21 October ~ Serbia is currently gripped by the dilemma of whether to cancel this weekend's Belgrade derby between the country's most famous clubs – Red Star and Partizan. This fierce debate was sparked by events which have once again cast the nation in a poor light around the world. Firstly, on October 10, Belgrade's Gay Pride parade was marred by ugly scenes as right-wing football hooligans attacked security forces and laid waste to the capital city, resulting in more than €1 million (£890,000) of damage, 132 injured policemen and 249 arrests.
Many of the rioters then simply continued their rampage three days later as the Serbian national team visited Genoa to take on Italy. The match was called off after only six minutes of play, as hooligans cut through protective netting and proceeded to shower the pitch with flares. Prior to the kick-off a group of Red Star supporters had attempted to attack Serbian goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic in retaliation for the fact that this former Red Star player did the unthinkable by signing for arch-rivals Partizan over the summer. In the aftermath of these incidents, everyone involved in Serbian football fears that the upcoming derby will provide the third instalment in this recent catalogue of violence.
There are good reasons for such pessimism. Ever since Serbia emerged from the ravages of war in the 1990s, the nation's football clubs have struggled to distance themselves from politically motivated violence and mafia infiltration. Under the guidance of notorious criminal Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic, members of the Red Star supporters' group became paramilitaries responsible for unimaginable war crimes in both Croatia and Bosnia. Over the decade that followed, eight Serbian club presidents were murdered and events on the pitch were frequently overshadowed by ferocious outbursts on the terraces. For example, a teenage Red Star fan was killed during a 1999 Belgrade derby match when Partizan supporters fired a rocket into the end of their opponents. More recently a policeman was seriously injured in 2007 when a Red Star supporter forced a flare into his mouth, while the Toulouse fan Brice Taton was murdered by Partizan supporters before a 2009 Europa League match in Belgrade.
Last November I attended the Belgrade derby as a guest of the "Gravediggers", as Partizan supporters are better known. During the match, which took place at Red Star's Marakana Stadium, the Gravediggers ripped out 5,000 seats from the away end and used them as missiles against the security forces who occupied the running track below. The match was interrupted during the second half as more of these brittle plastic seats were gathered into heaps before being set alight. Everyone at that end of the ground choked on toxic fumes while armed riot police penned us into an ever decreasing area. Fire crews, attempting to tackle the flames as the match resumed, were attacked with yet more plastic projectiles – a water hose was burst by a direct hit just at the moment when Partizan scored the winning goal and the Gravediggers exploded in euphoria. Miraculously there were few injuries, but this is so rarely the case.
It is possible that this weekend's derby will be played in front of empty terraces. However, this measure has often been employed over the past 20 years and there has been no subsequent let-up in the violence. Without any new solutions, history demonstrates that the battle to control Serbia's football terraces will continue to rage. Richard Mills