On derby day in Belgrade, violence overshadows events on the pitch

In the latest edition of ESPN FC's derbies series, which features eyewitness insights into some of the biggest rivalries in world football, Andy Mitten goes to Serbia to experience the Belgrade derby between Red Star and Partizan.

BELGRADE, Serbia -- Five minutes before kickoff in the Belgrade derby, a shaven-headed Partizan hooligan, his face obscured, rushes forward. Dressed in black, he's slight and holding a lighted flare in his right hand. Charging at speed from the opposite direction is an older, heavier man, also with a shaven head and wearing a black T-shirt with a "Red Devils" logo. As they run into each other, the younger man smashes the burning flare onto the head of his elder. Preoccupied with connecting a right hook into the jawline of his foe, he barely notices the sparks bouncing off his scorched pate. The pair fall between faded plastic seats onto concrete terracing, while punches, kicks and missiles envelop a section of seating before FK Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) play Partizan.

The pair are not alone, fighting in the bright light of an unseasonably warm spring afternoon as the sun dips behind the curved main stand of Red Star's Marakana stadium. The hostilities started in the east stand, a section supposedly for 5,000 home supporters. To their left, 8,000 visiting Partizan fans have filled their section behind the south goal, with the plastic seats removed to prevent them from being hurled as missiles or set alight.

At the same time as fighting continues in other sections of the stadium, other Partizan fans stand as one on concrete steps, the entire end singing and clapping loudly in unison, their bare arms directed left or right by the beat of a single drum near the front.

"Look at them, it's art what they're doing," comments Shaun Duffy on the choreographed support. Formerly a home and away Liverpool fan, Duffy became a regular at the Belgrade derby after falling out of love with the commercialism and sanitised stadiums of England's Premier League. "It's raw, how football fans should be. They're knackered by the end of the game," he says of the singing fans.

"The Belgrade derby is unique because you have so many away supporters, over 10,000," explains Arena TV commentator Milos Milicevic. "That brings even more passion. This is the Balkans and, like in Argentina, we have to sing."

Duffy is enthralled by the noise and colour that makes the Belgrade derby one of the most passionate in the world. It's an occasion when there's often more entertainment in the stands than on the pitch, but the fervour has a darker side and violence is common.

For now, the unrest is contained in one section of the east stand. Behind the north goal, the hardcore fans of Red Star's main Delije supporters' group have the luxury of seats, though none of the 12,000 fans are sitting down behind a 100-metre-long flag that reads "Conquor Partizan with the Marakana spirit." They sing, they set fire to Partizan shirts and they let off flares which are then thrown over the dry moat and high steel fences onto the running track that surrounds the pitch. There, they're extinguished by some of the 36 firemen on duty inside the stadium.

Beneath the bouncing stand, the rival teams are limbering up in the tunnel between the dressing rooms and its exit above ground in front of the north stand.

"We'd look at the Partizan players in the tunnel and ask them how scared they were," says Dragan Mladenovic, a former Red Star and Serbia player who also played in derbies for Rangers in Scotland and Real Sociedad in Spain. "They'd laugh at us and pretend they were OK. Then we'd see the colour drain from their faces as they walked from the tunnel into the dragon's lair in front of our fans. They'd run quickly toward their own."

At least Partizan players knew what was waiting.

"Lazio and Roma players froze when they came to play us," says Mladenovic. "They thought they'd heard noise in Rome but it was nothing compared to the Marakana, where every single person sings and the acoustics are perfect because it's in a hole. Then they looked around to see a giant flag of Asterix and Obelix beating the Romans -- the ultra leaders are very imaginative."

THE MARAKANA STADIUM, which was officially renamed after Red Star legend Rajko Mitic last year, is the largest in all the countries of the former Yugoslavia, but from the outside it looks unimpressive. Sunk into a natural dip in a hillside in the leafy Topcider residential district of Belgrade, the ground, which once had a capacity of 97,502, now seats half that. Its concrete exterior is ageing and covered in graffiti, much of it Anglicised. It's intimidating and incongruous amid the woodland and embassies of one of the Serbian capital's best addresses.

The design of a single continuous tier, with a small concrete lip acting as a roof to keep the rain out and the noise in, amplifies sound. As kickoff approaches, the din is so loud and the fans so raucous that it's easy to forget the players are out on the pitch. Even they begin to watch the stands, and what happens next will make headlines across the world.

A group of around 200 men dressed in black enter the back of the east stand closest to the Partizan end and become noticeable when they run down the 30 rows of seating toward the pitch. Next, they turn and sprint alongside the adjacent running track towards Red Star's north end. From there, another group of fans are also sprinting towards them. A roar goes up around the bowl as the two groups of men clash. Two of them are the rival fans described earlier.

Before long Red Star fans scramble over a fence in the north stand to bolster the numbers of fighters as other supporters, who have come to watch a game of football rather than adults stamp on each other's heads, back off. Police with riot shields on one arm and batons on the other dodge flares and stun grenades as they try to break up the fighting.

The trouble doesn't relent, but the patterns shift with fighters switching direction like a flock of birds on a midsummer's night. The Partizan fans return to what has become another unofficial section and, like the rest of the 43,000 crowd, watch a new battle in the north stand between Red Star fans and riot police, who are attacked with seats and more blazing flares as they charge forward and then retreat up the terracing. The police bring in hundreds of reinforcements but their very presence on a terrace the fans consider to be their own causes grave offence.

With a backdrop of the sun setting on Belgrade's low hills, big rivers and the gleaming white Orthodox church, the violence delays the match for 45 minutes. Fans appear to be crushed and trampled and there appear to be numerous injuries. A police helicopter is impotent in the face of such visceral aggression, where the dominant sound is the smack of plastic seat hitting riot shield. A white, dove-like bird crosses the stadium alone, but there's no peace here and it flies away from the chaos.

Finally, like a fire, the trouble starts to burn itself out. There appears to be communication between ultra leaders and police and a demarcation line is drawn. The game begins.

I ARRIVED IN Belgrade 24 hours earlier and set up interviews, both on and off the record. Serbian hospitality is excellent and the hosts' passion for football is evident.

Ranko Djordic played for Red Star and Yugoslavia in the 1980s. When he was a child, Yugoslavia reached two European championship finals, won Olympic gold and made the semifinals of the 1962 World Cup. As a prodigious talent, he had a chance to go to Red Star or Partizan.

"I chose Red Star because the president visited my house and my mother liked him and trusted him," he says. Partizan, though, were undeterred.

"I was staying in a hotel in Belgrade ahead of a Yugoslavia B trip to China when a Partizan official approached me," recalls Djordic. "He said, 'Do you just have 10 minutes to talk with me?' He took me to a room in a hotel where, sat around the table, were 10 high-ranking military officials. Partizan were the team of the army (their stadium was called the Yugoslavia People's Army Stadium), I knew that. Like Red Star they'd been formed after the Second World War. And Partizan had a contract there for me. All I had to do was sign. I was very afraid but I said, 'Let me go to China first and then I'll meet you again after the trip'. The military was very strong, but when I told the Red Star people they didn't let me out of their sight on my return. They met me back from the plane in China and I signed for them. I considered Red Star to be the bohemian club of the people. I was always paid my wages in cash.

"This whole area is talent rich," says Djordic of present-day Serbia. "Balkan kids love sport and they're good at it, especially collective sport including basketball and handball. You don't need a cell phone here to entertain yourself. The ingredients are there for great teams. We produce the perfect mushrooms for the best dish, but if the mushrooms are wrenched out of the ground before they've got time to grow properly, they're not the same."

Djordic, whose son Bojan also played for Red Star and Serbia as well as Manchester United and Rangers, is referring to the football talent poached from the Balkans by richer nations.

"It's tragic," he says. "Kids aren't leaving at 21, but 16. And we're not just losing our best talents to England or Spain, but smaller countries. The football has suffered a lot here."

It's a theme which runs throughout conversations in four days spent in Serbia.

"We are fighters here," adds Mladenovic, "We don't have much money so the kids have to fight for everything. That helps make good players. But when they develop, the agents also know that the clubs need money and cannot afford for the best kids to develop, not even for one more year, when they might get three times the price. So young players leave as semi-finished products. It's sad. They go to Italy, Greece, Holland and Belgium.

In recent years, Partizan's youth system has been a rich source of young talent. In 2013, 19-year-old Lazar Markovic and Aleksandar Mitrovic, 18, left for Benfica and Anderlecht respectively. Manchester City's Stevan Jovetic, as well as Matija Nastasic (Schalke 04), Adem Llajic (Roma), Stefan Savic (Fiorentina) and Zoran Tosic (CSKA Moscow) were all at Partizan as youngsters.

"Before the [1991-2001 Yugoslav Wars], there was money to keep the players as more individuals put money into the clubs, plus they had to be 27 years old before they could leave," Mladenovic continues. "That has changed, but you only need to see how it can be done in Croatia, where Dinamo Zagreb hold onto their players for longer and sell the best ones for €5-10 million."

"Whatever happens, you cannot kill the love for football here," adds Djordic. "Even in the wars -- and there have been many wars in this region -- the people never stopped playing football."

War and politics have shaped Serbian society and football.

"From a football perspective, I'm sad that the former Yugoslavia isn't together," says Djordic. "We'd have a better football league than Italy, a league which could have been the fourth-best in Europe. We have great clubs like Dinamo Zagreb, Red Star, Partizan, Hadjuk Split and the Sarajevo clubs -- I played in these games and there were 30,000 there. Now there's 300 or 3,000 at games in the top leagues of these countries."

Average attendances in the Serbian Superliga are 3,000 this season, the same as England's fourth tier. Red Star average 15,000, Partizan half that. Just 600 fans were at a first division derby between RAD Belgrade and OFK Belgrade the day after Red Star vs. Partizan. The success of English football means that two television stations show numerous Premier League games at the same time that national league games are being played.

"The way to save Serbian football is an Adriatic league, like we effectively used to have and like they have in basketball," says Djordic. "But football is hotter than basketball, the fans would need to behave. Political changes, war, economic problems and corruption have all led to the current problems. Now the league is eighth or ninth in Europe." (Serbia currently ranks 27th in UEFA's coefficient, a rank that is based on the success of clubs in European competition.

Gordan Petric played on the other side of the rivalry for Partizan and was also part of arguably football's greatest ever age-group team, the 1987 FIFA World Youth Championship-winning Yugoslavia side which included Robert Prosinecki, Robert Jarni, Zavonimir Boban, Davor Sukor, Igor Stimac and Predrag Mijatovic. Now a coach, he agrees that things would be better if Serbian clubs competed in a geographically broader competition.

"I played in Belgrade when the league covered Yugoslavia and it was a far more aggressive league than now with big rivals. I'd like to see a return to that," explains Petric. "The Red Star vs. Partizan game was as big a derby as the Rangers vs. Celtic one but without the religion, but the league is struggling here and there are parallels with Scotland. We produce players but they leave before they're ready. We must have an Adriatic League, it's better for football if we do."

IT'S THE MORNING of the game in sunny Belgrade, a city with a population of 1.58 million that you sense was a better place to be 20 years ago before the war, the NATO bombs of 1999 and economic sanctions. Being in Belgrade today is like being in 1990.

By a main shopping street, the Majestic Hotel is full of football fans. The hotel was one of the city's grandest in in the 1950s and Manchester United used it as their base for a 1958 European Cup match that was played at Partizan's JNA stadium because the Marakana did not have floodlights. Having won the tie 5-4 on aggregate, United's players celebrated reaching the semifinals by attending an official banquet with their Red Star counterparts. The next day, the plane carrying the English club crashed at Munich airport and eight players were among 23 people killed.

On the day of the game, fans in the hotel from Russia and Belarus, Greece and England, look at the memorabilia among the faded grandeur. The Belgrade derby is on the radar for many fans from outside Serbia and, for example, both teams have links with Greeks clubs; Partizan with PAOK Salonika and Red Star with Olympiakos.

This morning, buses carrying both sets of fans are heading to Belgrade from all over Serbia, as well as neighbouring countries of the former Yugoslavia and further afield. Flights will arrive from Moscow and the ultras have their plans. Duffy has many friends among the Partizan fans known as the Grobari -- Grave Diggers; Red Star call themselves Gypsies -- but despite being trusted, he's told only that he'll be picked and taken to a secret location, from where the group will move somewhere else. The aim is to avoid the police.

"We were driven to a park about five miles out of the city," he explains. "It was surrounded by high rise flats covered in graffiti. There was a lookout making sure the police didn't see us. Everyone was wearing black t-shirts and shorts. It's all quite sinister."

Under a commander, Duffy and his mates were ordered into different cars and a convoy went to a second location, which only the lead motorbike knew.

"We got to a volleyball court where 300 of us converged," he explained. "We were drinking beer and schnapps, singing Grobari songs getting in the mood for the game. We were waiting for the PAOK and Moscow contingents, but not all of them made it past the border."

The police found out about the Partizan meet a mile from the stadium, but it was the fans and not the authorities who decided what to do next. A call went out from a leader and instructions were given to form a corteo, a tight formation where everyone walks together in almost military precision. They were in turn corralled by police.

"We walked for a mile toward the ground with a leader at the front with a megaphone," explains Duffy. "Insults were hurled at the police until close to the stadium they reacted. There was a charge at the police and fights broke out. Home fans were kept well away from Partizan.'

I have watched football in 70 countries and written a book on derbies around the world but never have I seen so many police around one game. Ajax vs. Feyenoord held the title previously but Belgrade is on another level of security altogether.

KICKOFF IS THREE hours away and the atmosphere is edgy. Police units, standing in clusters of 12 or 15, don't smile in the warm sun. They approach individuals rather than groups and anyone standing around is ushered into the stadium.

Ultras are the most loyal and passionate fans, the ones who travel home and away making the most noise in support of their team. They also boast significant power at clubs.

"They have a huge influence," says one long-time observer of Serbian football. "They don't make decisions directly but management are afraid of them. If they get a whole stand to sing for someone to resign, then that person usually resigns."

In the away end, the Partizan fans take up their positions -- they know exactly where they'll be standing year after year. The drummer stands near the front while the capos -- lead singers -- will be spaced around the end. Everyone knows the drill and the whole end is choreographed.

Partizan's main groups are Grobari and Alcatraz, though there have been internal battles. Meanwhile, Red Star's Delije are split into five groups: Ultras, Ultra Boys, Heroes, Brigade and the biggest, the Belgrade Boys. They're divided on geographic grounds and mostly get on well with each other.

Both sets of fans fund their banners or flag displays -- Red Star unfurl a superb 60 by 60 metre banner of Mitic -- by selling their own merchandise. Partizan even have a shop in Belgrade city centre. Money raised is used for travel and while authorities link ultras with organised crime, there are anecdotal stories of former players having their hospital fees paid by the Ultras.

"Red Star players don't even get changed at Partizan," explains Mladenovic, who played in two spells at Red Star and is now a coach. "We used to get changed in our home stadium and then take a bus across the park to Partizan, then walk out to hear 30,000 people singing that our mothers were whores."

He loved playing in the derbies.

"Partizan had a very good team one year and held Real Madrid to a 0-0 draw in 2003," he recalls. "Their next game was against us and the NBA star Vlade Divac, a 7-feet-1-inch (2.16 m) Partizan fan, joked: "Maybe I can play for Partizan and mark (Red Star's 6-feet-8-inch striker, Nikola Zigic)!

"I was rooming with Zigic and told him, 'Tomorrow when you score you must celebrate like a basketball player'. Which is exactly what he did, by sinking an imaginary basketball.'"

"When you score in a derby you are king for a year," says Djordic, who played in his first derby in 1981 and becomes emotional when he watches video of a goal he scored vs. Partizan. Noting that the rivalry was "harder then than now", he nonetheless says he respected his opponents and had friends in their team.

THAT SENTIMENT IS not reflected in the behaviour of fans. In 1999, a teenager was killed by a rocket fired into the Red Star section by Partizan fans. Three years ago, 104 fans were arrested and images from this latest derby will go global too.

They're predominantly of the fight that delays kickoff, but also show the wonderful displays of colour from the fans. There are so many red flares in the Red Star end that it looks like it's on fire. Meanwhile, Partizan fans wait for the sky to darken before launching their own show of mainly white flares which are then thrown onto the running track in what's called a Bakleada. One almost hits the Red Star goalkeeper and there's so much billowing smoke that the game is halted for a few minutes.

"I feel bad that the world sees what they do of our derby," Mladenovic explains after the game. "They should see the good things about this game, the passion and the love the fans have for football."

Further bans hitting Serbian football teams are inevitable, both domestic and abroad.

"The ultras here have to think: 'Do we want to play in Europe with their rules?' Or do we stick with our rules and keep getting punished?'" says Mladenovic.

The Serbian government has tried to crack down, especially after a Toulouse fan died when Partizan fans attacked visiting supporters in a Belgrade street before a game in 2008. Punishments were increased, but the deterrents are not working.

"You're supposed to be jailed for six months for throwing a flare," explains one expert. "In reality you might get 48 hours in custody and then released. But what have they got to lose?"

Mladenovic is proud of his city and his country, but the headlines in the newspapers are not what he wants to see.

"War on the North East (terrace)" reads one which claims that 10 fans will be charged with criminal damage. An accompanying statement from the Interior Ministry of Serbia concludes: "Hooligan behaviour has led to slight injuries to 35 police officers. Police reacted professionally and efficiently, quelling a conflict started by fans which could have led to calling the game off and other serious consequences. Before, during and after the game, 41 individuals were arrested and police also turned back a van from (the northern city of) Zrenjanin loaded with rocks and bricks."

"If you like football, you have to see this derby, but I don't want this for my kids," Mladenovic explains. "My generation lost 10 years of our life to war, so my generation now lives their lives through their kids. Or they leave and join the Serbs in Chicago or Melbourne, Vienna or Zurich. I want a brighter future for football here, because the people love football here. Is that too much to ask?"

The score of the game? 0-0. Nobody won in a country where nobody's winning in football.