Crvena zvezda: Red Star Belgrade

A star that stands for you

No other soccer club epitomizes Serbia's sporting culture – and history – like Red Star Belgrade. Crvena zvezda: Red Star Belgrade. A name that recalls a glorious past. The legendary Yugoslav team that won soccer's European Cup in 1991, only to fall apart like the war-torn multinational state that it called home. Crvena zvezda: One of the world's most famous clubs. A magnet for obsessively impassioned fans, and a home base for extremists and radicals. "Més que un Club" – more than a club – is how fans of the Spanish soccer team Barcelona describe their favorites. In Belgrade that strikes a very familiar chord. The name "Red Star" also conjures up a sense of hope: that the city, and the country, can be restored to its former glory. And the memories of what followed banished to the past.

Sporting high, historic low
But the story of Serbia's most prestigious club cannot be told without the events of the 1990s. When the team starring Robert Prosinečki, Siniša Mihajlović and Darko Pančev began the new season in 1990, a season that it climaxed by winning Europe's premier team competition, Yugoslavia was already a powder keg. Ten years after the death of its founder Jozip Broz Tito, the country was drifting inexorably apart. Croatia and Slovenia had already opted for independence. The nationalistic, religious and ethnic fault lines were becoming impossible to ignore. And when Red Star played Croatia's Dinamo Zagreb in May, ferocious fighting broke out between the fans, players and police. For many observers today, it was this violence that ignited the country's civil war. And as, in the midst of all the chaos, Crvena zvezda slowly advanced to the final of what is now called the Champions League, a toxic atmosphere gripped the Red Star supporters. And it boiled over into an explosion of nationalism among arguably the most fervent fans in Europe. As tens of thousands accompanied their team to the final in Bari and marveled at its victory over Olympique Marseille in a penalty shoot-out, their one-time leader Željko Ražnatović, aka Arkan, had long enlisted an army of hooligans. Its campaign began with brawls inside the stadiums before progressing to war crimes on the country's battlefields. The club may have been celebrating its greatest-ever triumph, but the world outside the 100,000-capacity Marakana Stadium was falling apart.

The fans watch calmly from the stand. At Red Star’s home games – seen here against Spartak Trnava in August 2018 – that is normally the exception. (Image: Alex Raack)

Famed far and wide: the loyal fans
The war is long over. But neither the club nor the country have recovered from its horrors. Despite winning the Serbian championship again in 2018, Red Star is light years from mesmerizing Europe's soccer elite. Yet the fans refuse to go away. Even today, Red Star Belgrade is synonymous with fanaticism: enthusiasts from around the globe converge on the Serbian capital when the team faces its local rival Partizan in what is known as the "eternal derby." Because they experience something here that is otherwise extinct. The German groundhopper Markus Stapke has attended this unique match-up 30 times. "With their nickname, the 'Delije' or 'heroes,' the Red Star fans have always been masters of choreography – not only in Serbia." And, as Stapke can also testify, "the fans in the grandstand are aware of their social clout. What they sing reverberates through to the country's political classes." The journalist Frank Willmann summarized his experiences of the derby for the German weekly "Die Zeit." "Raucous laughter and yelling. But was that it? Had I become a bit actor in a wild and romantic piece of stadium drama?" It's a cocktail of tradition, passion and anarchy that lends the Red Star fans their unique charisma.

Serbia – a nation of sports lovers
How do the club and its history fit into Serbia's sporting culture? According to Nebojsa Viskovic, one of the country's best-known sports reporters, "Serbia's image is still tainted by its past. The damage is done. It can't be undone that quickly. But here sports are the best form of advertising: the highs of recent years have been closely associated with sporting triumphs."

Like the national squad's recent qualification for the soccer World Cup. Or the mercurial achievements of its tennis players, above all the 13-time Grand Slam winner Novak Djokovic. "It's unbelievable what has happened here in tennis," says Viskovic. "Serbia has no heritage in the sport whatsoever. The infrastructure is rotten and not a single dinar has been invested. It's a complete mystery." The shooting star Djokovic was quoted as follows in the German magazine "DER SPIEGEL": "The war made me a better tennis player because I swore I would show the world that there are good Serbians as well." For his fellow tennis pro Janko Tipsarević, currently the world number 56, Djokovic is more than just a sportsman: "I always tell him: 'Novak, one more victory and we'll be in the EU!'"

Currently only the fans at Red Star are capable of breathtaking achievements like those of tennis idol Djokovic. And not just in soccer. When, in 2017, Brose Bamberg of Germany played Red Star's basketball team in a EuroLeague game and the 8,000 spectators in Belgrade created a sensational atmosphere, the visibly moved Bamberg point guard Fabien Causeur stammered into the microphones: "Sure, we play basketball to win trophies, but most of all we play for evenings like this." After the game, the Serb's sports director Davor Ristović was asked how the club attracted such passionate supporters. His response seemed to speak for everyone associated with Red Star. "You may get your wages late, and there's no way you'll be taking charter flights to games – but you are playing for a club that is one big family."


Alex Raack is a freelance author and was editor for the soccer magazine 11 FREUNDE for many years.

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