A night with the gravediggers

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I don’t pretend to know much about the Balkan war or the ongoing debate about Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, but I do know that there is tension. Like many other people, the whole former Yugoslavia thing didn’t really register too much until I visited Croatia and Bosnia and saw the deprivation of the latter amid the pock-marked buildings of Mostar. We look at it from afar, and in ignorance, and given you’re not really part of it, you will never really understand the depth of feeling or the burrowed prejudices and pain that still exists.

This is not about politics and war, though, but it was one of the reasons that I wanted to see Partizan Belgrade play in London. The recent Serbia v Albania match that was abandoned due to a low flying drone carrying an Albanian flag highlighted once more the simmering tensions in that region. There were no drones in London for the Tottenham v Partizan game, but some of the tension did take the train up to White Hart Lane on November 27.

There were dozens of Partizan fans making that journey. The train was a real United Nations of Football Fans. A Dane from Vienna, married to a girl from Novi Sad and in London to meet his mother from Jerusalem, was proud to be a Partizan fan. Not for him FC Kobenhavn or Brondby, but Serbia’s most notorious club. He told me that Partizan had the second most successful youth scheme after Ajax Amsterdam. German fans from Berlin sat around me, taking in their third game of the week – Manchester City v Bayern, Arsenal v Dortmund and now Tottenham v Partizan. “This game could be very interesting, the Partizan fans are passionate and there’s a bit of an edge to this one,” he said, looking up from his copy of Kicker and downing a Jack Daniels chaser. He was certainly living life on the edge.

It’s true that Partizan came to London with a bit of a reputation. Continuously disciplined by UEFA, the club inflamed sensitivities when its fans raised an anti-semitic banner at the first meeting with Spurs. I wanted to experience the atmosphere of their fans, known as the “Groberi” – the gravediggers – but hoped that the evening would pass off peacefully.

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European nights

Another reason for going to White Hart Lane was because Tottenham are currently building a new ground, almost alongside the old. There had been some controversy over this development given that a long-standing family metal work business is situated on the land that Spurs want to build on. The company concerned does not want to move given the option they are being given doesn’t suit them, and as a result, Spurs fans have sent letters abusing them. Doubtless the club will get its way, but let’s hope it is not at the cost of much-needed small business. Suspiciously, the stubborn neighbour suffered a fire a couple nights before this game. There’s no doubt that Spurs need a new ground to remain competitive and WHL is looking very tired these days.

I recall some captivating European nights at White Hart Lane and although Partizan had already been eliminated from the Europa League group stage, the curiosity card made the game attractive to students of football. Basically, we live in a shrinking world in an age where cultures and races are becoming interconnected and inter-mingled. There’s few surprises in Europe, you can walk down the high street anywhere in Europe and come across the same retail names. But Eastern Europe and countries like Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria still offer a tale of the unexpected. In days gone by, if you went to watch a European tie, you saw 11 players (numbered 1-11) run out onto the pitch and you felt you were coming across players from another planet. As globalisation has taken over football, we’ve lost that feeling of fascination, but it’s still something different to watch a team from Belgrade take the field.

Pedigree Partizan

Of course, Partizan are no slouches when it comes to European football history. They reached the European Cup final in 1966, losing to Real Madrid. Nobody fancied travelling to the old Yugoslavia to visit Partizan and en route to the Brussels final, they beat the likes of Nantes, Werder Bremen, Sparta Prague and Manchester United. Their star player was Velibor Vasovic, who went on to captain the great Ajax Amsterdam side of 1971 that won the European Cup.

Partizan were founded in 1945 by the Yugoslav People’s Army and for a long time, their club crest had JA emblazoned on it. They were Yugoslav champions 11 times and have won six Serbian titles, all in a row from 2008. Last season, they ended up in second place behind hated rivals Red Star.

Like all former Eastern Bloccers, Serbian football has suffered and once formidable clubs like Red Star, Partizan, Dinamo Zagreb and Hadjuk Split – to name just a few – have tumbled down the rankings on the international stage. Nevertheless, despite the reduced circumstances, they were still great names from football’s history.

Attendances at Serbian top flight games are pitiful. The average is just 2600 so far in 2014-15, a significant drop on the 3,800 in 2013-14. Partizan are averaging just under 9,000 but that does include the big derby with Red Star which took place a few weeks back.

Belgrade accounts for six of the Jelen Super League’s composition. As well as the big two, there’s Cukaricki, OFK, RAD and Vozdovac. All of these play in front of sub-1,000 crowds.

This season, Partizan have been in fine form and have dropped just five points from their first 13 games. They’ve beaten Red Star 1-0 in a typically heated “Eternal Derby” at their Humska stadium in front of 30,000 people. These games – they’ve met 232 times – are invariably punctuated by violence, fireworks, pitch invasions, provocative banners and, more recently, lasers.

Partizan’s man of the moment is Petar Skuletic, who has scored 15 goals already. The 24 year-old is in his second season since joining from Vojvodina. He’s also played in Austria and Montenegro. Defender Vladimir Volkov has also been attracting attention, with Torino of Italy targeting the Montenegran international.

This man won't be returning to White Hart Lane...
This man won’t be returning to White Hart Lane…

Game on, and off, and on

You would have thought that Partizan had nothing to play for but their pride, given they had already blown any chance of progress in the much-derided Europa League. In their previous four group games, they had accumulated just one point, in a 0-0 draw with Spurs in Belgrade. But they certainly played with some spirit and Spurs struggled to find a way through their defence.

The game was marred by a series of pitch invasions that people desperately wanted to pin on Partizan. The first, treated with some humour, saw a burly individual run onto the field and start to take “selfie” photos with players. He made a good fist of avoiding capture, but off he went, dropping his mobile phone in the process. Then, a few minutes later, another more athletic figure sprinted across the field, stripped off his shirt and appeared to run to the corner where Partizan’s fans were assembled to taunt them. He, too, was evicted. Then, five minutes from the interval, a third invasion took place and by now, the crowd was getting irritated. So, too, the referee, who took the teams off. “Match suspended”.

In the nine minute interlude, a banner claiming that “Kosovo je Serbia” was unfurled in the upper deck of the stand, bringing cheers from the Partizan fans. In the lower deck, an Albanian flag was waved and a short scuffle took place. On the far side, another disturbance was in process. While this was going on, a group of Spurs fans , all throwbacks to the days of 1970s terrace fighting, were screaming, “rapists and murderers” and “Croatia” at the Partizan fans. Coming on the back of a period where the media has focused on racism and anti-semitism in British football – the Park Lane end of the ground was continuously chanting “Yids” – it would seem the problem is greater than a few inappropriate comments by out-of-touch people. And incidentally, who knows what Partizan’s fans were singing. Only they, and any linguists present, would have been able to tell.

The game resumed and Tottenham won 1-0, thanks to a goal from Benjamin Stambouli, his first for the club after hapless striker Roberto Soldado – “if anyone has invaded the pitch, it’s this bloke. What has he ever done?” – struck a post.

So as the old song goes, “the Spurs go marching on”. The evening, for me, was about events off the pitch. And I hope the pranksters get punished for their clownish behaviour. It is likely that Spurs will get fined, which does seem harsh. I would look at getting a few more nimble stewards, though!

One thought on “A night with the gravediggers

  1. It’s a complicated issue that I will never understand. I used to work with a chap from Serbia and he was a big fan of Red Star Belgrade. During the break up of Yugoslavia and the war in Bosnia, he thoroughly enjoyed the fact that thousands of Muslim’s were being murdered along with the ethnic cleansing. It appears that this hatred is drummed into them as they grow up, just like it is in some respect in Ireland. There was no way he would soften his stance no matter how distressing the news reports were and it led to the end of our friendship I’m sad to say.

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