DARK HISTORY OF A CLUB WHICH ONCE RULED THE CONTINENT
As Liverpool prepare to take on Red Star Belgrade in the Champions League, RICHARD MILLS, author of a new book on the politics of Balkans football, explores the Serbian club’s complex past
The last time Red Star Belgrade played in the group stages of the Champions League/european Cup they were doing so as the tournament’s title-holders. Their qualification this season – in a blockbuster group alongside Napoli, Paris Saint-germain and Liverpool – means the return of big European nights to a stadium that has changed little in the intervening 27 years, and also the evocation of both proud and troubling memories for the club. For at the very moment Red Star were crowned champions of Europe in 1991, their country was collapsing around them in a series of bitter wars that changed the club forever.
Established in 1945, in the tumult of Yugoslavia’s communist revolution, Red Star swiftly became one of the country’s leading sides. The team won more trophies than any of its rivals during the communist era and regularly represented Yugoslavia on the international stage.
Having reached the UEFA Cup final in 1979, Red Star climbed to the summit of the European game 12 years later, beating Olympique Marseille in the final in Bari. This rare victory for an eastern European side was all the more remarkable given the political situation at home.
Economically, Yugoslavia had been in severe difficulty for years, but as the ailing communist leadership loosened its grip on power in the late 1980s, the country’s many problems were increasingly refracted through the prism of nationalism. Already highly devolved, each of its six constituent republics enjoyed considerable autonomy. Serbs were Yugoslavia’s largest ethnic group and, in addition to Serbia – which had two autonomous provinces of its own – they lived in significant numbers in Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro.
Many Serbs viewed further decentralisation as a threat to their nation, allowing seasoned communist Slobodan Milosevic to rise to power on the back of promises to improve their lot. His aggressive stance triggered nationalist reactions elsewhere and, as political tensions rose, disintegration became a distinct possibility. However, Milosevic and other prominent figures were not willing to allow Serbs to be taken out of Yugoslavia against their will. By May 1991, rural parts of Croatia with Serb populations scarred by the horrors of the Second World War had already refused to adhere to a Zagreb leadership bent on Croatian independence. Just weeks before the European Cup final, Croatia stood on the verge of war, following a massacre of Croatian policemen in Borovo, a Serb-majority settlement on the outskirts of Vukovar.
The diversity of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia was on display in Bari: Red Star’s victorious team contained players from five of the country’s six republics. Among them was Sinisa Mihajlovic, the son of Serb and Croat parents, from Borovo.
In the crowd, Serbian nationalism was also on display. From the moment of its foundation, Red Star had been a prominent symbol of Serbian identity, and flags, banners, and patriotic songs provided the backdrop to the final. Of the 15,000 Red Star fans who travelled to Italy, hundreds were Serbs from restless parts of Croatia. Five hundred came from Knin alone, the soon to be capital of the shortlived Republic of Serbian Krajina.
At home, Red Star’s feat was held up as a victory for Yugoslav football, but it was clearly also a victory for a resurgent Serbian nation. Milosevic hosted the team at a lavish reception in Belgrade. Less than a month later, both Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, and over the summer of 1991 Croatia slowly descended into conflict, as the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian paramilitaries fought to amputate vast swathes of its territory.
When Red Star added the Intercontinental Cup to the trophy cabinet in December, with victory over Chile’s Colo-colo, the conflict had claimed thousands of lives, and the town of Vukovar – less than 90 miles from Belgrade – was a smouldering ruin.
Prior to the long-awaited opening group game against Napoli this September, the Neapolitan press discussed the violent reputation of Red Star’s ultras, the Delije (Valiants). Hooliganism has blighted Serbian football for decades, and during the current Champions League campaign UEFA has punished the Belgrade club on two occasions.
The home leg of the qualifying play-off against Salzburg was played behind closed doors following racist chanting in the previous round, while Red Star will travel to Liverpool next week without support (as they did for their 6-1 defeat in Paris earlier this month), as a result of poor fan behaviour in Austria.
The Delije’s fearsome reputation owes much to the wars of the 1990s. This was not lost on Neapolitan journalists, who wrote of the group’s relationship with the paramilitary leader Zeljko ‘Arkan’ Raznatovic, and his Serbian Volunteer Guard. Nicknamed the Tigers, this notorious paramilitary formation contained a spine of Delije members.
Engaged in ethnic cleansing operations in both Croatia and Bosnia, the Tigers played a direct role in the ‘liberation’ of Vukovar in 1991. At the time, Red Star’s magazine carried dispatches from the front, lauding the patriotic sacrifices of the club’s most passionate fans. Arkan,
STARS IN STRIPES: Red Star Belgrade players celebrate the EuropeanCup triumph over Olympique de Marseille in 1991