forbidden), a group of outcast Grobari excommunicated in 2011 for the treacherous crime of accusing the Grobari hierarchy of turning police informant and of stealing money earmarked for tifo displays.
The players emerge from the underground tunnel and this acts as the cue for the Delije to start their spectacular tifo display. Flares so numerous the entire end appears at times to be on fire and beautiful, powerful fireworks are propelled into the night sky from launchers at the front of the stand. Soon however Red Star fall behind, they cannot lose this, a defeat will see them fall eleven points behind Partizan. It’s the Grobari’s turn to get the pyrotechnics going, though they seem more intent on exchanging flares with the Zabranjeni. The home side level with a superb volley, only to fall behind to a comedic own goal moments later. Jesus, 17 minutes gone and you can barely take it all in.
Red Star level the encounter just after the break and when the match looks like a stalemate, the home skipper knocks in the winner. The stadium literally erupts and the noise levels increase further still. The Delije rub salt into the Partizan wounds by unveiling a Grobari banner which they had previously stolen and taunting their rivals by singing “This is yours, come and take it back”. The match ends and it is notable that the Delije and the Grobari are let out at the same time, the Zabranjeni, however, remain locked in their sector at least an hour after the final whistle.
So that was the 143rd edition of the “Eternal Derby”. What was notable from this epic clash was sensible refereeing, no booking players for celebrating with their fans. Also the security and policing was heavy, but low key and effective. Of course, more than anything, the colour and the noise will live with me always. For Belgrade, Red Star and Partizan, do a derby match as well as anyone in the world, unbridled passion, noise and above all fun. Just like football was always supposed to be.
(A version of this article also appears in the third edition of the outstanding magazine Stand AMF. For great football writing and photos, please visit http://www.standamf.com)
FK Crvena Zvezda (1)3 (Kasalica 14, Milivojevic 49, Milijas 74) FK Partizan (2)2 (Mitrovic 9, Jovanovic o.g. 16)
1.Bojan Bajkovic; 15.Milan Jovanovic; 14. Nikola Mikic; 25. Filip Mladenovic; 5. Uros Spajic; 10. Nenad Milijas (c); 8.Darko Lazovic; 19.Luka Milivojevic; 4.Srdan Mijailovic; 17.Filip Kasalica; 91.Ognjen Mudrinski.
Subs: 29.Marko Vesovic (for 14,46 mins); 16.Luka Milunovic (for 8,68 mins); 7.Milos Dimitrijevic (for 10,85 mins).
30.Nikola Petrovic; 18. Aleksandar Lazevski; 2.Aleksandar Miljkovic; 15.Ivan Ivanov; 40.Milos Ostojic; 22.Sasa Ilic (c); 99.Milan Smiljanic; 7.Nemanja Tomic; 21.Sasa Markovic; 50.Lazar Markovic; 45.Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Subs: 39.Milos Jojic (for 7,65 mins); Stefan Scepovic (for 22,80 mins), Nikola Ninkovic (for 50;85 mins).
Yellow cards: Mladenovic, Milivojevic, Mijailovic, Kasalica (Crvena Zvezda); Smiljanic, L.Markovic, Mitrovic (Partizan).
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