In football, rivalries are divided into two tiers: those whose attraction is the sporting prowess displayed on the field — think Real Madrid versus Barcelona — and those where the game itself is a mere formality eclipsed by the action that takes place in the stands. Belgrade’s “eternal derby”, which is contested by local giants Red Star and Partizan, falls into the latter category. In pure sporting terms, Serbian football hasn’t been worth watching since Red Star famously claimed the European Cup in 1991, but the eternal derby is regarded as one of the great spectacles in world football, a reputation that it owes entirely to the clubs’ fans.
While matches across Europe’s top leagues have gentrified into staid, corporatised affairs, every eternal derby is, without fail, a bacchanal of choreography and pyrotechnics that often boils over into savage displays of senseless violence. This last detail is hardly something to be proud of, but in the hyper-masculine world of football fandom, such rabid passion has a perverse, magnetic draw. Every supporter likes to brag that their own cross-town rivalry is “more than just a football match,” but in Belgrade’s case this well-worn cliché is actually true. According to one survey, Belgrade’s duopolistic behemoths command 90 per cent of the country’s support and clearly inspire a kind of fanaticism scarcely found anywhere else.
The reasons for this are partly cultural, but also social and political. In a country as economically crippled and starved of opportunity as Serbia, sport serves as a proxy for all the feelings of glory and achievement that so many of its citizens are denied as individuals. As such, the match and scoreline become intensely personal. Sport also satisfies a widespread national yearning for collectivism and purpose. Yugoslavia was founded upon the transnational myth of “brotherhood and unity”, and Tito’s regime effectively fostered a sense of collective belonging. Those social bonds were torn apart in the 90s, as Serbia and others made an abrupt and violent transition from socialism to crooked crony capitalism, but a yearning for them remains. The football terraces fill that void and offer a sense of community and purpose that’s missing from civil society. And when you gather such a broad base of angry, downtrodden, disempowered people in one place, the outcome tends to be explosive.
The Partizan — Red Star rivalry is an omnipresent fixture of daily life that exists beyond match day and reaches far beyond the confines of the stadium. Take a walk through the capital and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single wall that hasn’t been defaced by the clubs’ supporters, with some going so far as to paint communal bins and other pieces of public property in club colours. Much like in Belfast, entire neighbourhoods are partitioned along sectarian lines and decorated with murals that pay tribute to whichever team is dominant in the local area.
The football terraces fill that void and offer a sense of community and purpose that’s missing from civil society
While supporters from both sides have well-earned reputations for hooliganism, their fanaticism sometimes manifests itself in more positive forms. The best example of this is a Partizan-inspired phenomenon called Grobarski Trash Romantizam (Gravedigger’s Trash Romanticism, which takes its name from the nickname for Partizan supporters: the grobari, or gravediggers). What started as a Facebook page in 2012 has grown into a small, counter-cultural movement that uses art to pay homage to its favoured club.
Boasting some 38,000 followers, GTR was initially a space for Partizan fans to share club-inspired memes that took notable pieces of art and modified them to express their feelings towards Partizan or their opponents. In one, a Jackson Pollock painting is re-imagined as a snapshot of the terraces after the team’s legendary comeback victory against London’s Queens Park Rangers in 1984. GTR also exists as a physical fanzine filled with essays, think pieces and poetry. In one issue, a contributor analyses the club from a Nietzschean perspective, while another uses former Smiths singer Morrissey to articulate the inherent romance of supporting Partizan.
The Serbian media has tried to depict GTR as a reaction against the thuggish stereotypes that are so often pinned to the country’s fans, but the page’s founder tells me that this is wide of the mark.
“We’re not an alternative to anything, we’re not presenting any answers nor are we an example of how something should be. We’re simply and genuinely expressing our love for Partizan in a way that comes naturally to us”, they explain over email. “We don’t need the approval of journalists or small-minded bumpkins, nor do we judge our friends who choose to express their love towards Partizan in different ways. We have no problem with violence — everybody has their own pressure valve in life. And if two groups want to fight amongst themselves then, from a position of respect for personal freedom, that’s totally fine and legitimate. But it’s all gone too far… knives and guns are the tools of psychopaths and idiots, not real supporters.”
“Morrisey, Orwell and Strummer aren’t Partizan supporters but their work radiates the qualities of the club and its supporters”
Beyond mere meme-making, the GTR phenomenon has a more serious artistic component as well. In 2015, a couple of Partizan-supporting graffiti artists who are associated to the group began painting murals of legendary players from the club’s history — and some of its more famous fans — in the inner city quarter of Dorćol, a longtime hotbed of Partizan support and the home turf of one of its most notorious ultras groups, Alcatraz.
Executed in monochrome colours reminiscent of the club’s iconic black-and-white kit, the murals depict various actors, writers, singers, film directors and other public intellectuals who were known to be fans of the club, as well as ex-players who were so skillful that it could be argued that they turned sport into an artform. As their number has grown (more than 25 portraits can now be found dotted across Belgrade), their roster has expanded to include foreign-born artists as well, namely late Clash frontman Joe Strummer, Morrissey and George Orwell. Explaining the reasoning behind their selections, GTR’s founder told me: “Morrisey, Orwell and Strummer aren’t Partizan supporters but their work radiates the qualities of the club and its supporters. Orwell fought against fascism in the Spanish civil war alongside the club’s founders, Koča Popović and Peko Dapčević. Strummer worked as an undertaker and his poetry is fairly “gravedigger-esque”, as is Morrissey’s.”
The murals serve a dual purpose: first and most obviously, they exist as a visual love letter to the club. But they also perform a public service by beautifying a dilapidated city that fans of both clubs are guilty of vandalising. The response has been so overwhelmingly positive that most of the murals have escaped being defaced by opposition fans, although a few haven’t been so lucky: shamefully, some moron(s) were so offended by Orwell’s image that they decided to spray a swastika over his face accompanied with the words “viva la Franco”. Morrissey was another notable casualty. This sort of vandalism can prove a dangerous provocation in Serbia, where, in June this year, a confrontation between rival ultras over a vandalised mural led to a 19-year-old Partizan fan being fatally shot in the spine. It’s a testament to GTR’s benign nature that the Orwell incident resulted in nothing more than a disgruntled Facebook post.
Grobarski Trash Romantizam is an illustrative example of what sets the eternal derby apart from other sporting rivalries. While supporters of all teams are prone to compulsive behaviour, fandom in Serbia is an all-consuming obsession, one that’s more akin to a form of worship than a hobby. In between those 90 match-day minutes every weekend, the country’s more devoted fanatics pour their lives into their club with a fervency that simply doesn’t exist in traditional footballing powerhouses like England, Spain or Germany. And while GTR might stand in stark contrast to the more unsavoury elements of the Partizan — Red Star rivalry, they are both borne out of the same impulse: the same pent-up, unbridled emotion that drives some to fling plastic seats at riot police compels others to spend their free time painting murals for no personal gain. This is precisely what makes the eternal derby more than just a football match.