AN IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS OF SERBIAN FOOTBALL, PARTIZAN & RED STAR BELGRADE

AN IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS OF SERBIAN FOOTBALL, PARTIZAN & RED STAR BELGRADE

If you were a tourist walking around downtown Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, it would be easy to get confused and lost. Not only are some street names written in Cyrillic and others in Latin, but the names of the street names change while you’re walking down the same street. Therefore, when you take off from the Republic Square towards Bulevar Despota Stefana - the historic street where Marshal Josip Broz Tito proclaimed the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia on the 29th of November 1943 - you will see a long street often jammed with heavy traffic. But, you will also see that halfway down the street, its name suddenly changes to ‘Boulevard of Despot Stefan’. The break-up of modern Serbia from the former socialist Yugoslavia can be confusing in many ways - even down to the street names.

In many examples of street and school name changes, we see shifts from figures and dates strictly related to Yugoslavia (29th of November was Republic Day in the former country) into more “pro-Serbian” names - Despot Stefan Lazarević, for example, was one of the most influential rulers of medieval Serbia. Symbolically, we notice Serbia’s attempt to forge an identity based entirely on Serbian history, rather than its half-century long segment as part of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia.

The dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s also meant a gradual split-up of the newly formed Serbia, with a great part of the heritage from the previous four and a half decades disintegrated. The most obvious changes followed in the economic and political system. The country slowly started to open its economy to the world, and entered the process of globalisation, which had already taken hold over Western Europe and the United States. The single-party system, particularly present in the period of Josip Broz Tito’s reign of Yugoslavia until 1980, was replaced with a multi-party system, and, more importantly, parliamentary democracy.

In the meantime, awareness was being raised among the people about other historical events previously suppressed during Tito’s Yugoslavia reign, such as the events in Sarajevo which preceded the start of the First World War; the Balkan Wars a couple of years before, which served as an important historical benchmark in Serbia’s full liberation from the influence of the Ottoman Empire; and the First Serbian Uprising in 1804, a starting point of the modern history of Serbia.

However, Serbian authorities in post-Yugoslav years were - and remain - unable to completely destroy all connections with the previous communist regime. After all, communism was present in the Balkans for almost half of the 20th century, so some institutions will always bear the communist sign. There is no need to look further than two of Serbia’s greatest football clubs – Red Star Belgrade and Partizan Belgrade - for examples of this.

The need for renunciation from communism and the Second Yugoslavia – as it was also known – as a failed political experiment is missing in the context of the two most famous clubs of the region; if anything, these are actually more adored. But, let’s go back to the period before the existence of the so-called eternal rivals.


The first football clubs on the territory of the then Kingdom of Serbia were established in the first decade of the 20th century. After the end of the First World War and creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), the national football championship was initiated in 1923. During the interwar period, two clubs stood out on the territory of Belgrade – BSK ( an acronym for Belgrade Sports Club) and SK Yugoslavia.

Before the Second World War started, BSK won five championship titles, while Yugoslavia won two, with the two teams finishing as runners-up a combined total of seven times. They were great city rivals.

However, in the autumn of 1944, the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia, which consisted of domestic communist forces, freed Belgrade with the help of the Soviet army, and slowly took control of other parts of Yugoslavia too. Not long afterwards, in December, football clubs BSK and SK Yugoslavia ceased to exist, and in all documents of the Ministry of Education, were labelled as simply “blue” (BSK) and “red” (Yugoslavia). Communist authorities then forbade the existence of the majority of pre-war football clubs, creating space for the creation of new teams which would support the ideologies of the authorities through sport.

At the beginning of the following year, in 1945, FK Crvena Zvezda (FC Red Star) were established. The name of the club could not have been a clearer communist sign, as the main symbol of the new Yugoslavia was a red five-pointed star. The newly-founded club were granted the use of the stadium and accompanying facilities of the former SK Yugoslavia, and many players of the now-extinct club went on to play for Red Star. Not long afterwards, Red Star took the red and white jersey colours from Yugoslavia too - colours that would later be well-known throughout Europe.

In October of the same year, another club was established in Yugoslavia’s capital; Central House of the Yugoslav Army “Partizan”, modelled on Moscow’s CDKA, later known as CSKA. The name was shortened to just Partizan, with the word chosen in honour of Yugoslav partisans, communist military formations which fought for the country’s liberation in the Second World War. The influence of communist authorities on the club’s creation was obvious - Partizan was formed by the Yugoslav Army, and many high-ranking military officials were part of the club’s management.

From day one, Red Star and Partizan were privileged in comparison to other clubs. Red Star inherited infrastructure from one of the most successful Serbian clubs before the Second World War, while Partizan wielded great authority thanks to their close connection to the army and their powerful management. On many occasions, for example, they were able to bring new players to the club by allowing them to serve a shorter mandatory military service.

To a great extent, this eased the adoption of the famous nickname ‘eternal rivals’, creating the greatest Yugoslav derby, one of the more significant derbies in Europe. Shortly after their foundation, “Večiti” (the Eternals, as their nickname goes) became a leading force in Yugoslav football, accompanied by Croatian clubs Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split. This “Big Four” won most of the domestic trophies, with Partizan the Yugoslav champions in 1947.

These four teams were so dominant in that period that, by the beginning of 1970s, only Sarajevo and Vojvodina had managed to win the championship outside of the Big Four teams. As a result of the city’s sporting success, the fanbases of the Belgrade clubs grew rapidly. New generations of young soldiers were growing up preferring Partizan, thanks to the obvious relations between the club and the army, so ‘crno-beli’ (the black-and-whites) developed a fanbase throughout Yugoslavia, even in parts of the country where other Serbian clubs had no significant following.

On the other hand, the name ‘Red Star’ itself was a good enough reason for supporters to fall in love with Partizan’s rivals. Through history, Red Star have been connected with the leadership of Yugoslav police, and huge numbers of fans were following the club not only from the Socialist Republic of Serbia, but also SR Bosnia and Herzegovina and SR Croatia, where large numbers of ethnic Serbs lived.

Yet, stormy years followed at the Balkans. With the beginning of the last decade of the 20th century, a country which was moribund for almost ten years started falling apart in the most brutal way, creating armed conflicts between several warring sides.

The decadence of Yugoslavia and its dissolution did not signal the decay of the cult of the eternal rivals, though. In the midst of the conflicts around the country, Red Star became champions of Europe, winning the Champions Cup in 1991, and together with Partizan, they started a new kind of dominance in domestic football.

The fragmentation of socialist Yugoslavia into five different countries meant that giants like Partizan and Red Star became too strong for a significantly weaker football league. Their armies of supporters meant polarization of the Serbian public in football terms – there were those in black-and-white, and those in red-and-white. In spite of Yugoslavia crumbling, the eternal rivals did not suffer.

In this environment of conflict, Red Star and Partizan – consciously or not – managed to win the off-the-pitch fight for status; in the midst of wars fought on the basis of ethnicity and nationalist propaganda from all war participants – Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian – they became symbols of Serbian national identification.

The two clubs became a symbol of Serbianism at a time when it was advisable to differentiate from other former-socialist Yugoslav nations. A similar situation occurred in Croatia, when national authorities of the country renamed Dinamo Zagreb as Croacia Zagreb between 1993 and 2000, giving the club a nationalistic purpose. The national machineries knew that football clubs could have huge emotional sway over the people.

Clubs which originated on communist principles now started moving in the opposite direction. The transformation of Red Star and Partizan from Yugoslav symbols into symbols of the Serbian cause was helped by organised fan groups, which were now becoming groups of ultras. Individuals from criminal milieu contributed to that by leading the groups - the most famous example being Željko Ražnatović Arkan, the leader of Red Star ultras in the late 1980s and, during the 1990s, the leader of the Serbian nationalist paramilitary formation in post-Yugoslav wars.

Hajduk Split – one of the four greatest clubs of Yugoslav football – were able to restore their pre-communist identity of a Croatian club, restoring the red-and-white checkerboard flag on the club’s logo and distancing themselves from the former socialist country. The Belgrade rivals, on the other hand, were unable do that.

The names of Red Star and Partizan directly point to their communist heritage, to their somewhat violent nascence with the help of communist authorities, taking the places of BSK and SK Yugoslavia, clubs forbidden on the basis of the connections they had to the previous, monarchist political system. On Partizan’s logo, to this day, the six red flames representing the six nations and six republics which were part of the communist Yugoslavia are still present. Those six flames were also a part of the coat of arms of the SFR Yugoslavia.

Partizan and Red Star, therefore, could not relinquish their name nor their emblems; their links to communism were too strong to be annulled or forgotten. While Hajduk were formed in 1911 and their history came much before the Communist Party of Yugoslavia took the reins of the country, the two Belgrade clubs did not have previous history which they could return to.

Their duopoly in the 25 years since Yugoslavia disintegrated was only shortly interrupted in 1998, when FC Obilić became champions. Obilić was a small club without much history before the abovementioned Željko Ražnatović became their president. Their rise was rapid, but their fall even faster, as the club fell into oblivion after Ražnatović was killed in 2000. The eternal rivals have continued their dominance ever since, winning every single championship between themselves.

Yet, as both Belgrade clubs try to impose themselves into people’s consciousnesses as national symbols, it does not mean that the two clubs have abandoned some old-established ways of business operating, ones that remind of their communist past.

FK Crvena Zvezda and FK Partizan are still property of the Republic of Serbia. As such, they are – apart from the resources they earn through business activities – still being partially funded from the government’s budget. Therefore, the clubs’ ties with politics are present to this day. The links these clubs have with authorities incessantly last since their founding days 72 years ago, though these exist today in a somewhat different manner.

While the two clubs were subjects of propaganda in socialist Yugoslavia, in order to promote ruling ideology, in modern capitalist conditions they are mostly means for exploitation. Football in the 21st century is lucrative business. Yet, current lack of regulations towards Serbia’s sporting laws allows the status quo – clubs keep their close relationships with authorities, which exert influence on club officials, while in return offering them certain financial gain.

Two examples in recent years are quite notable in showing the tight links between authorities and both Belgrade clubs. First, national authorities are indirectly securing financial help for Red Star and Partizan outside of the budget allocations intended for them. Within the sponsor pool of both clubs is Mobilna telefonija Srbije (Mobile Telephony of Serbia), a national telecommunications company. This company is also Partizan’s general sponsor, and their logo is visible on the players’ jerseys. The other example, though, is even more striking.

After Vladan Lukić’s resignation from the position of president of Red Star in 2012, the club’s internal structures were unable to elect new leadership. It was then that a famous situation occurred, when the then Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia – and Serbia’s current president-elect - Aleksandar Vučić (a known fan of Red Star) led the talks with club legend Dragan Džajić over his return to the club in order to consolidate the situation.

Apart from the lack of privatisation of sports clubs in Serbia, Red Star and Partizan are also far behind other European clubs due to perennial uncertainties over both clubs’ infrastructures – what is the property of the clubs, and what is national property? In 2009, it was revealed that both clubs were tenants at their stadiums. Five years later, a court decision in 2014 meant that the stadium Rajko Mitić was assigned to Red Star, while the stadium of FK Partizan officially became property of the Serbian Army, even though the club has publicly denied that.

With these problems in the clubs’ approaches to business, the lack of accountability for irresponsible decisions should by no means be forgotten. At the helm of Red Star, between 1998 and 2012, there were five different club presidents with their own administrations. During that period, the club’s debt grew to an unimaginable 48,473,459 euros, while some unofficial information insisted that the debt surpassed 50 million euros.

At Partizan, growing debts took hold of the black-and-white side of the Topčider Hill. According to official information from February 2015, Partizan were in debt of 14,870,000 euros, despite relative success in European competitions - between 2006 and 2016, Partizan reached the Europa League group stages on six occasions, and were part of the Champions League group stages in 2010 - and lucrative player sales, with Stevan Jovetić, Adem Ljajić, Matija Nastasić, Stefan Savić, and Lazar Marković to name only a few.

Yet, the eternal difference between Red Star and Partizan and other football clubs in Serbia becomes most striking in the case of obligation payments to the authorities. In the aforementioned period of 2012, when Red Star owed over 48 million euros, according to official information, their tax debts to Republic of Serbia amounted to 5.8 million euros. According to data from 2015, Partizan’s tax debts stood at 4,685,000 euros - 31.5% of their entire debt. Nevertheless, ‘solutions’ would always appear through extension of deadlines, as the authorities would never consider punishing Partizan and Red Star.

This unstable and unregulated situation in both clubs’ hierarchies and domestic legislation (absence of law meant to regulate privatisation in sport) contributes to the clubs’ inability to become privatised. Still, there are more reasons for this, reasons which are politically oriented.

First of all, the privatisation of Partizan and Red Star at this moment is still regarded inconceivable. Despite constant insistence from leading political figures that Serbian sport craves privatisation, there’s doubt that it will happen any time soon. In a country where countless disastrous privatisations in the economic sector have happened since 2000, a similar scenario would be devastating for hundreds of thousands of supporters. As basically the entire public in Serbia is divided into fans of Red Star and fans of Partizan, domestic politicians have great fear of being seen as turning their backs on a huge number of supporters, who are also potential voters in elections.

That is why politicians also insist on privatisation problems being ‘too big’, with the two clubs being described as ‘giants’ and as brands ‘too large’ to be privatised. And though it is true that there is a certain aversion from the public towards the idea of selling the two clubs, it is also true that their current way of doing business is unsustainable.

Their debts are still huge, results in European competitions are increasingly worse, and the path to the Champions League will become twice as hard in years to come, as the qualifiers for the competition from 2018 will bring only five teams to the group stages, instead of the current ten teams. Sources of income will be lessening, and outdated and inefficient business models will only continue to create problems.

Still, even if we overlook the irresponsible business operations from the two clubs, it is a fact that Red Star and Partizan are the greats of Serbian football, especially taking into consideration their history during the Yugoslav era. Red Star were champions of Europe in 1991, while Partizan were runners-up in 1966. Successes like that are unthinkable nowadays.

These two socialist institutions outgrew their ideological mark, stifled by Yugoslavia’s disintegration and imposed themselves to the public as new symbols in a more “nationalist robe”. Political structures tried very hard to restore national identity among the people after it was suppressed during the era of “Yugoslavism”. Red Star and Partizan had to find different solutions.

Their former greatness was closely linked to Yugoslavia, and that greatness seems elusive nowadays. That is why, today, the clubs’ position in Serbian football is “all-covering” – by wanting to reach their former heights, but also by their inability to do so from the smaller and poorer environment Serbia has become, the eternal rivals are creating a situation where their duopoly is mandatory. Serbian football is not determined by all Serbian clubs, it is determined solely on the basis of its two biggest clubs.

By IBWM Senior Writer Nebojša Marković. Full image credit goes to Jason Milich

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