The Red Star Stadium is as intimidating as the name sounds. Unfortunately, this post is not about a match, but I hope to attend one here soon, since the Belgrade derby between Red Star and Partizan is one of European football’s most storied derbies. It was being renovated during my visit in 2008, and it now boasts a capacity of 55,538. One can only imagine what the atmosphere would be during a sell out. The stadium was completed in 1963, and from 1964 to 1998 the capacity was an amazing 110,000. Now, with under soil heating and a new pitch, it is slowly entering the category of a truly modern stadium.
It is a fitting stadium for the most successful Serbian club, as Red Star remain the only Eastern European side to lift the European Cup (It happened in 1991). Below is a write up of my visit to the stadium when I acquired the team’s shirt, an excerpt from a larger piece of travel writing. As you read the write up and peruse the pictures, feel free to take in Serbian folk Singer Boban Zdrakovic’s “Marakano”, a cult song amongst Red Star fans.
Bombed Out in Beograd:
My father had been right—Belgrade is not a pretty city. The grey façades of communist era architecture were drab as ever, even in the gentle light of dawn. Their paint was pealing, neglected after communism’s unceremonious fall. The streets were empty, as I wandered looking for lodging. After doing a loop around the city—and having found all hotels full—I ended up back near the train station settling on the drab Hotel Astoria—I wasn’t about to shell out for the luxuries of Hotel Moskva. After leaving my passport at the reception desk so that it could be registered with Serbian police—old habits die hard apparently—I headed up to my small room. It seemed that whoever had given the hotel three stars must have been here at least twenty years ago. The rotary telephone in the dreary little room, which had the stupendous view of the backside of an apartment block, was proof of it.
I fell onto the bed for a little rest since it was only eight in the morning and I had already been walking for a few hours. Lying on my pillow, I had a vague feeling that something wasn’t right—I just couldn’t relax and drift away into dreams. After a few minutes I sat up to look around and confirm that everything was alright. Obviously, it wasn’t. On my pillow, next to where my head had been lying, there was a small worm. I don’t know how it got there, but I jumped up and ran my fingers through my hair madly, making sure that there was no insect infestation. Luckily, there were no more worms but this was too much for me this early into my stay in Beograd. I decided to leave the bed and go outside on a search for the Red Star Belgrade stadium, the Marakana. After receiving directions from the lobby I set out, ignoring the receptionist’s warning that it was a forty-minute walk. After all, walking is healthy!
In the streets the signs were not transliterated from Cyrllic. I conjured up all my memories from previous jersey hunting experiences in Macedonia, where Cyrillic is also the official alphabet. Walking uphill from the hotel the bombed out remnants of the former Yugoslav interior ministry, destroyed by NATO in the bombing campaigns 0f 1999, met my eyes. I assumed that it had been kept in its half-destroyed state as a reminder of America’s aggressions against civilian Belgraders. As I took pictures, I wondered what would happen if someone should find out I was an American? Later, in a café by the train station before leaving, I read that the building would soon be built into a luxury hotel by an Israeli company—another move to erase the memories of Yugoslavia and inch toward the EU.
Walking away from the destroyed building I followed the road up to the Slavija square, home of the first McDonald’s in Eastern Europe as well as mass protests after the United State’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence in February of 2008. I headed up a typically communist tree lined boulevard—like so many, it was beautiful in its own special way. I opted against riding one of the ubiquitous trams, deciding that walking was a better way to take in the city. Soon I was on the side of a highway, the only pedestrian in sight. The loneliness was strangely nerve-wracking, with the fresh memories of bombed out buildings in my head.
Continuing up the road for another ten minutes, cars buzzing by me at high speeds under the summer sun, I found a clearing in the development, and across it was the gigantic Marakana stadium. I headed to the walls of the stadium. All over the walls graffiti was scribbled, imparting a number of different things—some I couldn’t understand, and others I understood immediately. “North Storm” and “Chemical Boys RS” were cryptic at best, while graffiti scrawled in blood red paint read “Kosovo Srbija”. A reminder to all that Red Star Belgrade fans—and I’m sure many others—will not forgive the loss of their cultural homeland of Kosovo, ripped away by a West led by the United States.
I took a deep breath and continued along the curved outer wall of the stadium. It was a continuous curve, and as such I couldn’t see more than three feet ahead of me at any time. My paranoia was such that I expected someone to jump out at anytime and ask me what I was doing snooping around a stadium in the middle of July, with no games being played. I played out the scenario—I would be asked why I was there, and where I was from, and somehow they would learn that I was American and then . . . well, it wasn’t worth thinking about because it wasn’t going to happen! Finally, I made it around to the front of the stadium. Ahead of me was graffiti depicting a knife wedged in something. I couldn’t understand it, but I took it as a warning of some sort all the same.
Walking through the gates, I looked down into the stadium, where the word “Delije” was written into the seats behind the goal, white seats making out the letters among the sea of red seats. This was the name of the hard-core group of supporters who, in this stadium, were recruited as a paramilitary group to terrorize the minorities of Yugoslavia during its bloody downfall. In the end though, as the final chapters of Yugoslavia were being written, it was Red Star supporters who led the “revolution” against the fanatical Serb president Slobodan Milosevic and took the initiative to attempt and steer Serbia away from its isolation.
Finding the fan shop and, after asking the lady at the counter who their best player was, I purchased a number thirteen Tutoric shirt. When I arrived back in Turkey I learned that he had followed me back, transferred to a mid-level side in the Turkish Super League.
That night I wandered the streets of Belgrade, looking for an underground bar written up in my guidebook. Apparently, it had been a place for dissidents during the Milosevic years. While getting lost in the Belgrade night I stumbled upon Shaharazad Hookah café, off of a main street in a dark alley. It seemed inviting and I decided to take a chance and recreate the feel of Istanbul. I walked in and was immediately bombarded by the Middle Eastern décor and advertisements for Efes Pilsen—Turkey’s famous brew.
I took a seat and ordered a hookah—mint as usual, smoking it as the lights dimmed and Serbian girls dressed in belly dancing outfits came out. As the girls moved their hips seductively—looking customers in the eyes and encouraging them to buy more drinks—the irony of Serbian girls dressed in Turkish dress didn’t escape me. After a while, I caught a glimpse of the men one seat over drinking arak, the Arab version of the anise-flavored Turkish Raki. I think one of them realized I had been looking at him, so he initiated conversation
“So, where are you from,” started the heavy-set Arab man next to me.
“Istanbul,” I answered, not wanting to let off the whole truth in a sensitive part of the world, figuring that here there would be no ill feelings towards Turks in this “Oriental” establishment.
“Ahh, Istanbul is a beautiful city,” He told me in thick accented English, looking into the distance, playing the movie reel of his past in his head.
“You’ve been there?” I asked, and he nodded in affirmation.
“Many times.” He ordered me some Arak and I asked him what he was doing here. He explained that his son owned the place, and that he came here with his Arab friends. I asked him where he was from, expecting to hear Cairo.
“I am from Baghdad,” he said. I was surprised, to say the least.
He could read my emotions and continued, “I was the ambassador to this country, but after the Americans invaded my country . . .” he trailed off, assuming that I got the picture, not wanting to go into too much more detail.
I sat back, dumb-founded, as a beautiful Serbian girl in front of me motioned with her hands at a bald Englishmen to our left, dancing. I was relieved to have dodged a bullet—who knows how he would have reacted to me as an American. The fact that he was drinking alcohol proved that he was of Saddam’s mold, that is to say secular, and a far cry from the Islamists vying for the tattered country’s heart. We continued watching the girls belly dance over another glass of the firewater—we got great service once the waiters saw whom I was talking to. After finishing my drink, I shook hands with the former ambassador and stumbled out into the warm Belgrade night, with both head and heart heavy. My guidebook told me that there were good clubs on the shores of the Danube, where the vodka flowed.
 Foer, Franklin. How Soccer Explains The World. Harper Perennial, New York: 2005, 21.
The Bombed Buildings of Belgrade Bring the Past to Life:
The Modern is Destroyed, but the Past Remains Alive and Well:
And the Modern Side of Beograd:
Approaching the Marakana:
I Don’t Need a Dictionary For This–Perhaps a History Book Instead:
The Ultras Have Left Their Mark(s):
Belgrade Sprawled Out In The Distance:
I can Understand “Serbia” and “Kosovo”:
The New Pitch Being Installed:
The “Delije” Section:
Now, One of These Shirts Hangs In My Closet: