Pull up a chair......
Stefano peers out at the sparsely-populated stadium from under his disapproving brow. To our left and right stand two entirely empty curve, where the hardcore home and away ultras would normally be. In front of us is the tiny posh stand where OFK Beograd’s directors and WAGs gather, while most of the couple of hundred fans who have bothered to show up are sat alongside us in the main stand, which is set into a hill and towers over the rest of the ground. This was supposed to be stage one of the Easter break agli Ultrà Lodigiani, where we, as followers of AS Lodigiani, Rome's third club, would spend as much time checking out Belgrade’s tifo as we would the actual city. But instead many of Serbia’s football fans, outraged at the football association’s decision to stage games on Easter Saturday, have decided to boycott their matches, and their decision has hit our friend hard. It’s one thing for an ultrà group to go strike, but to do for religious reasons is beyond the pale; not even in Italy does a religious holiday stop fans from going to watch their team. There’s not even the rueful smile that usually hides behind his face when angered, threatening to appear and puncture his righteous rage: this is the face of a man who has spend 18 hours crammed into a Nissan Micra – half of it driving – with four others, only to come to the realisation that the reason for him doing so has been whipped from under him by the faithful observance of a cultural/religious tradition. I’ve discussed a variety of subjects with the man in the three-and-a-bit years I’ve lived in Rome, and even as someone who tends towards negativity and pessimism, he’s never looked so despondent. It’s the Belgrade derby this evening, and Red Star’s ultras have already announced their boycott; now there’s a good chance that Partizan’s will be staying at home as well. Nikola, the Serb in our number, pipes up; ‘Ah Stè, what will you do if they don’t show up?’
‘I’ll kill myself, that’s what.’
We’d arrived in Belgrade at around 4pm the previous day, well past our scheduled time of arrival. This was mostly due to the hour-and-a-half long queue at the pay toll that separated Italy and Slovenia, and then being stung for a €150 fine at the border with Croatia, and by the time we had got halfway across the drab, flat countryside that characterises the east of the country, none of us felt that we were ever going to arrive. Somewhere around hours 16 and 17, lodged in the back corner, early afternoon sun pounding on my shaved, bald head through the window, I found myself sliding towards the edge of my tolerance. I’d taken the decision to accompany whoever was driving through the night, as it would mean that I would have the front passenger seat, but by the time we were approaching Serbia that decision was starting to backfire: my mouth was like a sandpit, the Italian being spoken around me was becoming fuzzy background noise, and as far as I was concerned we were on a treadmill, stationary while mile after mile of the same characterless landscape whizzed past us; like reused background sketches you’d always find in cheap Hannah-Barbera cartoons. Meanwhile, across from my girlfriend was Giorgio, gob wide open, teeth protruding, his nose flaring every now and again with a little light snore as he slumbered softly – as he had for almost the entire trip. What started out as sweet respite – the man likes to talk, and on occasion I find his pronounced Roman dialect hard to understand – was turning into an insult. He was taunting us – taunting me.
‘How the fuck has that ginger shit slept all this time?’ asks Stefano, swinging around from the front passenger seat to poke his finger up Sleeping Beauty’s nose. ‘Mortacci tua, Gior; Wake UP!’ Huge communist-era buildings loomed on the horizon as we swung through the Belgrade suburbs, with the oppressive humidity doing nothing to disguise the putrid funk being kicked up. I was hunched up in the back, eyes blinking in early afternoon sun like a new-born wolf, clawing at the window as I squinted to get a view of the city that was quickly enveloping us. The motorway was set into the ground so that everything towered over us, like the dystopian cityscape Fritz Lang dreamed up in the 1920's – both of the past and the future at the same time – while the muggy texture of the air and the blazing heat of the sunshine was trapped among the Easter traffic. It was like driving through Deep Heat. As we came towards the city centre and we made our way through an unfamiliar and frankly bizarre one-way system, evidence of the region’s trouble recent history started becoming more obvious: buildings that still bore the scars inflicted on the city by the late 90’s NATO air raids, and the accompanying graffiti, all of which was either anti-USA, anti-NATO, or both. It was the most obvious evidence that many Serbs see themselves as the victims in the Balkan wars, people who lost their land and who were punished for defending their people. It wasn’t the last.
The original plan was to catch as much sport as we possibly could – in the emails that did the rounds before the trip there was talk of two football matches and a Uefa Cup basketball match on the Saturday, with another basketball match in Slovenia planned to break up the return trip on the Sunday – but by the time we had arrived we had already lost the whole morning, and ploughing straight into the tourist stuff was unthinkable: I’d been awake for 30 straight hours, much of that time spent with my neck lodged at a right angle to my body, and my limbs felt like they had dumb bells attached to them, to the point that when we finally parked and clambered out of the car, I had to crawl out on all fours, before slowly stretching upwards and outwards. My vertebrae popped and clicked one by one as I straightened up, and I took a look as myself in a nearby shop window; Gentle Ben’s grumpy uncle was staring back at me. No, the only thought on all our minds was sleep, and by the time I was shaken from my coma by the knock on my room door, it was already 6pm on our one free day; and the thought of spending all day Saturday rushing between tourist sites and stadiums was giving me the shakes.
It should hardly be surprising then how desolate Stefano felt when confronted with an almost fan-less OFK Stadion the next day, with only polite ripples of applause and the odd Serb insult puncturing the silence. This was no small-time encounter either: OFK were up against Vojvodina, who are the country's third biggest side and as it stood only three points off the top of the league. However, at a certain point, with OFK leading 1-0, we stopped watching the football and carried on the debate of whether Belgrade’s ultrà groups were right to go on strike or not. For ultras there is always a strict policy of talking through every decision, whether big or small, to make sure that it fits with the overall policy of the group, and that it is consistent with what it means to be an ultrà. It's a particularly formal, and very Italian, way of supporting your football team. Many of the country's original groups were set up in the same spirit – often, although not necessarily with the same politics – as the far-left centri sociali (social centres, usually empty buildings taken over by anarchist, socialist and communist squatters in the late 1960s and 70s): to make the curva an autonomous space away from the glare of the authorities, run for the people and by the people. Of course as with any broadly democratic, hierarchical movement, what that means will differ from group to group, from city to city, and from country to country, and underneath the core ideas – to go to every game, to sing, to stand behind your banners, to not grass others up to the police (or deal with the police at all, in theory) to represent your team and city everywhere and to be independent from the club – there are a whole swathe of issues where it becomes decidedly murkier: many take free tickets from their clubs and make deals with the police, for instance, and plenty of groups flog merchandise bearing their name to the general public, flouting one of the other key commandments – Ultras No Profit. However today’s conversation was of a more purely philosophical nature, and while Stefano, as a founder member of the Ultrà Lodigiani and the group's spiritual leader, was lamenting the no-show from OFK’s hardcore and the prospect of an ultrà-less Belgrade derby, Nikola was trying to explain just how important the Easter Saturday ritual is to Serbs, and compared it to how TV has fucked around with match schedules in Serie A: in Tuscany, for example, Sunday lunchtime kick offs caused uproar with most fans – ultras and non – violating an important local cultural tradition for the sake of satellite TV and advertisers.
It was galling to see religion and football support making such inconvenient bedfellows, But it was also easy to see his point; I would beyond distraught if the Christmas and Easter football pile-up was abandoned in Britain, mostly because it would cost me one of the few chances I have of watching Chelsea live, instead of on a choppy internet stream. Stefano’s outrage, and nascent depression, was more born out of frustration at not getting to see what he wanted to see, and of a holiday that was slowly slipping through his fingers. Nikola’s opinion might have made uncomfortable hearing for atheists hardened by travel fatigue like Stefano and me, but you had to concede that it was against calcio moderno, and above all, consistent. However for Nikola there was more to it than that: it was also about defending Serb traditions, and Serbia in general.
While this trip was supposed to be fun for us, for Nikola it was more significant. Serb by birth, his family fled his home town of Leskovac – which is closer to Sofia than it is Belgrade, and nearer still to the Kosovan border – in the early 90s, and pitched up in Rome, where he has lived since his early childhood. Like many émigrés, his sense of ethnic identity is extremely strong, and over the last couple of years his political philosophy has drifted towards nationalism. He refers to Albanians and Kosovans as ‘those shits’, is strongly in favour of a Greater Serbia, and in the weeks immediately after we got back to Rome he plastered his Facebook page with nationalist rhetoric, including messages in support of recently arrested Ratko Mladic, and railing against ‘traitor’ president Boris Tadic. Mladic’s most famous move was the slaughter of over 8,000 Bosniaks – all men – at Srebrenica, and chillingly it’s this act of calculated genocide for which he appears to be popular. Never mind the fact that as a military leader his record on the battle field is spotty at best: The JNA forces under his command during Operation Coastline failed to cut Dalmatia off from the rest of Croatia, despite outnumbering their Croat counterparts and being more heavily armed, while he was soundly trounced by the combined Bosnian and Croatian offensive during Operation Mistral; 40 per cent of the Serbian public regard Mladic as a hero. It’s not hard to see why, if you dig a little deeper: Serb-born Janja Bec Neumann, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning sociologist and expert on genocide, says that Serbian historical texts deny that Serbs committed crimes against other ethnic groups during the Balkan wars or World War II. ‘There is a state strategy of denial; here it is still almost impolite to talk about Srebrenica,’ says Neumann. ‘Everything is being swept under the carpet, and everything happens in accordance with three dominant pillars: the culture of lies, the culture of deceit, and the culture of fear.’ In this climate of misinformation Mladić, as well to lesser degree Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić, have become ciphers for the cause of Serbian nationalism; either you’re ignorant of the crimes committed, or you know and don’t care – after all, they sacked our villages and took our land as well.
‘In Serbia our philosophy is that “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours we not bothered with;’ Nikola explained to us. ‘We just want what’s ours.”’ A statement as vague as that is easy to tear apart, and it took all of 30 seconds for the rest of us to twist it into ‘what mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine’, but there’s a truth to the piss-taking; implicit in that statement is the idea that Kosovo is theirs, as is the idea that if was to be given back to Serbia, there wouldn’t be any more problems. It seems to me in part that nostalgia for his homeland – he has never bothered applying for Italian nationality and has repeatedly expressed a desire to return to Serbia – and in part a sense that the world took sides against them – and by extension, him – that has hardened his attitude, and at certain points during our trip he attempted to justify what was in my eyes the unjustifiable, including the sacking and raping of villages, by saying ‘it was a war’. In his (and their) eyes, it’s us versus them, with Milosevic’s henchmen as ‘us’ and NATO as ‘them’. We discussed the issue over a few beers in the centre of Belgrade, and it reminded me somewhat of talking to Irish Republicans born and raised in the UK (even though the power dynamic is decidedly different): they always appear to be much more interested in the 'struggle' than most people born and raised in the Republic are.
All that said (and it should be added that regardless of his opinions on this issue he's made me feel more at home in Italy than many actual Italians), there was something fundamentally endearing about the pride with which he showed us around town: at dinner on the Saturday night a local folk band wandered into the restaurant, and for a small fee they would play whatever song you requested. For the best part of two hours the whole place – young and old – sung, thumped beer glasses on the table and stared wistfully into the middle distance, as the band worked their way through a series of traditional ballads. The glistening in his eyes was clear for everyone to see, and in that glimmer I saw something of myself: there are times, and it might be when a certain song comes on my iPod, or when friends leave for London after staying over, or while watching Chelsea matches over that fuzzy internet stream, that I get uncontrollable pangs of homesickness. I miss the comfort of friends and family, our pop culture, granary bread, good TV, and not having to battle all the time with misconceptions about me and my countrymen. I’ve found myself getting prickly when people suggest you can’t eat well in London (has a more ignorant statement ever been uttered? Well yes, but allow me, as the current vernacular goes), tiring of the endless shoe-gazing melancholy which runs through the spine of Italian culture like a blood-sucking worm, and on occasion even the relentless Anglophilia – which often takes the form of servile deference or a desperate need to talk about West Ham’s ICF – drives me up the wall. When you’re abroad, especially immersed in a culture so vastly different to your own, it’s easy to pull away, to identify yourself in a way you would never have to back home. Back home no-one asks you where you’re from, or why you’re where you are, and right now Nikola doesn’t have to explain or justify anything; he’s with his people, at home.
‘Fucking hell, look at these: they don’t joke about.’ We were on our way back into the centre of town when the first phalanx of riot police came into view. Clad head to toe in Batman-style protective clothing and wielding semi-automatic rifles, each one came equipped with a flat, dead stare that sits back in the face, not registering your presence but still making you feel like a worm. They were all absolutely massive, and it's hard to emphasise just how much they looked like a phalanx of Robocops; I'm not one for the idea of placing armed coppers on the street to keep order, but there was no way any of us were acting up with that many of them about. They lined the streets and parks right up to Partizan’s stadium, where their presence, while quiet, was always felt, and it didn’t take us long to come to the conclusion that they would kick the carabinieri’s (Italy's military police and mortal enemy of all ultras) arses. We had already been gruffly patted down by two of these monsters at OFK’s ground, watching them as they confiscated pens and coins in a plastic ice cream box, and making it patently clear that our presence was a cause of profound irritation to them. That alone was enough to put us off doing anything even slightly out of line while we made our way towards the main event: the Belgrade derby. Our route took us alongside a motorway flyover, with the ground – a charmless, roofless grey bowl – initially looking like a junction. Below us there was bustle, as fans grabbed snacks and a beer before heading to the ground, but it hardly felt as though the biggest game in Serbian football was kicking off in an hour, especially one that would play a huge role in deciding who won the league: the two teams came into this game level on 59 points, with Partizan top only on goal difference. A win for either side would be a hammer blow with only six games left, so the paucity of fans was threatening to drag us all towards a terrible realisation – Partizan’s ultras had gone on strike. I started to worry that Stefano might throw himself off the fly-over.
It looked little better once we got to the ground and past another round of aggressive security checks (in which they again confiscated pencils, and took a particularly keen interest in my girlfriend’s make-up), and took our seats. Red Star’s end was as predicted entirely empty, while Partizan’s curva was half full, unthinkable for a game of this nature, so close to kick off: for the Rome derby both curve are usually completely rammed at least an hour beforehand, with all the main groups preparing the coreografia (the pre-match displays foreign supporters are such fans of) while both sets of fans clear their throats with a round of insults and hostile chanting. We had tickets for the posh seats, which for a whopping 1,500 dinar (€15) see you sat right above the halfway line, and apart from the hostile security checks on entering the ground, the matchday experience is pretty relaxed, with fans bringing pints of beer up into the stand without any problems, and everyone having scant regard taken for which seats it is people have actually paid for. As we drunk our beers the sun started to set and the ground – including crucially, the curva – slowly started filling up, and as the players came out for their pre-match warm-up the first hostile notes were struck, with Red Star’s players being whistled and insulted. Gestures were also made. Meaty, square-jawed men took up the places in front of us, and while Stefano took pictures and captured videos of his surroundings, his mood lightened: ‘at least they’re going to support their team,’ he said, casting a hostile glance at the empty Red Star section. ‘Mortacci loro’. It’s not until about five minute before the match starts, when a van arrives in front of the curva and a couple of burly ultras unload and attach their banners to the railings, before the whole ground chants something obviously hostile in unison, that the weight is finally lifted of our shoulders. Stefano in particular looked like a kid on Christmas morning – his relief and delight was tangible.
The match itself was something of a let down, as derbies often are. As with many of the minor leagues of European football, the leading lights often leave at the earliest opportunity to make their fortune in the big money leagues of western Europe, and as such the quality of the football was lower than what we had come to expect from a country's top division. 'They're wank', was Nikola's charitable assessment. The importance of the game might have had something to do with the scrappy play, however: a draw was not much use for either side, as Vojvodina – even though they were eventually beaten by OFK Beograd 1-0 – were still in the hunt, so only a win would do. The atmosphere – though lacking away fans and the all-important coreografie – was pretty good, and differed from many Italian and English stadia in that the whole ground got involved: when the curva bounced, the grandstand bounced, and it seemed that there wasn't the adversarial relationship between the ultras and the the regular fans that exists in Italy; certainly not when it came to politics. At a certain point a low, rumbling chant pulsated through the ground, sung with more gusto than all the others. I turned to Nikola, who was enthusiastically joining in, to ask what everyone was singing. 'Kosovo is Serbia', he replied. It was a damning indictment of the football that that was the only thing from the first half that I could remember the next day.
The second period however was a bit livelier, and as is often the case in derby games the atmosphere was cranked up even further: the curva started to get rowdier and louder, hammering out a constant rhythmic drone that you could feel slowly making its way around the stadium. It was as though everyone had worked off their Easter grub and realised just how crucial a win for Partizan would be, and even above us in the VIP section dignitaries and (we can only assume) local celebrities pounded on the hoardings in front of them. The chanting built and throbbed and the players responded, and when Ghanaian Prince Tagoe smashed home the game's only goal the whole ground exploded, with flares being lit and people falling over each other with joy. It was like an industrial size bottle of coke had been shaken up for an hour, only for the pressure to become too much and the whole thing tearing itself apart in a shower of bubbles: imagine beating your local (and principal title) rivals with only a few games to spare and you'll get the idea. Soon the whole place was bouncing, and even the gruff old man sat in front of us was gesticulating at those behind to get up and fucking sing. On the final whistle the party started, with the players running over to the curva to take the applause, and some fans trying to get on the pitch. Shirts were thrown to the fans and the Very Important People above led the rest of us in a round of festive singing, while one particularly fat dignitary was hanging over the hoardings swinging a beer back and forth like pub conductor. They were happy, and so were we: Stefano and I were particularly chuffed that it was Partizan's fans who were celebrating; maybe there was a god after all.
The trip back was considerably less fraught than it had been on the way there. We set off in the late morning and whizzed through that bland stretch of nothingness between Zagreb and Belgrade in no time (well, about the same time, but it didn't feel anywhere near as long). The Nazi punk CD that Stefano brought with him got repeated airings (I should point out at this point that none of the people on the trip were/are Nazis or Fascists, and that many on the left here enjoy mocking them in ways that simply would never occur to Brits – in this case listening to their music, making swastikas from the discarded pages of porno mags, and impersonating them in an ironic fashion. It's a cultural phenomenon that requires much more space than I can give it here, so just roll with it, eh?) to much amusement, which then brought on discussions about the many similarities – political and behavioural – between Italian Fascists and Communists, as well as some of the ridiculous titles these bands seem to favour. My favourite was 'The Revolution is like the Wind', which I can only assume was written by a Patrick Swayze fan. However as the drive wore on, the night fell, and the musical policy switched to overwrought Italian ballads, I decided I was out. I put on my iPod and retreated within myself, soothing my aching limbs and tired mind with good old-fashioned British pop music – I even managed half-an-hour's sleep.
On the final leg of our journey home, we stop off at the Badia al Pino service station, near the wealthy Tuscan town of Arezzo. Here, on the morning of 11 November 2007, 26-year-old Lazio fan Gabriele Sandri was shot dead by police officer Luigi Spaccarotella, as he travelled with friends to watch his team play away at Inter. Service stations have always been hot spots for football violence in Italy, as fans criss-cross the country going to away games, or travel up from the South to watch the big three – Inter, Milan and Juventus – in action up North. That morning there had been a confrontation between Juventus fans and Laziali; the police intervened, and, it was eventually discovered, Spaccarotella fired into the car Sandri was in, which was speeding away from the service station, killing him as he slept. Sandri was a well known club DJ in Rome, and his death provoked outrage among football fans: Rioting kicked off outside the Stadio Olimpico that evening, as between 200-1,000 fans clashed with the carabinieri and smashed up the headquarters of CONI, the governing body for all sports in Italy. Bombs and fireworks were thrown and fires set. Earlier that day fans up and down the country fought with police, outraged that the weekend’s games had merely been postponed by 15 minutes rather than cancelled, as they were when Sicilian copper Fillipo Raciti was killed during rioting before the Catania-Palermo derby, earlier that year. Sandri’s death became a cause célèbre for the ultrà movement, which likes to paint itself as a world of romantic warriors taking on the forces of state repression (a highly dubious and self-serving mythology, frankly). For them this was the worst atrocity yet in an ongoing war with the authorities, and yet more evidence that their paranoia was justified – they really were out to get them. Amazingly, given the appalling inefficiency of the Italian justice system, Spaccarotella was actually convicted and jailed for his crime, given nine-and-a-half years for a spectacular and tragic episode of incompetence.
We wait outside the car, grabbing as much fresh air as we can before we sardine ourselves for another couple of hours. It’s around 5am, and the sunlight is starting to creep up over the horizon, clearing away the fog and any chance of sleep; the hazy spring sky and bustle of commuters on the motorway will soon put paid to that. For the moment though Stefano is leaning on the car, shielding himself from the chill in the air and waiting for the others to come back from the breakfast bar. To our left a police car idles up to the entrance, parking in front of the door. One of the officers adjusts his belt as he trundles up the stairs, no doubt looking for a shot of coffee to clear his head after a long night shift. We all fix him with our eyes, making sure that he's not about to use the overwhelming powers his job gives him – as well as his gun – to fuck around with us; at the same time Nikola and Giorgio pass him, making sure not to puncture his sleepy early-morning aura. Stefano's face is a picture of hostility and resentment.
‘Mortacci loro’, he whispers.
You can find Terry on Twitter @T_Daley.