Eternal Damn-Nation-Prelude to the Belgrade Derby and the future of Serbian Football.


‘ Serbian football currently in turmoil is at the crossroads. Living on past merits it attracts mass attention that far exceed it’s quality. ‘

Twelve months can be a long time in football but in Serbia it can seem like an eternity.

Last November after years of neglect, internal bickering and corruption a rejuvenated Red Star Belgrade looked to seriously challenge their arch rivals Partizan superiority in the Serbian domestic league. Under the stewardship of newly appointed ex Red Star, Yugoslavian and Croatian legend Robert Prosinečki it seemed they had found their footballing messiah and a man who could unite all factions of the turbulent club.

Prosinečki’s Red Star resurrection was achieved on a shoe string budget and the Croatian had made considerable inroads in the little time he had taken over the reigns. There was increasing speculation in the Serbian media and the football fraternity in general that after less than a season in control the two clubs were more or less again on an equal par and Red Star could be on the verge of taking their first steps back to European recognition.

The testing ground was to be what is infamously known around the world as the Eternal Derby. Once more the two great dinosaurs of Balkan football met at Red Stars fortress stadium the Marakana for one of the greatest show downs in world football. The result was to go to Partizan as would eventually the league title. But towards the end of the season a resurgent Red Star had gradually clawed back the points and narrowly beaten Partizan in both the Serbian cup and return derby. The signs were there that Red Star were finally on the road to a full recovery and the clubs fanatical supporters looked towards the coming of the new season and beyond with increased optimism and anticipation.

However a year later Prosinečki on the back of a string of bad results has left Red Star Belgrade, disillusioned and demoralised by the lack of investment and a forced exodus of some of the clubs more promising players. It is probable that the decline in fortunes of Red Star is simply a reflection of a poor economy and an under funded Serbian football league. Without an adequate infrastructure and left with a legacy of near bankrupt clubs and crumbling stadiums the situation is reminiscent of football in the post cold war Eastern Bloc states of the 90s.

After recent events international football too has taken one huge backwards step when the under 21 side played England in October. Already facing huge criticism for the behaviour of both the fans and officials alike in previous encounters the match gradually deteriorated into scenes of inexcusable violence. On the pitch fighting between the opposing players and coaches and altercations with the Serbian crowd and England’s black players has only levelled accusations of racism towards the Balkan state.

The bitter row between the English FA and Serbian FA escalated further when Serbian police charged 12 people with violent conduct including 5 Serb players and a coach plus two English players and a coach. With diplomatic intervention likely the Serbs have only helped to alienate themselves further from the European football community.

It remains to be seen what punishments by EUFA await the Serbs but there is little doubt that any such future outbursts will ultimately lead to a lengthy ban. Michael Platini has already hinted that the Serbs could face tough sanctions if found guilty of racism. Whatever the outcome it seems Serbian football is heading towards a complete meltdown and solutions are urgently required.

Prosinečki in hindsight was doomed to fail from the start. Considered a symbol of Red Stars glorious past and a member of the 1991 European cup winners golden generation his appointment only raised expectations to a level that in reality could never be achieved with what little resources were at his disposal.

Partizan supporters may well mock their arch enemies demise but harsh lessons can be learned by looking closer to home in Scottish football. The newly installed Glasgow Rangers forcibly exiled from the SPL and currently languishing in the lower leagues will ultimately lead to a rapid decrease in sponsorship and advertising the longer the ‘ Gers ‘ remain out of the top tier. Celtic fans are already realising that without the usual old firm derbies to look forward to, worryingly the cost of their season tickets seem highly inflated.

Similarly the deteriorating fortunes of Red Star could also have negative repercussions not only on it’s rival Partizan but produce shock waves that will eventually effect the whole of Serbian football in general. It is because of the fierce rivalry that the problem with the nations two Goliath clubs is that the outlook in the domestic league has now taken on an introverted view rather than focus on making inroads into Europe.

Like Yin and Yang opposites attract and clearly it is essential that both clubs need the other to progress forward. Thankfully Red Star are for now in a slightly healthier position than the pre new-co Rangers but an injection of resources is urgently required to retain their duel dominance with Partizan in the Serbian Super Liga.

One solution is simple, somehow reinstate a Balkan league to enable the ex Yugoslav clubs such as Hadjuk Split, Dinamo Zagreb, Red Star and Partizan to compete on a more regular basis thus improving the general standard of football across the old republics. The plainly obvious problem is that such a bold move would once again fuel the fires of national, racial and religious hatred and create a much bigger headache for the authorities involved. A way round this would a systematic ban on away fans or to play any contentious matches behind closed doors. But some view such extreme measures only defeats the very reason for participating and being involved in a competitive sport and panders to those who use football to bring attention to their political causes.

The other alternative is to implement a structure similar to the top English, Spanish and Italian leagues by applying a completely business type philosophy to the Serbian Super Liga. Although rich in history but now operating with little substance, commercially both Red Star and Partizan are global brands that can be utilised to the full by future investors. Such a radical transition could potentially attract Russian oligarchs and toppled third world dictators more interested in boosting personal egos than attendances but also adding much needed resources into the sport. As has seen elsewhere, it could however come at a heavy price to the average supporter.

Historical old grounds bulldozed to make way for bland soulless super stadia, admission prices to rise ten fold, flares and jumping to be outlawed under over zealous health and safety regulations and matches played before champagne swilling corporate zombies. These are some of the likely outcomes of Serbian football adapting and catching up with it’s peers in Western and Eastern Europe.

On a positive note and more importantly it could enable home grown talent to remain in the Serbian league as well as possibly attracting better players from abroad. In theory this would improve upon their current average performances in European competition and lead to a healthier financial footing for the long term. But such a difficult choice is presently not an option and Serbian football especially the derby serves as both a grand old relic of the past and although in urgent need to adapt, strangely a glimpse into a possible future.

Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of such an occasion the Belgrade Derby undoubtedly holds a gripping fascination with football enthusiasts across the globe and probably for the same reason. There are already signs that attendances are slowly beginning to fall in our own football and not just because of rising prices. Although bringing some positives into football, fans are disillusioned with a sport that they feel has become detached from the wants and needs of it’s grass roots support and panders more to it’s TV and corporate backers. What is clearly needed is a balance between the two by respecting and allowing the national fan culture, something for example that is more evident in German and Spanish football. 

Reintroducing areas of affordable terracing and even encouraging visual displays while simultaneously removing the negative aspects that were associated with these methods in the past. Such measures could improve on the current match day experience that sometimes seem sterilised and devoid of any real passion.

Serbian football currently in turmoil is at the crossroads. Living on past merits it attracts mass attention that far exceed it’s quality. Either it will continue to implode or alternatively transform itself into a presentable P.C friendly package. 

On the 22nd November a EUFA disciplinary will decide the fate of both the under 21 England and Serbia squads involved in the brawl. Already the Serbian FA have banned two of their own players for a season and two coaches involved have received a two year ban. 

Yet across the Balkans come November 17th, all dilemmas, problems and speculation become irrelevant as Serbian football reaches it’s proverbial year zero. A moment in time when history and Europe are temporarily forgotten and only victory is important. As the locals proudly say, welcome to Hell-Grade, welcome to the Derby.

Stephen Carpenter