25 March ~ The concept of playing football in front of empty seats is certainly not a novel one in Serbia. A general lack of support means that most of the country’s top division teams often compete inside barren stadiums, while the bigger clubs are regularly forced to shut out supporters as a result of severe hooligan violence. So, when Northern Ireland take on Serbia in this evening’s Euro 2012 qualifier at Red Star’s crumbling Marakana Stadium, many of the home team’s players will already have considerable experience of being surrounded by empty seats.
This latest stadium closure is being imposed by UEFA following an evening of debauchery in Genoa, instigated by Serbian hooligans, which led to the abandonment of Serbia’s qualifier against Italy. Talking about tonight’s game, Birmingham’s Nikola Žigić commented: “It will be difficult in front of empty terraces. I have twice had the opportunity to play in an empty Marakana.” (Once for Red Star and once for the national team.)
However, unlike previous occasions the stadium will not be completely deserted. Gary McAllister, press officer for the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs (AONISC), says that 265 away supporters have been granted permission to attend the match. McAllister notes that the security operation surrounding the attendance of these Irish fans is highly secretive and has involved the two respective football associations, the AONISC, the Northern Ireland police, the British Embassy in Belgrade and UEFA.
This is unsurprising considering that in February UEFA's Michel Platini held a personal meeting with Serbian president Boris Tadić, during which he warned that “there is a serious risk of suspension for the national and club teams” from all UEFA competitions unless there are clear signs that concrete measures are being taken to tackle football hooliganism in the country.
If last week’s Belgrade derby is anything to go by this zero-tolerance approach is being taken seriously. For that match over 3,000 policemen patrolled the stadium and its immediate surroundings, and even though Serbian supporters will be absent for this evening’s game, there is no reason to expect that security measures will be any more relaxed outside the ground.
The Serbs also have serious problems on the pitch, with Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidić heading a long list of injured players. Serbia have struggled in this current qualifying campaign and manager Vladimir Petrović is desperate to atone for the last two matches – a humiliating home defeat against Estonia and the forfeiting of three points in Italy. Petrović told Serbian daily Večernje novosti that he still hopes to qualify for Euro 2012, despite the fact that playing without the “12th man” will be a massive handicap against Northern Ireland: “It will be difficult without supporters, but we should use it as a further motivation to beat the Irish.” Injury problems and the absence of what would have been a highly intimidating atmosphere will certainly assist the visiting team.
Politics are never far from Marakana Stadium, something that was underlined by the high-profile attendance of Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin at a friendly between Red Star and Zenit St Petersburg on Wednesday. UEFA’s warnings will undoubtedly ensure that the Northern Ireland supporters will receive just as much protection as Putin did. Richard Mills