The Eternal Derby, Red Star V Partizan
Goal Click is proud to announce a special collaboration with Copa90, the leading YouTube football channel and voice of football fans around the world. Copa90 journalist David Vujanic went to the ultimate derby match, Red Star Belgrade versus Partizan Belgrade in Serbia, also known as ‘Veciti Derbi’ (Eternal Derby).
The Belgrade Derby is notorious for its intensity and hostile atmosphere. This match did not disappoint, with fires and flares in the stands and a riot delaying the match as police dealt with fan clashes. You can check out the video here.
We spoke to David about his experience and the incredible photos he captured with his Goal Click camera.
What were you trying to show with the photos and what was the wider meaning behind your shots?
I tried to capture the key elements that are present in a Belgrade Derby between Red Star and Partizan, especially the colour and atmosphere. There is a name in Serbian for when a stand lets off multiple flares; it’s called a bakljada. The red smoke of the flares has a menacing feel; it really does something to the sky. The smoke is so thick, with all the faces behind it and the flags lined up along the stand at the bottom. It is a fascinating spectacle.
It is very creative how the fans use colour, flags and the tifo – they put together a mural of the former Red Star player Rajko Mitic. The stadium has recently been re-named after him; he is a Red Star legend.
I also wanted to show the intimacy of the players with the crowd. They always salute their fans and applaud them. At the end the Partizan players went over to their fans and celebrated with them. There is a real connection.
With this camera you are not going to capture the violence close up and show chairs being thrown. But it can capture the more beautiful side of the Derby, the mystery, the trepidation of what is going to happen next. You are watching the stands more than the football, because the quality of football is awful to be quite honest. Azerbaijani football has taken Serbia over. We are at the level of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
Is it sad to see a former footballing powerhouse like Serbia struggling?
It is crazy. The fall of Serbian football is due to so many elements, mainly corruption and the people in charge. As a Serbian football fan it is depressing, but you cannot really do anything about it, you just have to accept it.
What is your favourite photo and what did it show about the Derby?
My favourite shot was definitely the photo in the mist, with only the keeper walking back. It is the mystery element and is very atmospheric. You have just had an amazing flare display by the Partizan fans, the smoke has covered the ground and stopped the game for ten minutes, with the players waiting for the wind to clear it so they can restart. It shows the power of football fans to actually stop a game, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
You can see the floodlights at the top breaking through, the keeper looks like a lone soldier walking back to his net and two flares are also lit up in the background. I feel it captures the atmosphere. You see the other players in the background just standing there. It is almost eerie. Surreal. You do not even see the fans but you definitely know something has happened there. It is a beautiful shot.
How do you think the players feel about the crowd and the pyrotechnics?
I think when you are from places where this happens; it is a great motivator. It pumps up your adrenaline. As a player I would love to see my fans behind me, the stadium lit up, the colour, the noise. When you have played in those atmospheres, you are ready to play in any atmosphere. You lose the fear of playing in any other ground since you have played in ‘Hell’ on a football ground. Wherever you go next, France, Spain, it is not going to be as intimidating as playing in these matches.
A lot of away teams struggle. Certainly with Red Star, teams struggle to go away with a win. The atmosphere definitely plays a part. The 15,000 fans behind the goal, those ultras are something really special. It is just a shame that culture is dead in Western Europe. People are now going out from Britain and other places where this “ultra culture” does not exist, to view it as spectators. “I’m not even here for the game, I’m here for the stands.”
“Ultra Culture” is under attack in Eastern Europe. In Turkey, Hungary and Greece governments are looking at ID cards and trying to clean up the stadiums. What do you think about this?
I am not a fan of that. It is an intervention into your human rights. This governmental intervention is trying to castrate something so raw and pure. It is an energy that really exists in these stands in less well off places, because it is a representation of what is going on in real life.
A lot of these people are not hooligans. You cannot have 15,000 hooligans in one stand. Most of the time these are just ordinary young people that have a tough life. They are not ‘savages’. Of course you are going to have to control some elements and cut down on violent aspects. Most of the time the games where ultras are involved are not violent. It is only sometimes games like this Derby where it boils over. But at the moment we should just let it flow and allow people to take out their anger and angst against everyday pressures. That is what the stands are for in my opinion.
Why is there such a big rivalry between Red Star and Partizan? Is there any difference between the fans?
The two grounds are under a kilometre away from each other. They are so close and they have been the two most successful Serbian teams throughout history, the two biggest clubs in former Yugoslavia. Red Star won the Champions League in 1991; Partizan has won lots of trophies. They always taunt each other on who is better. It is that Serbianmentality and passion that just shines through, which a lot of people will never understand.
Red Star likes to classify themselves as more of a ‘Serbian’ team and identify more with the Serbian identity. However that does not really lead to any wider social divisions. Red Star definitely has a bigger following in Serbia. Red Star has a bigger brand, a bigger stadium, they won the Champions League. So it does all lead to them being seen as a bigger club. But economically no one is better off; it is a tough situation in general in Serbia.
What prompted the riot at this Derby match?
The riot happened because there has been a split within the Partizan ultra group, the Grobari. There was an argument between a group called Alcatraz and another group who call themselves Zabranjeni, “The Forbidden’. That meant a portion of the hardcore Partizan ultras were sitting in the East stand rather than the South stand. There was no police line between them and the Red Star fans, so it allowed 30 of them to walk across the stand and try and attack the Delije, the Red Star fans. Those things exist in ultra culture. You want to show up your biggest rivals in their home ground.
The police managed to separate them, but the Red Star fans in the North stand went absolutely crazy, trying to jump over their fence and reach the Partizan fans in the East Stand. There was a battle with the police, as they were trying to leave their stand, but the police blocked off the exits. At one point they did drive the riot police out of their stand, but the police managed to get their numbers ready and drove back in.
Why is football so important for Serbians and the people of Belgrade?
It is the same story everywhere - the escapism from everyday life. Football and sport exists to let you escape from your everyday problems. During that 90 minutes you are in another zone, another world. You are not thinking about your mortgage, you are not thinking that you earn only 300 euros a month and you need to pay bills, travel, cover your food and children’s tuition fees. The average salary in Serbia is about 300 euros per month and life is not cheap for Serbian people. That will always translate onto the stands. Everyday life is tough, very hard, surviving day-to-day. When you go to the ground a lot of these young people have pent up anger and frustration in them and release it during the football.
Ultras are embedded in society. The leaders tend to be quite powerful; they are definitely a huge part of culture and society. Football is the portrayal of what society is and the current situation is always portrayed in the stands.