This season Partizan Belgrade succeeded in qualifying for the group stage of the Champions League for the first time in six years, resulting in a mad scramble for tickets with supporters desperate to see their club compete against Europe's elite.
A packed and intimidating stadium greeted both Arsenal and Braga, despite the fact that ticket prices were hiked to between £10 and £30 – large sums in a country where the average salary is less than £300 a month and for a club where a season ticket costs as little as £20. By the time that Partizan came to play their final home tie against Shakhtar Donetsk the club was firmly rooted to the bottom of the group following four straight defeats and a goal difference of minus six.
With nothing but pride to play for appetites were somewhat diminished among the Partizan faithful. Appalling weather in Belgrade also did nothing to help the situation, with unceasing rain and a bitterly cold wind swirling round the roofless concrete bowl for the duration of the match. Outside the stadium, touts and supporters who preferred to watch the game from the comfort of their armchairs desperately attempted to recoup some of the value of their tickets, and a friend of mine was even able to obtain a ticket in exchange for a single cigarette. Considering these facts, it was pleasantly surprising to discover that a hardcore of 14,437 nevertheless braved the adverse conditions. Such a crowd figure is put into perspective when one considers that at the weekend just 1,000 people watched the Serbian champions take on Belgrade minnows Cukaricki Stankom.
Although nationalists have long since taken control of the club's support base, Partizan – as the name suggests – retain a strong communist legacy. Their ground, still referred to as the Yugoslav People's Army Stadium, was where President Tito used to hold extravagant celebrations, utilising North Korean-style mass choreography, banners and communist hymns. These traditions are maintained by Partizan's ardent supporters, with many of their songs based on traditional socialist anthems.
Just before the teams emerged onto the field, the leader of the Gravediggers – as the club ultras are known – began to scream commands into a hastily erected PA system in order to fire up the crowd on the south terrace. Everyone stood on the shattered and faded plastic seats in order to get some kind of view of the distant pitch through sheeting rain. A sea of black and white flags greeted the players and when the chanting began it was hard to believe that this game was of no relevance as a swaying terrace sang rhythmically and unceasingly for the duration of the match. The highlight of the choreography came in the form of an organised chant which reverberated around all four sides of the ground in turn.
If UEFA gave out points for supporting, Partizan would unquestionably top the group but, unfortunately for the Gravediggers, it is football that matters, and in this Partizan were once again found lacking. A goalless first half gave cause for tentative optimism. However, all hopes were quickly shattered as a high-quality Shakhtar ran rampant in the second half, scoring the last of their three goals in the 68th minute. In the face of adversity, the Gravediggers continued to back their team, with ever louder chanting greeting each goal that the Ukrainians put past them.
The drenched Belgrade public greeted the final whistle with applause, cheering their defeated idols off the pitch with chants of "Partizan is the Champion!" and "Champions League, Champions League!". This demonstrates the extent to which these supporters are simply pleased to compete alongside Europe's elite once again. Satisfaction with such limited achievements is in stark contrast to the Partizan teams of old, the greatest of which lost narrowly to Real Madrid in the 1966 European Cup final.
A further cause for satisfaction with the current state of affairs is the fact that a far greater fall from grace has been endured by bitter city rivals Red Star Belgrade. They lifted the European Cup back in 1991, just months before Yugoslavia was ripped apart by brutal ethnic wars. Two days before Partizan's match against Shakhtar, I watched the once mighty Red Star in action in the Serbian Premier League. Around 8,000 hardy souls rattled around in a stadium which had accommodated over 100,000 back in 1991 for the glorious semi-final victory against Bayern Munich. In recent years Red Star have struggled to make it past the opening rounds of the Europa League while Partizan have dominated domestic competition.
In this context Partizan's participation in the group stages of the Champions League is viewed as a significant success. They may not be of the same standard as Shakhtar, Arsenal and Braga, but at least they have earned the right to share the pitch with them.
From WSC 287 January 2011