Thursday, April 7, 2011

Belgrade at Eternal Derby Time

On the tram home today, I overheard a boy (perhaps 5 years old) ask his mother "why is the army out in the streets?" to which she replied "no son, that's the police." [a distinction with some fuzzyness around the edge I'm discovering.] Or, as my host sister calls them, the Turtles--named for the riot gear they don for days like today: the Eternal (just to make it that much more dramatic) Derby, where two of Belgrade's biggest soccer/football (depending on where you live) clubs play each other: Red Star (known, as Dejana informed me, as the Gypsies) and the Partizans (who call themselves Gravediggers--attractive, I know).

Two months ago tomorrow, as I was waiting for the flight to depart Istanbul, I noticed the plane slowly filling up with young men--in their twenties perhaps--all wearing the tell-tale coordinated costumes of a sports team and having a bit more energy than my all night traveled self could cope with. The ensignia on their breasts had a football in the center, and something about the Partizans around it (my Cyrillic was a bit rusty). Oh ignorance. (Oh bliss?).

Now jump ahead two months: Derby day takes both Dejana and I by surprise--neither of us follow club sports, but I mention to her over late lunch that Red Star and Partizans are facing off again today. The block next to ours is covered in red and white--the trash cans, the concrete, graffiti--all showing neighborhood allegiance to the Red Stars. While I've heard a lot about the hooligans--I honestly don't know what that means. We watched footage of the violent response to the Gay Pride Parade here last year--and I can't quite accept that any Joe Shmoe I pass on the street, or stand next to on the tram could have been there.

A note of caution for anyone from Belgrade: nemoj da brines, everything will be alright.

And so Dejana and I find ourselves on our way to the stadium. The game has already started and it's unclear if we would be able to find tickets, or get in. But somehow we do and wedge ourselves on the stairs on the west side of the stadium. The stadium is divided into four quadrants: North (for Red Star supporters), South (for Partizan), West and East for the unaligned (ironic isn't it?) among us.

I've never seen anything like it before.

The Red Star stadium is literally a block away from the Partizan (this match was on Red Star home turf), and the roads leading to the stadium were lined with "Turtles," including the mounted police forces. The area outside the stadium was virtually empty, except for a woman selling Red Star shirts and scarves, a few men selling peanuts and the hoards of cops. Just waiting. With their police vans ready. As we approached the roaring in the distance became sounds, syllables, one voice made of many.
We entered.

Inside, the top row of seats was ringed by another layer of cops in riot gear, another line separated the Partizan fans from the rest of the crowd. Another ring circuited the field itself. And the fans. We had to weave our way through stairs brimming with them, mostly men (although we weren't the only women, but we certainly got our fair share of looks). Although we were on the West side--technically neutral space, it was clearly Red Star territory, and while the chants and hand waving wasn't as coordinated as in the north of the stadium--it was clear that they were practicing. The stadium rumbled with footstomping, seat kicking, thankfully no vuvuzellas on the premises.

Thousands of people, all yelling the same chants, jumping in unison, clapping, waving red and white flags, making hand motions, turning as one to face one direction (thousands of faces all fixated on one point--totally eerie), turning their backs, en masse, to the pitch. In some ways it was kind of like watching a huge performance or some strange ritual--with thousands of participants, all following the same script, and with someone down front with a megaphone directing as it were. At one point Dejana nudged me and pointed at the Partizan fans, who had produced, as if on cue, green flares and were waving them wildly before throwing them down towards the pitch (the Red Star goal was on that side of the field that half).

But what unsettled me more than being one of a handful of women in the audience, or that the mean age was probably 28, or the intensity of emotion in the air, or even the coordination and cooperation of such a bulk of people, was the inherently political nature of the gathering--it felt in many ways like a political rally with a football match going on concurrently. I'm honestly not sure how many people were actually watching the progression of the ball across the field. Both sides (Sever (N) and Yug (S)) had flags or huge signs commemorating Uros: a Red Star supporter/hooligan recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for trying to shove a flare in a policeman's mouth after a particularly rowdy match. Across town are signs calling for "Justice for Uros," not because they think his actions were unjust, but that he was wrongly imprisoned. The Partizan side had a huge banner "1389"--an uber-nationalist political party especially vocal on the Kosovo issue (hence their name), but that's just one of many elements to their platform which make me shiver. I watched one young guy (he couldn't have been older than myself) have his picture taken  (against the backdrop of the crowd with the field beyond) making the three-fingered sign of Serbian-ness popularized (much too innocent of a word to describe it) during the war especially by the Serbian paramilitary forces [who, I learned, garnered a lot of their support from supporters of football clubs--such as Red Star, during the wars]. Fathers brought their young sons, who jumped and chanted along with the adults. The Serbian four C's featured prominently on the Red Star side, which, I guess has become quite normalized in Serbian society--for example it's on many receipts as the official seal of Serbia, but it certainly carries baggage (I highly recommend S. A Novel about the Balkans by Salavenka Drakulic for an ample dose of that baggage). Before the match these daily encounters with hooliganism had been utterly faceless. Now there were thousands (41,682, to be precise) of faces to choose from.

Dejana and I left when there were still fifteen minutes left on the clock--not because it wasn't fascinating (although I found watching the crowd more interesting than the game itself), but because we weren't terribly keen on seeing the army of Turtles in action, let alone being swept along in the throng. Especially if one team (and it looked like the Partizans this time) lost.
Instead, we just watched the lines of cops, falling into position, preparing. Waiting.

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