FEATURE: Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger hails 'passionate' Red Star Belgrade atmosphere: They know football in Serbia
PUBLISHED: 10:09 21 October 2017 | UPDATED: 10:50 21 October 2017
Alexander's eyes darted around as he spoke. He was young but had experienced a lot in his three decades.
"I was born in Belgrade", he said. "I have never moved from my homeland. But I have lived in four countries in my life."
Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro as the Former Republic of Yugoslaiva, then Serbia and Montenegro, before simply Serbia.
The chronology of this proud land’s history over the past three decades in a nutshell.
The mighty Red Star Belgrade have experienced a turbulent time too. But now, as Red Star supporter Alexander explains his club are on the rise.
“We have had lots of problems”, he adds wearily, as if to detail them would take far long.
The club spent years in the doldrums, riven by in-fighting, financial mismanagement and a lack of infrastructure stalling the traditional conveyor belt of talent from the part of the world. It was a place where young talent felt they had to go abroad to progress.
“We have a problem with a ‘brain drain’. In football and in general.” Alexander explained. “Young people feel like they have to move to the UK to the US, to Germany to fulfil their potential. All our best and most talented people such as doctors and engineers are leaving. Footballers too. Although,” he said with a note of pride in his voice, “Our football is trying to rise again.”
Long gone was the talent that this part of the world used to produce. The past decade has seemed like a lifetime since Red Star’s immortal 1991 European Cup winners in a side peopled with football royalty such as Robert Prosinecki, Darko Pancev, Dejan Savicevic as well as Sinsa Mihajlovic – who could also play a bit too.
The nadir was arguably three years ago when Belgrade were banned from UEFA’s top table, the Champions League, for 12 months after falling foul of Financial Fair Play regulations. At the time it was shame mixed with disgrace. But it also marked a footballing Year Zero.
People who genuinely cared for the club decided enough was enough and a comprehensive overhaul was instigated to turn this famous club around.
Three years on Red Star boast a vibrant team under boss Vladan Milojevic, the Red Star coach, whose player Vujadin Savic also gave a reminder of the good old days during the Arsenal match – for it was his father Dusan whose goal knocked the North Londoners out of the 1978-79 UEFA Cup.
The club is on the march again. Already this season they have emerged triumphant in Europe against Sparta Prague, Krasnodar and Cologne.
They lead the Serbian SuperLiga by four points from deadly rivals Partizan and went into the match against the Gunners of the Premier League with their confidence high.
The match was played at the evocative Rajko Mitic Stadium as known as the ‘Marakana’ in homage to the original Rio icon.
It is simply no exaggeration to say nothing would have matched the atmosphere on Thursday evening – anywhere in Europe.
The fans in the official attendance of 52,000 sung constantly – and loudly – throughout the game. There was no respite for the ears.
The noise levels were ear-splittingly high, which, coupled with the impressive pre-match mosaic of a canon being disarmed – made up of cards held up by thousands of frenzied Red Star ultras – added greatly to the occasion.
As the teams headed out onto the pitch for the start of the second half another giant mosaic was held up. This time of Saint Sava, a hugely important figure in Serbian history. The fans certainly did him proud as thousands held their cards up for a long five minutes while they cheers on their heroes.
To think, this splendid, gladiatorial amphitheatre used to hold crowds of more than 100,000, including 115,000 against Real Madrid in the mid 1970s.
How must that have sounded? As it was the aural intensity actually hurt the ears when referee Benoit Bastien sent off home player Milan Rodic after he caught Francis Coquelin with a careless arm with ten minutes remaining.
The fanatical support who already believe UEFA have it in for them vented their fury as the decibels reached the level of a commercial airplane taking off.
There were certainly lots of conspiracy theories espoused in conversation with locals before the game – as well as the numerous graffiti plastered around the city telling the European bigwigs to go forth and multiply – in perfect English.
Five minutes later Arsenal carved an unexpected goal when the impressive Jack Wilshere drove at the midfield, exchanged passes with Theo Walcott before playing a ball into the box for Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman who gives the impression of looking less than mobile at times, performed a perfectly executed overhead kick to send the ball past keeper Milan Borjan.
The ground was momentarily silence – for the only time – as the realisation sunk in that Arsenal had scored against the run of play. Either that or it was surprise that the Frenchman had scored from such an unlikely action.
It was a cue for the loyal travelling fans to celebrate dementedly – and deservedly. It’s virtually impossible as an away supporter to make your voice heard in the cauldron that is the Marakana, but they did their best.
It was the least they deserved for their loyalty – even if the goal was harsh on Red Stars efforts on and off the pitch.
And as the final whistle blew the whole crowd hurled abuse at the officials, once again accusing them and their paymasters UEFA of various wrongdoing – loudly.
There was time for one final mark of colourful defiance from the bouncing ultras – two flares were let loose in an impressive display that European bigwigs in their wisdom have decreed are banned inside grounds. The Red Star fans disagreed and lit them anyway. You can only wonder what the ‘pyro’ – as they call it in these parts – display would have been like before the embargo.
As it was Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger hailed the atmosphere after this correspondent questioned him on it after the match had ended.
Speaking to the Islington Gazette he said: “The Red Star support is absolutely amazing and fantastic.
“Red Star Belgrade is a massive club with a big history. People know football here and are passionate about it. You could see that tonight.”
He also had time in his press conference to praise the home side adding: “We played against a good Red Star team who were dangerous on the counter-attack. Petr Cech made some good saves.
“In the end we got a win that was credit to the mentality of the team.
“Olivier Giroud came to the touchline and told me we would score. That’s Giroud, he keeps belief when it’s tough and that’s maybe why he scores at moments when you don’t expect him to score.
“You win when you can. What is remarkable is the spirit we showed today in a game that was very physical. They defended very well with a lot of determination.
“We didn’t give up. They showed character to play in such a ‘heated’ atmosphere.
As the coaches left to ferry the Arsenal fans back to the airport – after being kept inside the ground for an hour and a half – Red Star supporter Alexander wished the travelling fans well.
“We hope to see you again one day in Belgrade”, before adding, “Red Star supporters will be equally as passionate in London I can assure you.”
If they are anywhere near as loud as they were in the Marakana the atmosphere will prove to be thunderous for a change at the Emirates.