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It is often said that football is more important than life and death. The slightly hyperbolic idea is believed all across the globe, but it takes on a literal meaning in Belgrade. In the Serbian capital, you are either red and white or black and white. This is the story of the Eternal Derby, Europe’s fiercest footballing rivalry.
The rivalry between Partizan and Red Star Belgrade is much more than just a footballing one. Both organisations cross many sports, but there is as much of an ideological war being waged here as there is sporting. You can tell the importance of a subject with the ordinary people by the amount of graffiti throughout a city, and proclamations of loyalty to Red Star and Partizan come second only to Kosovo here.
The feud between Red Star and Partizan has raged for more than 70 years. The hatred is palpable, but neither side is likely to admit to just how similar the two clubs are. Red Star (Crvena zvezda, in Serbian) came into being first, four months to the day before Partizan were formed. Both clubs were formed by political institutions, Red Star being the team of the interior ministry while Partizan were the official side for the Yugoslav Army, and their stadiums are less than a mile apart. The first match between the two took place in January 1947, and ended in a 4-3 win for the reds.
To say the two teams have dominated Serbian football would be a huge understatement. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia at the beginning of the 1990s, 25 seasons have played in the independent Serbian football league. Partizan and Red Star have shared 24 titles between them, with FK Obilić being the only team to break that stranglehold in controversial circumstances way back in 1998. The Belgrade teams have been first and second in the league 22 times out of 25.
The Yugoslav First League was a much more competitive competition, but the Belgrade teams still stand tall at the top of the honours board. Partizan won 11 titles, a number only bettered by the 19 secured by their cross-city rivals.
In the 21st-century, matters on the pitch have become secondary to the battle between the two sets of hardcore fans. To the north of the stand sit (well, stand) Red Star’s ultras, known as Delje (Heroes). The name didn’t come into popular use until the 1980s, and the firm wasn’t officially christened until 1989. The Delje are made up of four major subgroups, and in-fighting isn’t unusual.
Red Star has its Heroes, but Partizan has its gravediggers. That isn’t such a strange statement in truth, as Partizan’s hardcore fans are known as Grobari (Gravediggers, obviously). The name was actually given to them by Red Star fans, predictably referencing the black and white colours of Partizan. The Partizan fans took it on as their own, and it has been the official title of the fans since the 1970s.
Football is secondary to the fans, and the followers of Red Star in particular have been involved in many major political happenings over the last 30 years. A riot started by Delje in a match against Dinamo Zagreb is considered by some to be the true starting point of the Croatian War of Independence, and the most poisonous elements of the Red Star fanbase took part in wars as members of various militias.
Known as the ‘Eternal Derby’, matches between the two teams have become a strange attraction for many young people visiting Belgrade. The games at the Rajko Mitić Stadium (known informally as the Marakana) and the Partizan Stadium are packed out, and the flares, fireworks and chants from both sets of ultras makes for a mesmerising show.
There is adrenaline and excitement in there, but violence is inevitable. Not many occasions receive as much police presence as the derby, with 21st-century Robocops stood between the warring sets of fans. This doesn’t really help matters, as fights almost always break out within the various supporting factions. It is a mess, to say the least. The quality of football is low, but nobody seems to care.
155 Eternal Derbies have played at time of writing, with Red Star holding 62 wins to Partizan’s 46. The boys in black have dominated over the last couple of years, but the tension of the game guarantees a close affair. No game in European football carries an atmosphere like that of Red Star vs. Partizan.