Eternal Derby – Red Star v Partizan

Of all the derby matches in Europe very few are as passionate as this one.

For a nation that was bombed twenty five years ago an aerial bombardment by land and sea may not be everybody’s cup of tea in Belgrade. The bombings in 1999 continued until an agreement was reached that eventually led to the withdrawal of the Yugoslav Army from Kosovo.

Step forward to March 2024 and a different type of bombardment is happening inside the Rajko Mitić Stadium of Red Star Belgrade.

Red Star Belgrade vs Partizan Belgrade

Rajko Mitić Stadium, ‘Marakana’ – Belgrade

Saturday 9th March 2024, 5pm KO

After each goal huge explosions go off left, right and center.

Every time an opposition player goes to take a corner a firecracker is thrown and the noise is almost as deafening as it would have been back in 1999.

Goals are met with a solid five minutes of colorful smoke bombs, firecrackers and flares.

In a previous era the on-pitch rivalry between Red Star and Partizan in the Yugoslavian Championship reflected the power struggle between the Yugoslav Interior ministry and the Ministry of Defence.

The two clubs were dominant in the Yugoslav First League alongside the Croatian giants of Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb. The Yugoslav league became extremely intense in this part of Europe for a number of non political reasons which eventually culminated in a war by 1991.

After the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1992, the Belgrade derby rivalry has further intensified branching into other sports. Basketball matches can be colourful emotive affairs.

But effectively this football rivalry is what it is because the two clubs have won all domestic national titles except one during the modern era.

Inside the Red Star Stadium the derby atmosphere is crackling – it starts with hundreds of balloons and ends with explosive firecrackers being thrown onto the field.

The Delije (‘Strong Boys’) are the hardcore of the Red Star fans – anarchic, militaristic and fiercely nationalistic but the counterparts from Partizan are little different in terms of culture and the brand of support they bring to the game.

The Grobari (‘Gravediggers’) so called because of the church and cemetery that backs onto the Partizan Stadium have proved themselves to be equally passionate at both home and abroad wherever Partizan play.

It was behind that very same church where a drone with a Kosovan flag was launched into the Partizan stadium. This action eventually ended with the Serbia v Albania international match being abandoned in October 2014.

Essentially the most important aspect of the Belgrade derby are the fans with both teams generally filled with technical talent but very few European stars. Even where tragic incident occurs – and calls to ban supporters are made by politicians – the powers at be in Serbia know that it is simply not possible to play this derby game without supporters.

Both sets of fans prepare intensely between the matches, making large flags and colorful choreographies for the 90 minutes.

With the stadia of the two clubs located less than 1 kilometer away from each other you would think trouble outside would be a regular occurrence. That said despite the proximity of the two stadiums outside the stadium the scene was one of calm and extremely friendly.

Most if not all of the chaos is left for the actual game.

Afterwards Partizan fans are kept in the stadium for anything up to 90 minutes – almost as long as the game itself.

A draw in this clash satisfies those of us who are visitors to the occasion but certainly not everyone. This chapter of the Belgrade derby was one of the most entertaining games between the two in some years being played at a searing pace with few moments left without drama.

Red Star are clear at the top of the Serbian league table, but the presence of Partizan is never far away such is the dominance of the two clubs. Recent years has seen a newer challenge from FK TSC and another Belgrade club FK Čukarički but nowhere near enough of a challenge to dislodge the top two.

There is no full-scale riot in Belgrade when these two teams play; to say or perceive this is the case is false.

The atmosphere outside before and afterwards was perfectly calm. Both sets of fans are kept apart by 1000’s of security police.

Incident, where it occurs, is kept isolated and the Belgrade authorities are far too experienced in this clash to ever allow any major disruption to occur.

For those in local businesses located around the Red Star Stadium, this game being over without much disruption is seen as a major achievement. That said the business of this derby game is always welcome such is the interest and money spent.

Red and white balloons still drift around in the sky some 30 minutes after the game ends. Remnants of the game and the colourful occasion never really goes away even as darkness in Belgrade falls.

Such is the preparations that go into this rivalry most fans simply start looking forward to the next meeting where more firecrackers get set off and smoke bombs set alight.

For most fans this is a game of celebration rather than dread – and long may it continue.

Full Time: 2-2

Goals: Spajic (1-0), Saldanha (1-1), Kalulu (1-2), Ndiaye (2-2)

Attendance: 48,211

Referee: Pavle Ilic