Monday, 2 June 2014

Every Breath You Take (Belgrade Pt3) - Football Abroad

In the first two parts of this Serbian odyssey, someone broke a camera, Juan became possibly the richest man in Belgrade, we drank beer, saw a lovely sunset, ate loads of top grub, saw no woman less than an 8, had a world class night out, broke into the ground of Serbia's 3rd biggest football club, met some ultras, swopped stickers and went in search of tickets for a football game.

So, a pretty dull weekend so far really, I think you'll agree. Now, here's the third & final installment....

Where am I? What time is it? And why is my head feel like a vagrant crawled inside, took a dump and is now playing loud drum n' bass music? Oh shit, yeah. Novi Sad. Amazing food, trespassed on FK Vojvodina's ground, Champions League Final, Beer, Rakija, oh dear god the rakija, more beer, even more beer, Jaeger...fuck me, what a night out!

I have no idea who these idiots are....

My eyes try to focus on my surroundings, but given the illegal rave going on in my head, my body is trying to keep everything as softly focused as possible. Despite this, more details start to pop to the surface. Ah yes. Igor's flat. Juan's old workmate who's gaff we'd watched the Real v Atletico game at the night before with several of his Serbian mates. Who were all pissheads too.

I fight the temptation to just pull my blanket back over my head and go back to sleep. Mainly as on each side of me on the huge flat couchy sofa thing in the living room where I'd crashed a few short hours before, I have a still sleeping Juan and Mr X. In just their pants. And that's all the fucking incentive I need to get my arse up, get the neurofen from my bag and start taking on industrial quantities of water.

Right Mr Drum n' Bass vagrant man. Party's over.

Hitting the kitchen, I find Nick the Taff and Dukey sprawled out on their inflatable mattress. Seriously, what was Igor thinking when he offered to put us up for the night? He'd have woken to better sights had someone been murdered and dismembered in here. And, come to think of it, so would I. Urgh.

Before too long, lots of monged out hungover people are about. Only Igor's missus Ema seems with it, but then again she hadn't joined us out on the tiles after the Champs League final getting fucking steaming on Novi Sad's staggering little maze of nightlife not far from the main square. Seriously, I know Dukey has already covered it, but if you ever get the chance, get your arse to Serbia's second city. Calling it a World class drink really doesn't quite do it justice.

With motor skills almost back online and able to see vaguely straight, our amazing hosts insist on taking us for breakfast round the corner. Like we'd have said no anyway! What follows is lots of tea and little baskets of mini flatbread sandwiches stuffed with salami, cheese and some sort of chicken mayo combo. Combined with over the counter medication this does a superb job of returning the Gandermonium crew as close to normality as possible. From here, we must take our leave of the lovely Igor and Ema. As much as we'd like to stay, wander around a bit and piece together just what the hell went on last night in those narrow streets, we have to get back to Belgrade and actually watch some football. That was the idea of this trip after all!

Right, here everything goes wavy and weird like in the movies as we do a flashback to a little over 24 hours previously on the saturday morning.....

Queueing, Serb style.....

Having arisen from the events of Friday, which Juan will have covered for you in part 1 of this opus, I and Mr X stumble out of our opulent post-Soviet style apartment and head up to the taxi rank. Destination? The Marakana. Home of Red Star Belgrade. Now, as you know, we'd already been up there the day before, but this morning tickets are being made available from 10am for their penultimate league match of the season. And they're free! With this in mind and the fact that a home win would see Red Star wrench the title back from their deadly rivals Partizan after watching them hog the silverware for the last 6 straight seasons, we reckon it might be a tad busy at the ticket office, so an early start is essential.

We find the Cab rank and having paid 500 Dinar the day before, Mr X is determined to get it for 400 today. We approach the head of the queueing cars & he asks the price. 500 Dinar of course! Putting his haggling hat on, Mr X enquires "400?". The cabbie just laughs, repeats the price and gets into his cab, beckoning us to join him. Sensing our momentary hesitation, he adds "600! 700! 800!". Ah. Ok, 500 Dinar it is then. The hagglers have been outhaggled it seems.

We get dropped right by the ticket office and there's already a queue at both sets of windows. Although whilst there's a good couple of thousand people milling about, it's not quite as bad as we'd expected and we join the queues at the set of windows nearest to the main West stand, assuming that this would mean NOT getting tickets in the North, the home of Red Star's rather excitable hardcore. The Delije. Now don't get me wrong we're all up for a bit of atmosphere, but a simple You Tube search will show you what a serious fucking bunch these guys are when it comes to supporting their side. And we didn't think they'd appreciate five tourist dicks from South London standing out like sore thumbs in their section. That and the fact if we're in there, it might mean five proper fans aren't should there be a capacity crowd. We can't rightfully deny a regular that, especially given the fact they could win the title. So it's the 'posh' seats of the West stand (or Zapad) for us.

The 'queue' is actually more of a well behaved mass of people for two thirds of it's length before you hit the railed off rows in front of the windows. Still, it's all good natured and no one seems to give a toss about the two tourist wankers in their midst. In fact, for Europeans I'm very impressed with Serbian queueing! A definite 7/10 I'd say. Slowly, we shuffle forward and in about an hour, we're finally in sight of our goal. Suddenly, Mr X seems concerned.

TICKETS!! We have TICKETS!

"Oh fucking hell".
Shit! What's wrong?
"You'll never guess what sticker I've just seen on one of the windows...." he mutters under his breath.

Sticker? What's he on about? Oh. OH.

I crane my neck and stand on tiptoes to see over the bunch of people in front of me. And sure enough, about halfway up the end window on our set of 4 is one of OUR stickers. Now, normally, I'd be the first to hold my hand up to placing one of our markers. But, problem is, I'd not actually brought any with me on the trip. They're still on my desk at home where I left them on dashing out the door stupidly early on Thursday morning.  We look at each other for a moment, mutter "Fucking Juan!" under our breath and then proceed to start giggling as we both realise that Mr X is wearing an SUFC polo top. Trying to stifle our slightly nervy amusement, we get back to the job at hand and concentrate on getting our tickets. That's if we don't get fucking lynched first for desecrating hallowed ground.

Our chatter seems to have tipped one local off that we're not Belgrade natives (not sure how!) and he taps he who cannot be named on the shoulder. "Hey, if you guys want West tickets, you need the end window. The others are for North, this is why they are so busy".

Suddenly our amusement ends. Fucking nora. We're about 5 minutes away from asking for tickets in the one place we were trying to avoid! We thank our local guardian angel and proceed to the practically deserted window for the West stand. 5 minutes later and we're pushing our way back through the growing throng, grinning like idiots with the desired items in our hands. Tickets for Red Star versus OFK Beograd. Right, let's get the fuck out of here before anyone starts asking who the bloody hell Sutton United are!

So here we do the wavy flashback thing again, but now we're going back to the Sunday with the crew stumbling about like the clueless bus wankers they are in Novi Sad's bus station.....

"What do you mean we can only use that company's buses and the next one is at ten past two??"

Yeah, we did a silly. It seems the return tickets we were so proud of securing with the minimum of fuss on Saturday lunchtime are valid for just one particular firm and their next departure is an hour away. Meaning we won't be hitting Belgrade until almost 4pm, barely an hour before kick off. Still a bit frazzled from the night before we sit outside the little cafe, neck some ice cold cokes and try to come up with a plan.

"Fuck it. The tickets here were only 4 quid. Why don't we just buy new ones for the next bus out of here?" suggests Mr X.

Matchday. Walking up to the Marakana.

By jove, I think the man has the answer. So we pack him off to check. Soon, we've lashed out more of our extensive reserves of Serbian Dinars on fresh bus tickets (much to the confusion of the man behind the counter who couldn't understand why we'd want to do such a thing) and we're straight on a bus, some 30 mins ahead of schedule. Thankfully, this vehicle is of 21st century origin unlike the old charabanc (or prison bus as Dukey called it!) that brought us up here and has air con, thus meaning it's a good 90% less sweaty. So, having got comfy, I neck a bottle of iced tea & drop my hoodie over my head to get 40 well needed winks on the hour or so drive back.

Right, someone wake me up when we hit Belgrade.

Game time! It's another cab ride up to the Marakana, amusingly for the cheaper price of 400 that Mr X was trying to haggle for the previous morning, but didn't bother with today and as we head over the flyover by the ground, we can tell it's going to be a busy one, as two rivers of red clad humanity, one either side of us, stream towards the stadium. The cab gets us as close as he can and we hop out to join that river of people ambling up the hill. As we stroll, another thing that catches our eye is the sheer number of armour clad, shield carrying cops on duty. There's so many they look more like they're an occupying military force than providing security for a football match. This is serious shit.

We join the queue for 'Sektor 6' and shuffle our way in, whilst those with kids don't bother, bypassing the queue completely & lifting them over the barrier, usually with the help of one of the robocops on duty. Dukey briefly proposes a plan of borrowing a couple of Serbian children for the purpose of getting in quicker, but the logistics as well as the chances of getting arrested means the rest of the group reject this as an option. Eventually though we're in and we emerge through the entrance to the stand where we'd been taking pictures on the Friday. And it's bloody busy. Unsurprising really given the title is up for grabs. The tickets we have say we're in row 18, but before we even get halfway there, it's obvious that all the little bits of paper we have are purely to get us in. There's sod all chance we're going to be sat where we're supposed to. Oh well, there's plenty of space down the front I s'pose....

There's a reason there's plenty of space too. You can't see fuck all. Mainly this is because we're in the shallow lower slope of the stand, the other being all the local lads hanging over the front barrier like you see 'em do on the telly. So whilst this doesn't cause too many problems when the game is in the northern end, seeing what's going on down in the near corner at the opposite end is going to be tough. Still, we're British, so we're polite, say nothing & bloody well put up with it without complaint. Yeah, that'll show 'em!

The sides emerge to a loud reception from the home fans, the away fans though less so. Mainly as there's currently about 12 of them over in the far corner of the ground, numbers that make Carshalton look well supported. Ok, we know OFK aren't blessed with the sort of numbers following them as Partizan & Red Star, but surely they could be arsed to come watch what is effectively a local derby in the same city as them? Very strange. With the line ups done and both sides having combined to hold up a banner we assume relates to the recent flooding, we then have a minutes silence for the victims. And then we're off!

A pre-kick off Marakana Panorama. Hey! That rhymes!

Unfortunately, there's a slight fly in the ointment. We're going to have to wait nearly half an hour to get a taste of the famous Delije atmosphere as they're observing a 29 minute silence for one of their top boys who died recently, at the age of 29. Oh well, at least we can concentrate on the game for now. After a minute or two, we notice a lad stringing up some flags in the away end and then moments later, a veritable tidal wave of about 50 or so OFK fans suddenly appear and start chanting, much to the disgust of the fans at our end who drown them out with some high pitched whistling and some booing.

The opening exchanges aren't bad as both sides move the ball well and the visitors, having secured safety with 3 wins in their last 3 games, produce the first moment with a jinking run down the near side and a cross in being headed over. Red Star respond from a corner soon after and really should take the lead when having been half cleared, the ball back in finds the no.7 Dorde Rakic totally unmarked. However, he somehow manages to plant his free-header wide of the far post when it looked easier to score. "How the fuck did he miss that??" is the verdict of the British Tourist wanker jury in the West stand. Even early on both sides are showing signs of defensive dodginess and whilst Red Star look the best of the 2 sides as you'd expect, OFK certainly haven't come to make up the numbers and rolll over for their more illustrious oppo, now no doubt free of relegation worries they've come to play. With their no.16 Drazic looking particularly useful and at the heart of everything they do.

He's involved after 12 mins when a ball over the top catches out the home defence and the OFK man sprints into the box, squaring the ball and it's tucked away at the back post (it turns out later to be an OG from the highlights). The goal is greeted by a mix of whistling from the unimpressed locals and a little roar of glee from the far corner, where the now even further swelled number of about 200 OFK Ultras go understandably fucking mental, stumbling down the steep steps. Ooops! Don't think that was in the script! The goal however really stings the hosts into action and that lead lasts just 2 minutes. Some neat play through the middle sends Rakic into the box, his check back leaves a defender on his arse and despite the keeper making a desperate scrambling block, the ball falls to the no.8 Darko Lazovic and he makes no mistake, crashing the looping ball high into the net on the volley past 2 Blue shirts on the line.

OFK celebrate the opening goal....

Despite that enforced 29 minutes of silence, the roar that greets the goal is fucking immense. "Christ, if they're that loud when they're meant to be quiet...." observes 4 Days (so named on this trip as that's how long he went without taking a dump). Indeed. Still, only 15 mins now until Delije lift off.

Level, Red Star now press for a second and probably should take advantage of some more iffy defending, but 2 decent chances are missed in quick succession, including another gilt edged chance for Rakic who fires a low shot wide of the far post from about 8 yards. By now, we're closely watching the clock on the scoreboard count up to the 29 minute mark and as soon as it ticks past, a call goes up from somewhere in the mass of people over to our left. And before you know it, thousands begin a chant accompanied by a mass hand clap. Not bad, but these boys are only just getting started! From here on, it's really hard to keep watching the game as your gaze is drawn repeatedly to the mad mass behind the goal. Having warmed up, the Delije declare the OFK support null & void by quite simply going fucking mental. What follows is a mass of crazy people whipping off their tops, whirling them around their heads and bouncing like Tigger on acid. All whilst others spark off a fuckload of assorted pyro and lob ticker tape. And we're not talking just a few here, we're talking the whole chuffing end. Going nuts. It really is a sight to behold. I've been at a few big games before, but never with atmosphere quite like this. And just as you think it can't get any louder, it goes up a notch. And the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Game? What game? Ooooh, the GAME!

Thankfully not a great deal happens to distract our nutter & pyro watching until shortly before half time where a good run ends in a Red Star man (no.11 I think) cutting back inside and hitting the base of the far post with a shot. The rebound finds Rakic and he again manages to miss the target with the goal gaping. Then a minute later, with the ground covered in the drifting haze of the Delije pyro, a Red Star free-kick from out on the far touchline finds no.11 Necj Pecnik on the penalty spot and he plants a firm stooping header across the keeper and into the far corner. Another explosion of noise. This time, one that's not in any way restrained out of respect for a lost comrade. And fuck me is it loud.

From here, we expect the champions elect to overrun their fellow Beogradians, but having died off a bit from their early tempo, OFK suddenly find a second wind and again start knocking the ball around, finding gaps. And right on half time, a ball into the middle is pushed wide on the far side and their no.20 Milan Gajic takes the pass in his stride and pings it first time past Bajkovic off the underside of the bar and in. It's an absolute belter of a strike and it takes a couple of moments for it to register at the far end as the ball settles in the net, but again it sparks a small bout of delirium in the away support and they once more come tumbling down the stand in delight. Not that we can hear them, as the shrill whistles of the home fans easily drown out their cheers.

We reckon Gajic looked well offside when he scored and Juan engages in a conversation with a local saying as much (although the highlights that night show he'd timed his run perfectly, so what do we know eh?).

The away support going mad...

Half time comes and the sides return to the changing rooms in the bowels of the stadium via the tunnel in our corner. With the home team no doubt in line to get whatever the Serbian is for 'a proper bollocking'. Which if it's half as shouty as the mob behind the goal will be some pretty scary shit. As that is probably going on somewhere beneath our feet, we're treated to some Red Star hits over the PA. One of which uses the tune to The Police's "Every Breath You Take" & naturally proves to be as catchy as fuck. No doubt we'll be humming that all the way back to London via Geneva tomorrow. Bastards!

We try to get scores on mobiles to see if Partizan are making the nerves any worse, but being in this huge natural bowl, we can't get a signal and give up (as it turns out, they're 2-0 up at Subotica), awaiting the restart. Juan makes a couple of friends, who are curious as to where we're from. More SUFC stickers are passed out to back up our "don't hurt us, we're just inconsequential English non-league shite!" credentials.

Now, whatever the Red Star management have said at HT, it's clearly worked. As the home side come out and from the off visibly step up a gear. A free kick in the first minute is swung in from the far side, deep to the byeline beyond the far post. It's nodded back to that stick by Pecnik and the no.84 (84??) Dragan Mrda (the league's top scorer) gets across his man to glance a header down across the keeper and inside the far post. He's pretty pleased by this and legs it off around the corner flag and into the dead space between the north stand and the pitch to say hello to the adoring masses, who set about disappearing behind another haze of pyro smoke. From here, Red Star make the difference in class show, moving the ball well and probing constantly for openings, mostly down the right flank, with chances coming and going at regular intervals now.

Just another quiet afternoon in the North Stand.....
One low ball across the 6 yard box just evades a lunging touch, Rakic blazes over with a volley after taking a gorgeous clipped ball into the box down on his chest, a pull back from the byeline is dragged wide of the far post with the goal begging, a lob from the corner of the box is just plucked out of the air and then Mrda really should put the game to bed after about an hour when a lovely angled defence splitting ball sends him 1 on 1 with the keeper. But somehow, he manages to thump his shot off the base of the near post and the ball rebounds straight into the midriff of the keeper who'd turned no doubt expecting to have to pick the ball out of his net.

Having ridden their luck, OFK naturally go and have a couple of chances at the other end, just to get Red Star bottoms puckering a little. First a lovely flowing 1 touch move from one end to the other brings a full stretch save from Bajkovic and he has to be on his toes again soon after when the ball drops to an unmarked OFK man and his snap shot from close range is pushed round the post. After this though, there's almost a acceptance that the result is only going one way and the game peters out a little with Red Star retaining the ball loads without doing much dangerous with it. So once more we're diverted by sights off the pitch. Mainly the seemingly endless stream of those huge armour clad coppers we'd seen earlier emerging from the tunnel and fanning out around the perimeter of the pitch. It would appear that deterring a pitch invasion is the aim. Either that or a military coup. It's the introduction of these chaps that makes us realise that we've probably not blended in quite as well as we'd hoped as one of the robocops points directly at us and has a bit of a conflab with his mate next to him. Gulp! It would seem that if you're stood around doing nowt in a crowd of 48 thousand odd who are mostly bouncing about and generally going a bit nuts, you're the ones who sand out a bit. Who'd have thought it eh?



Fortunately for us, with 5 minutes to play, Mr Mrda gives us a chance to prove our Red Star credentials by latching onto a deflected loose ball in the box and squaring it to the unmarked Milos Ninkovic, who cool as you like, nonchalantly tucks the ball into the gaping net to seal the 3 points and the league title.

Loud noise, bouncing, shitloads of pyro. You get the picture by now.

Unfortunately, the OFK fans aren't here to see any of this. Having been somewhat unceremoniously herded out of the away end by the riot cops with 10 minutes left! Odd.

After 3 mins of injury time, the ref blows up, the locals go mad (again) and the whole Red Star squad who've been queueing up on the touchline charge onto the pitch to celebrate the return of the league championship to the Marakana after those 6 straight years in the possession of the other lot up the road. It's also their 26th, putting them crucially 1 more in front of Partizan. It's all about the numbers round here!  We stick around to watch the presentations, which are the standard 'stage on the pitch with confetti cannons' type affair and the lap of honour, along with some fun involving some of the Delije trying to join in and the old bill trying to stop them before we decide we really need a pint and make our way to the exits, humming "Every Breath You Take" as we go.

Walking up the Belgrade equivalent of the A217....

Filing out, we trudge down the hill hoping to find ourselves a cab back into town, but the streets are packed and there's not a single one to be found. So in the end, we find ourselves following the stream of people back over the flyover. Not on the pavement, but in the outside lane as cars fly past displaying red & white colours and tooting their horns! Eventually, we negotiate our way back onto somewhere pedestrians should be and give up looking for a cab. Fuck it, we'll walk. Back in town, we find ourselves a nice restaurant with Wifi, good food and beer to refuel after a long afternoon. All are in agreement though, today has been something else. Inevitably, talk turns to "Where next?". Sarajevo? Krakow? Germany?  It's then time for a stroll back to the Three Carrots for a few more beers to see out the night, trying to string out the trip as long as possible, knowing full well we'll be off to the airport tomorrow morning.

We're all awoken earlier than we'd like by those bloody bells in the church over the road. So often we've heard them this weekend that I've come to the conclusion that they're linked to the front doorbell on the place. So when the milkman turns up "DONG DONG DONG!". Some bloke with a delivery of Bibles "DONG DONG DONG!". Aaaargh! At 10:30 on the dot, Dusan turns up with our transport and we're soon out of Belgrade and heading down the motorway to the Airport, passing 3rd Division Lokomotiv's ground on the way out. Checked in, we dispose of our remaining Dinars (which in Juan's case is a lot!) and await our flight. Geneva follows accompanied by lots of little cheese rolls, the most expensive bottle of orange juice known to mankind and some duty frees. Then before we know it, we drop down out of the low cloud into the grey drizzly landscape of home. Oh hello London, you miserable damp bastard.

DONG DONG DONG!!!

Then, 4 days after we'd started out, we're back in the car park at GGL. Sigh. Oh well, best take a look at the ground improvements while we're here. And we do. All humming "Every Breath You Take" as we do so.

Well played Serbia. You're alright by us. I think we'll be back!



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