Star turn

Day 18 of the WSC advent calendar and we are joining Leicester City’s journey following a star. As they prepared, in October 2000, issue 164, to visit Red Star Belgrade, Dragomir Pop-Mitic reported on the civil unrest in Yugoslavia

“We are ready to organise the match and all Leicester City supporters will be welcomed and completely safe,” said an official from Red Star Belgrade after the UEFA Cup draw was an­nounced. Whether Leicester are able to trav­el to Yugoslavia remains to be seen, though UEFA have insisted they will forfeit the game if they don’t. The British government may not be prepared to grant permission and the Mil­osevic regime will be nervous too, since the match will take place a few days after a domestic election which it cannot afford to lose

Football stadiums have long been a venue for demonstrations against Milosevic, but the authorities had never intervened during mat­ches until this season’s Euro­pean qualifiers. The riot police action during Red Star’s Cham­pions League second qualifying round game against Geo­rgia’s Tor­pedo Kutaisi came as a complete surprise. The song that caused of­fence, “Kill yourself and save Serbia, Slobodan”, was not new and a big flag with the words written on it had appeared at several of Yugo­slavia’s games at Euro 2000.

Despite the police’s subsequent claim that they were trying to arrest two supporters who had set off fireworks, their action created total chaos which lasted for the whole of the second half. Players admitted they had spent more time watching the battle on the terraces than playing football. Opposition newspapers pro­duced a picture of a policeman aiming a gun, while state television blamed “hooligans” for the trouble. Club president Dragan Dzajic de­fended the fans and offered to resign but a com­promise was found in a formal statement: “Red Star Football Club have nothing in com­mon with some sections of irresponsible sup­porters.” As a result of the violence the FA publicly announced: “We must stop political propaganda in the grounds. In the future pol­ice will intervene whenever necessary.”

Both Partizan and Red Star responded by launching campaigns called “No politics at foot­ball matches”. There was a huge irony in their stance. In the communist era Partizan were the club mostly closely associated with the regime, their fans’ chant of “Tito, Party, Black and White Army” expressing their loy­alty to the state. Red Star fans, by contrast, were perceived to be Serbian nationalists. Before the break-up of Yugoslavia, Milosevic had allied himself with the nationalist cause and was feted at Red Star home games with chants such as “Star, Star, that’s the Serbian team, Slobodan Milosevic is proud of them”.

When civil war was looming in the early Nineties, the acknowledged leader of the Red Star fans , Zeljko Raznjatovic (“Arkan”), un­ited the var­ious hooligan gangs under his own control. Members of that united supporters group, known as Delije, formed the hardcore of the most infamous paramilitary unit dur­ing the Bosnian war, the Tigers, whose activities were closely followed in the official Red Star magazine.

The second leg of Red Star’s Cham­pions League qualifier ag­ainst Dynamo Kiev was broadcast live 0n Eurosport. All the main opposition leaders attended the match, which they saw as an ideal opportunity to appeal to young, first time voters in the run-up to the elec­tions. Neutrals feared that the re­gime would wel­come another chance to flex its mus­cles but, con­trary to many people’s expectations, the match passed off peacefully. The “Kill yourself” chant was heard only once, in injury time. There were thousands of police out­side the ground, but not a single off­icer in uniform was seen inside.

Like Red Star, Partizan have drawn attractive UEFA Cup op­­ponents in Porto and both matches will be sellouts if the clubs are perm­it­­ted to stage them at home. Wher­­ever these games are played, how­ever, football supporters in Yugoslavia will not stop singing anti-regime songs. The real battle has yet to be won.

From WSC 164 October 2000. What was happening this month