Having attended the Belgrade derby at Red Star’s stadium last season I was keen to see the reverse fixture at the Stadion Partizan, known as the JNA Stadium until 1989. Partizan then bought the arena from the army, their long term benefactor. The background to the 146th “Eternal Derby” was an interesting one. In the table Red Star had taken a six point lead with five rounds left when Partizan unexpectedly lost to Napredak in the midweek round of games. A defeat in the derby would leave them nine points adrift with just 12 points left available, Zvezda would surely be crowned champions of Serbia.
Partizan have won the Serbian League for the past six seasons, last season’s title was won at a canter, by a margin of eleven points from their cross city rivals. However, they have not had everything their own way this season with the January arrest of club president Dragan Đurić who now faces indictment for corruption. Unrest has been rife with Partizan arguing that penalties are being awarded against them for no reason. Red Star claim that for once the playing field is level. The red and whites though have their own issues, mounting debts may prevent them from playing in Europe next season unless money can be raised.
The stadium is busy when we arrive and try and locate our entrance vomitory, we pass a mass of Zvezda fans who appear to be prevented from entering the ground. It transpires police and officials had been trying to remove a flammable paint that the Grobari had painted on the fences at the Red Star end in an attempt to make the visitors inadvertently set fire to their own flags. The ruse failed but tempers flared as the delays continued and there was a brief scuffle between the Delije and the riot police.
Once inside it was someone strange that security allowed rival fans to swap sections unchallenged although there was no real aggression just mounting tension and excitement. The game kicked off in daylight and it was interesting to hear that the Grobari, for today’s encounter, had seen the warring factions of Alcatraz and the Zabrenjeni agreeing to lay their differences aside for 90 minutes in pursuit of the greater good of their club. Their noise and synchronised bouncing was truly deafening. Red Star, more renowned for their visual tifos, produced thousands of red and white balloons surrounding a huge, and I mean huge, flag of a tank with a Zvezda flag atop of it. The tank picture was an abiding memory of the Balkan War as the JNA (the Yugoslav People’s Army) rumbled into the devastated Croatian town of Vukovar in the early days of that most shocking of recent human tragedies. The Delije’s message to their rivals was simple, it implied that the Grobari were “Ustaše” (the Croatian Nazi Movement). Politics aside it was a top notch display. It was also the first time I have ever seen a drone flying across a stadium to monitor the crowd.
The first half was truly dramatic, 23 minutes in Zvezda were awarded a penalty but Ninković’s tame shot was easily saved by Lukač in the Partizan goal. Barely had the excitement died down when the home side took the lead with a sensational free kick from Nikola Drinčić. The Grobari went into overdrive, some of their number scaling the huge electronic scoreboard equipped with giant flags, arranging themselves in some sort of semaphore insult to the visitors. Incredibly Zvezda were then awarded a second penalty, and opting to change their kicker, Nikola Mijailović was entrusted with levelling the game. To their utter astonishment Lukač saved again to preserve the slender lead.
Darkness enveloped the stadium at halftime and to rally their team Zvezda launched into a dramatic pyrotechnic display, flares, flames and red and white smoke engulfed the away end and the neighbouring Church of Saint Sava. It was a mightily impressive display. It seemed to galvanise the visitors and ten minutes into the second half they pulled level. Dragan Mrđa, often the playmaker in the open period, finished coolly after jinking through a sleeping Partizan defence. This was a cue for further flares, one of which struck their own player, Darko Brašanac, singeing a hole in the back of his shirt.
The remainder of the second half was a tense affair, Zvezda seemingly happy with a point that would take them seven points clear, and Partizan looking defeated and short of ideas. Step forward substitute Nemanja Kojić. As the clock struck the 90th minute Mrđa had clumsily lost possession and Vulićević put in a decent cross more in hope than expectation. Kojić superbly controlled the ball to slot home into the corner of the Red Star net. A pitch invasion ensued and the stadium erupted with a mixture of relief and joy for the black and white of Partizan.
So there it was, another thrilling encounter illuminated by two of the best sets of ultras in world football. Serbia is a great country with a population working hard to fix its image problem. This is classic footballing encounter, you must try and go at least once in your lifetime.
Saturday April 26th 2014 – Jelen Super Liga
FK Partizan (1) 2 (Drinčić 27, Kojić 90)
FK Crvena Zvezda (0) 1 (Mrđa 56)
Att: 30,000 (at Stadion Partizan)
25. Milan Lukač , 15. Branislav Trajković , 3. Vladimir Volkov, 4. Miroslav Vulićević , 6. Vojislav Stanković , 20. Nikola Drinčić , 17. Andrija Živković , 11. Nikola Ninković , 8. Darko Brašanac , 27. Danko Lazović , 32. Petar Škuletić .
Subs: 1. Živko Živković , 7. Predrag Luka (for 17,65 mins), 9. Nemanja Kojić (for 27,71 mins), 21. Saša Marković , 26. Milan Obradović , 29. Filip Malbašić (for 11,67 mins), 55. Danilo Pantić .
1. Boban Bajković , 5. Nikola Mijailović , 14. Savo Pavićević , 44. Dejan Kelhar, 33. Milos Ninković , 10. Nenad Milijaš (c), 11. Nejc Pečnik, 8. Darko Lazović , 26. Goran Gogić, 55. Aleksandar Kovačević, 84. Dragan Mrđa.
Subs: 2. Marko Petković (for 8,69 mins), 6. Jovan Krneta, 7. Đorđe Rakić (for 27,71 mins), 17. Filip Kasalica (for 33,88 mins), 28. Vukan Savićević, 35. Predrag Rajković, 39. Ifeanyi Onyilo.
Missed Penalties: Ninković 23 mins, Mijailović 34 mins (both Zvezda)
Yellow Cards: Trajković, Stanković, Brašanac, Lazović (all Partizan), Mijailović, Kelhar, Milijaš (all Zvezda)