My mate LP, a very talented footballer used to play in the leagues of Melbourne. The teams are formed along ethnic lines. Australia, being an immigrant country has absorbed a lot of Balkan migrants and they brought their divisions with them. LP told me some games would have 25,000 at them, coins would be thrown, players spat at etc. The anger or the opportunity to express historical contempt was too easy to pass. Football is often used as a modern alternative or metaphor for war. This area of the world has had too many real examples but after going to the Eternal Derby in Belgrade, its clear this tribalism still hasn’t changed gone away.
We were in the Red Star end for the ‘Eternal Derby.’ The game was pretty boring involving many mis-laid passes and passages of sideways play. But the endless chanting, rattling of the fences, stealing of the game ball, attempts to get into the opposition fan areas, fires started, flares let off and sheer vitriol kept you entertained the whole game. Initially overwhelmed, a first half has never lasted so long. The game was won in the 92nd minute by Red Star blasting home a corner. The place went nuts. So did we, jumping up and momentarily hugging. Men cried and hugged, called their friends with huge grins. Then the chanting started again at the final whistle. Partizan fans disappeared quickly but Red Star stayed for 20 minutes, saluting their players.
While I would say English football has more knowledgable ‘football’ supporters than at this game, the passion the fans showed for their cause was beyond any English fan. In England we can truly say ‘its just a game’ and a metaphor for rivalry. We walk home together after, banter in the pub and shake hands at the end for the most part. Our clanship is a private matter.
In Belgrade, the game is secondary. Victory is won amongst the supporters within and outside the stadium. I’ve never seen a section of supporters chanting so continuously, usually songs loaded with derogatory comments about the opposition and its supporters. The game is watched from the corner of your eye. More foten you watch each other. A shot on goal isn’t noted by any crowd reaction unless it goes in while fouls draw a small but very angry condemnation of the ‘others’ cheating. What actually happens on the pitch is totally secondary until something really does happen. The closest I can compare is Rangers -Celtic in Scotland.
That clan tribalism displays who they are and what they represent. What they represent I still don’t really know (or fear to say) but as a statement of power and a willingness for a cause it was pretty impressive. It is when this tribalism congels into actual violence we need to worry. It didn’t feel too far away and there were fights in the centre later that evening. A reading of Balkan history reveals tribal violence, institutionalised and then militarised is what the area has seen too much of.