SONJA NIKCEVIC / AIPS* in BELGRADE: Belgrade’s derby between Red Star and Partizan is considered to be the pinnacle of Serbian football; the two clubs have been the dominant features of Serbian sport in terms of titles, fan bases and political backing ever since their founding after the Second World War.
However, violent scenes in the stands at Red Star and Partizan’s 148th “eternal derby” on Saturday served only to reconfirm the dire state of affairs in the nation’s most popular sport.
The match at Red Star’s newly renamed Rajko Mitic stadium will not be remembered by the 0-0 scoreline, Partizan’s missed chances or the atrocious lack of footballing skill from both sides.
While that would indeed have been bad enough, the images that marked another chapter in the dark history of football were those of violent clashes between fans of both teams and police that led to the start of the match being postponed for 42 minutes.
The clashes are said to have started outside of Partizan’s stadium one kilometre away before spilling into the stands 15 minutes before kick-off.
Police and special forces were slow to react, only further adding to the scenes of chaos, before clashing directly with Red Star’s more numerous ultra fans.
The ugly scenes which included tear gas, and flares, stones and plastic chairs being thrown, raged on for over half an hour in the north and east end of the stands reserved for Red Star’s most dedicated fans, and spilling into the hallways and upper decks of the stadium.
Reports from government officials stated that at least 50 people were injured and 40 arrested after the scenes. Some 44,120 fans were present at the stadium, meaning that close to 44, 000 waited in silence, or song, for more than 40 minutes as ultras fought it out with police before the sporting event could begin.
The violence comes six months after the disturbing images in the Euro 2016 qualifying tie between Serbia and Albania, when a drone carrying a ‘Greater Albania’ label sparked violence in the stands, numerous pitch invasions and clashes between the fans and the Albanian national team.
Serbia’s police and special forces were criticised after the match for not being quick enough in their reaction. Events from Saturday’s derby show that the Serb government’s attitude towards hooliganism and match safety has not evolved at all.
After the incident with Albania, UEFA punished the Serb federation with a three-point deduction and two home matches to be played behind closed doors, only adding to the national team’s despair at the start of Euro qualification.
Despite consisting of some of the most influential players from European leagues, Serbia failed to qualify for Euro 2012 or the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The team are currently fourth in the five-team group I and have questionable prospects of making to even the expanded 2016 finals with their 32 nations.
The national team adequately reflects the situation in Serbia’s top flight football league.
The debt, lack of resources, funds and transparency go hand in hand with the level of football shown in Saturday’s derby, played between the best teams and players Serbian league football has to offer.
There was hardly a sign of anything resembling inspirational football, worthy of European club competition, showing exactly why Serb clubs have suffered make it past qualification or grab a single point if they do.
Players showing a modicum of goalscoring ability or talent are immediately dubbed Europe’s ‘next best thing’ and shipped off and sold to the first team that shows interest in order to pay off club debts.
Therefore promising players are often sold off years before they reach the maturity level necessary to play abroad and prosper in the national team.
Stringent laws against hooliganism and the private ownership of clubs – as opposed to their current ineptly government funded state – are catchphrases heard daily in Serbia’s football circles. However, they seem as likely to be implemented as Red Star or Partizan are likely to win a European competition any time soon.
The first step, like in many cases, is admitting the problem exists. As long as government officials and those in charge of Serbian football continue to speak out against football violence and extended club debt instead of implementing reforms to change them, the Belgrade derby will continue to be the face of Serbian football. And one that should hang its head in shame.
** AIPS is the international sports journalists’ association with 10,000 members worldwide. More information: www.AIPSmedia.com
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