The New European - - Eurofile -

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,

Pic­ture: Getty Im­ages

STARS IN STRIPES: Red Star Bel­grade play­ers cel­e­brate the Euro­peanCup tri­umph over Olympique de Mar­seille in 1991

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