Slav to the Rhythm – A Balkan Adventure

It’s 1am and the train’s grinding on the rough rails is keeping me awake. We are chugging somewhere between Zagreb and Belgrade. We could be in Croatia, we could we be in Serbia. But we actually have no idea at all where we are. Conversations have moved on from about how this train is like the one on “Hostel” to “what happened if they had a Saw-esque sadist on this train”..all the kind of conversations you want to have when you are in one of the remotest places in Europe with no mobile phone signal. The single 5 watt bulb is too dim for me to read my latest inductee into my sportbook review section, an excellent book called Danger, Kids! by Alan Moore which tells the story of an ambitious plan to re-unite Europe through football, a mission the carriage carries as its mantra for the weekend.

Quite how and why we ended up on a train that would have put a British Rail football special after West Ham, Millwall and Chelsea had traveled on it in the luxury category is still unclear. As usual I blame Danny Last. He saw a Youtube video, and that is always how these things start.

“Stu – look at this video. It is the maddest local derby of all time. We HAVE to be at this one next season.” That is always how it starts. And then there are the emails with links to flight times, hotels that are “just perfect” and before I know we are at Gatwick airport at 4am with a pint of Guinness for breakfast waiting for a 6am flight to a place where most rational people had never heard of, let alone visited. Spakenburg, Lodz, Trnava, Coxyde, Amiens, Rome. You name the place and it is more than likely that we have turned up there at some point.

But this trip was different. Not one crazy derby but two. Two days. Two countries and four sets of fanatical fans  “in theory”. And to make it even more “interesting”, we were entering a land that had been torn apart by Europe’s biggest civil war, acting as the 21st century Peacekeepers. As if football ever really healed any rifts like this.

Earlier in the season the seeds had been sown by Andy Hudson who had blagged his way into the Belgrade derby at the Red Star stadium. He enthused about the atmosphere, the fireworks and flares, the songs, the chanting oh and the football wasn’t bad either. This man knows his football and after he said we HAD to be at the return game, we begrudgingly agreed. After all, you do not mess with a man who is Hebburn Town’s biggest fan. Begrudging in Danny and my vocabulary actually means we ask our respective wives before we book any travel.

So after making another withdrawal from the PSF fund (Petrol Station Flowers), I had my CMF visa approved. She was a bit worried though. She too had seen Hostel and seen how easily led the three chaps were by scantily clad women. But I was able to reassure her about safety in numbers as well as learning the Serbian word for stranger (“странац”) that I would shout loudly and point if anyone like Ana Ivanovic started getting their kit off on the train.

As a further safety measure we recruited a fourth pair of hands. You have to do these trips in pairs you see. When you walk down the mean streets of Spakenburg you need the reassurance of a hand of a friend. So what if people think you are a couple. You know you aren’t – you just are a little bit scared of that big mob of Dresden fans with sticks marching towards you. So along with Danny and Andy, Kenny Legg had completed our foursome. Kenny Legg. A man who literally carries the hopes of tinpot adventures in Non League on his shoulders. Belgrade’s gain would be Weymouth’s loss for a weekend.

The plan for these trips always takes the same format. Let’s go to game X…oh hang on, if we go a day earlier we can get to game Y…woah, hold on. Just 100 miles away the following day is game Z. So our initial plan for a weekend of football in Belgrade took a turn for the better when it was discovered that “just” over the border was another local derby. Zagreb. Capital of Croatia. Home of the famous “Blue Boys” of Dinamo Zagreb. Sounds perfect you may say. Indeed but the “main” Zagreb derby was moved from Friday to Saturday, leaving us with the “other” derby – Lokomotiv v Lucko. Granted it was in the Maksimir, the national stadium, but even still, an average attendance of 259 means there would be more fans at Harrogate Railway Athletic v Wakefield than this derby. In fact, with the average attendance in the Prva HNL is currently less than 2,000 it is more like Blue Square Bet South than Premier League.

This was not my first visit to the capital of Croatia. Oh no. If you believe the stories of the Current Mrs Fuller you would have her believe that I nearly died the last time I was there. It was never an issue. I mean walking along the road, wearing full England kit (it is a long story) towards a few hundred strong group of the most fanatic Croatian fans whilst saying things down the end of a phone like “Oh shit, we are going to die” and “The will is in the box under the bed”. I mean who would really take that seriously? Granted, when I didn’t answer the phone for the next three hours or the TV pictures of the crowd trouble prior to the game it may have been a bit worrying but surely an over reaction?

Game 1 – HD Zagreb 1 NK Radnik 1 – Friday 4th May 2012 – Stadion NSC Stjepan Spajic

So, I had pitched up in Zagreb on Friday afternoon, starry-eyed and looking for adventures. And beer. You have to remember that the only thing more important than the football on these trips is a beer. And of course the Croatian Dinar meant we were almost beer millionaires.  Danny, Kenny and Andy were in position already at our first football game of the weekend – a cheeky little encounter on the way in from the airport between NK Hrvartski Dragovoljac and NK Radnik at the Stadion NŠC Stjepan Spajic. With the sun shining, we raised a glass to our colleagues back in England, still working, still getting wet.

It seemed the fashion in these parts was for bum bags.  All the trendy youngsters had them, whilst the older generation went for the washbag style of accessory, once made trendy by Fraser Digby.  There were a fair selection of Croatian WAGS in attendance, obviously lured to the game by the huge floodlights, club branded popcorn and Andy Hudson.  It is always about Andy Hudson.

Our first game of the Slavic extravaganza ended 1-1.  We lasted until half time before the lure of a beer in the sunshine came calling.  Oh how we laughed at the plight of the sodden  people back home.   One taxi later and we were at the Maksimir, the national stadium and for tonight, hosting THE biggest game in Croatia.

So what can I tell you about the current state of football in these parts before I lose you in boredom. If you thought that Scottish or Portuguese football was dominated by just two or three teams, then welcome to Croatia and Serbia. Their leagues have been completely dominated by just two teams since the break up of the Yugoslavian state in 1991. Hadjuk Split and Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia, Partizan and Red Star in Serbia. Those four have won every title bar two in the last twenty years. And guess what? This season the title has already gone to Dinamo and Partizan with rounds still left to play.

Game 2 – Lokomotiv Zagreb 2 Lucko 2 – Friday 4th May 2012 – The Maksimir, Zagreb

So surely there was still some interest in the other games being played?  Obviously not as we grabbed our beers and headed into the main stand in the Maksimir.  Everything was very blue – we could tell that as only around 100 of the 38,000 seats in the stadium were being used.  Coming into the game, Lucko were the form team yet Danny managed to gets odds of 6/1 on an away victory.  What could go wrong?

What indeed.  Despite an early trade of goals by M Pejic (surely not Mike Pejic, the Everton , Stoke and Villa full back) for Lucko and then Brozovic for Lokomotiv is wasn’t the best of games.  Stoke v Wolves comes to mind.  As the half progressed then the darkest cloud in the world slowly drifted over the completely open air stadium.  Threatening?  Nah.  It would blow over.

Fifteen minutes into the second half Lucko took the lead again.  Rak turned the ball in and Danny was sitting on a pot of cash.  In fact he could literally claim to be a Serbian Millionaire.  But once again Lokomotiv came back at them and ten minutes later Škvorc equalised.  It was now anyones game.  But then Mother Nature got involved. Just as Kenny and Andy had been dispatched on beer duty the rain started to fall.  In fact it was as if someone upstairs had found all of that missing water from our reservoirs and dumped it on the Maksimir.

We had no option but to seek refuse in the Executive Boxes.  In fact within seconds every member of the crowd had jumped into the VIP area.  That was all except Kenny and Andy who came back into the stand and were greeted with thousands of rows of empty seats, like a scene from a Stephen King film.  Oh how we all laughed until we realised that it was our pints that were become more watered down than a Fosters at the Oval.

With the rain turning the pitch into a boating lake neither team could actually do anymore that hoof the ball up front.  Danny thought he had sewn up his winnings when Lucko broke 3 v 1 and with the goal gaping in front of Rak but the ball across the box never reached him, sitting instead in a puddle on the penalty spot.  Full time meant honours even but not for us band of explorers.  We went down to the concourse and tried to find the “Magic Door”.  We didn’t have to look hard and just a few minutes after the game ended there we were cavorting around the Ricardo seats.

So after a few nightcaps near the stadium it was time to head onto our train and into the wilds of Serbia.  Or was it Bosnia?  Who knows, who cares.

Fast forward seven hours.  Our carriage is bathed in sunshine, streaming through the window and lighting up Andy’s arse like a beacon.  We have arrived in Belgrade.  At some point in the night we awoke to find two policemen with machine guns and dogs in our carriage but assumed that was something to do with the smell.  If only the aroma could be bottled and sold on the markets of Essex we would be millionaires.

We were met at Belgrade station by all round top man Nenard.  This man could body double for Hagrid if they ever fancied doing a Serbian remake of Harry Potter and the Derby Tickets (Хари Потер и Дерби Улазнице if you asked). He guided us through the essentials such as taking £80 out of the cashpoint and not the £8 we had just got (Belgrade is cheap but not that cheap), how to avoid ticket inspectors on the trams and buses, and of course how to find magic doors.  First stop, of course, was a ground.  Home of FK Rad in the Belgrade suburbs just to wet our appetite. Second stop, his house to sate that very appetite with a spread laid on by his Mum that was outstanding.

This was hospitality of the top order.  His Mum couldn’t speak any English yet made sure we were fed, water and fed again before going out on the beers.  Breakfast has more meat than you could shake a stick at, homemade grape brandy and something called Lazy Cake which filled a hole the size of Greece’s Euro debt.

We waved goodbye to our host and headed off into the big city lights for a pleasant day of sightseeing, sunshine and of course more than a few beers.

Everything you have heard about Belgrade is true.  Yes, the women are stunning.  Yes, the city still shows scars from the conflicts twenty years ago, and yes beer is indeed £1.20 a bottle.  We sat on the terrace of the Kalemegdan Citadel for a few hours discussing Eighties music, life in Serbia and of course football before Andy’s pasty northern chest couldn’t take it anymore and he went and sat in the shade.  But it was football time, and a short cab ride later (in a 20 year old Lada) saw us paying 400 Serbian Dinar (£2.80) to enter the OFK Stadion for our first slice of Serbian Super League action.

Game 3 – OFK Belgrade 2 Metalac GM – Saturday 5th May 2012 – Omladinski Stadion
Midtable v bottom in most top leagues in Europe may generate a few thousand fans.  But in Serbia there really is only Partizan and Red Star.  Despite only being a few points off a Europa League game there was less than 100 fans in the crumbling 19,000 capacity Omladinski stadium.  The club actually played in the Europa League in 2010 at the stadium which just shows the farce of ground grading in England that a stadium where there are no floodlights, no food facilities and unsafe terraces.  But safe it was deemed by UEFA who allowed Galatasaray to travel here in the 3rd qualifying round last year and won 5-1 in front of over 6,000 fans.

But today in the sunshine there was about 60 here, and apart from a dozen or so noisy home fans it seemed like the only atmosphere came from the toilet block in the corner that should have been condemned a long time ago.  I have no idea how clubs can make money at this level.  Gate receipts could not have topped £250 – who pays the players, the officials et al? There wasn’t even a club shop selling OFK slippers!

We only had time for a quick Souness, needing some food before the big one.  Another Lada later and we were in a bar on the other side of town, ticket for the derby in hand and feeling very good with life.  It was showtime!

Game 4 – Partizan Belgrade 0 Red Star Belgrade 1 – Saturday 5th May 2012 – Partizan Stadium
Let’s face it – who wouldn’t have wanted to be in the thick of thousands of fanatical fans holding up their flares at this one?  Well, having suffered with a chest infection for a week, it wasn’t the wisest idea for me to be taking in huge lung-fulls of acrid smoke, but that is why God created Amoxicillin right?  Once you have experienced the atmosphere at one of these games you cannot wait for your next fix.  It is like a drug and your dealer is Danny Last.

The police presence around the ground was organised and very visible.  The riot police had been deployed in units of ten at almost every junction, meaning a very quick reaction to any trouble if it kicked off.  Entry into the ground was also smooth without any of the hassle we have experienced elsewhere in the world.

So to the game itself.  Partizan had won the league the previous week and had agreed to keep any celebrations low-key in such a tinderbox atmosphere.  Fat chance of that with the fans organising their own celebration with banners mocking their opponents as well as more than a few digs at manager Avram Grant.  Ah, Avram (and by digs I mean coins, lighters and kitchen sinks being thrown at him as he exited the pitch at half time).  How we miss your wonderful cheery personality and clueless tactics from East London.  It is good to see you retain your popularity oversees.

The game itself wasn’t a classic.  In fact it was a shocker.  Neither team could improve their league position and so with Champions League qualification already sorted it became a bit of a bore draw, only livened up by the antics of the fans at either end.  In fact you could have quite easily suggested (as we did) that a 0-0 draw had been agreed beforehand just to keep all of the natives happy.

But then just as we were looking forward to a quiet night in the town centre, Red Star’s Cadu popped up and scored in the third minute of injury time. To say the place went mad is a bit of an understatement.  All of a sudden the Red Star fans flowed onto the running track, mobbing the players.  The brave referee tried to get them back to restart the game but after a few more seconds of play he called time on proceedings and ran for cover.

Queue even more celebrations from the Red Star players in front of their fans.  It was as if they had won the league, rather than just the bragging rights for the last meeting of the season.  Players, some almost stripped naked by the fans sprinted for the tunnel and the away fans decided to set fire to a few seats to celebrate.

Again, organisation outside the stadium was efficient and we saw no hint of trouble.  In fact within thirty minutes of the final whistle we were back in the bar with Red Star’s biggest fans (Nenard and of course Andy Hudson). For all the colour of the game click here.

A few more two pound beers (we were paying the premium for drinking in the Irish Bar by this point) and it was time to bid Belgrade a good night, ready for what tomorrow would throw at us.

Day three of the adventure began with a civilised breakfast.  It was voting day in the Serbian Elections and our choice of candidate Jadranka Šešelj (purely on looks I hasten to add) although after we discovered her husband is on trial at The Hague for war crimes we revoked our support and hoped that politics was the winner instead. For us it was more football (of course it was), starting off with a trip to watch FK Belgrade in the third division.

Game 5 – FK Belgrade 2 PBK 2 – Sunday 6th May 2012 – Somewhere in Belgrade
There are few grounds in the world where there is little point in charging people to get in, but this was one.  At either end of the ground were tall blocks of flats, offering perfect views of the game to any residents.  On one side was a grass bank where at the top, through a magic door, came the fans in their droves for this Sunday morning game.

Apart from a makeshift wooden structure that could seat three old chaps, everyone else stood up.  I couldn’t see the logic in this – the grass was dry, it was in the sunshine and soon enough those Енглисх будале (English fools) were lolling around on the floor. I mean it wasn’t as if we ended up falling down the bank or anything remotely embarrassing. This was level three in Serbian football, and if I was going to have to compare it to anywhere in England, Whitehawk from the Ryman League would come to mind, although the caravan park doesn’t really translate well in Serbian.

The officials led the teams out of a little house in the corner of the ground – hang on – here was a first.  A female referee and a linesman.  The latter certainly pulled off the whole “woman in football kit” look from our vantage point.  All three officials (and let’s big up Mr Linesman here too) allowed the game to flow and it was certainly an enjoyable Sunday morning run out.  However, one is never enough on these trips, so before you could say Време аддед он we were off, hailing down a taxi to take us across the city to the Zârkovo for their game.

So off we went, driving past the new bridges over the rivers that were destroyed by the NATO bombs in the early Ninties, waving a “hello” at the World Rowing Championships (“Go Team GB” or something) before the taxi driver turned with a confused look.  He simply couldn’t find the ground.  “That’s no problem – we can ask Google Maps”.  Oh how this would bite me on the arse later.

But for now we located the ground, paid the cab and went in search of game number 6.  Except game number six wasn’t there.  Nothing was there. The ground was just empty.  Step up Uncle Google – there was the ground about “5 minutes on the right”. Twenty minutes later and still no game.  To shorten a long story we never did find the ground or the game despite Google’s help.  Time for lunch then and a plan B.

Plan B was a visit to Red Star’s Marakana stadium, the spiritual home of football in what used to be Yugoslavia.  Once the stadium literally shook to the sound of over 100,000 fans on regular occasions, making it one of the most intimidating places for visiting teams to come to.  The infamous Busby Babes team of 1958 played their final game before the Munich Air Crash here in 1958; The 1973 European Cup final played here saw the legendary Ajax team beat Juventus and in 1976 it hosted the finals of the European Championship, won by Czechoslovakia.   But it was closed.

Closed is not a word in our vocabulary. Just ask the question is our mantra and our response was that for a price (£8.33 to quote latest exchange rates), the door not only to the stadium, but also the press area and the Executive lounges swung wide open.  Hello boys.

So what does one do when you have got into one ground?  Try another of course, and so we set off down the hill to Partizan’s stadium.  The two grounds are separated by about 500 yards in one of the closest top level rivalries in European football.  The clear up operation was in full effect and so we decided it was beer o’ clock and headed into the courtyard adjoining the ground.  Hello, what’s this?  Of course – a magic door and even a guide to boot who didn’t need a top up on his pension.

As we left we saw a troop of players leaving the stadium, all kitted up.  Partizan Under 18’s no less off to play a game in the Military stadium just down the road.  Well, it would be rude not to drop in on that one, although we have no idea who they were playing and what the score was so I am loathed to count that as number six for the weekend.

The rest of the day was spent wandering the sites of the city, a beer, some Serbian food, a beer, a little rest, a beer and so on until that 4am wake up call drew us back to the hotel.  Serbia had been a fantastic experience, with hospitable people, prices to make you rub your eyes and a derby day experience that is up there with the best in the world.  Yes please. Oh – one word of warning.  Despite what you may believe, Serbia is no longer in Europe – well, that is according to T-Mobile.  After landing at London Luton (and having a spare hour waiting to get through UK Border) I checked my phone usage.  £670 in mobile roaming charging in TWO DAYS!  This is because Serbia is not included in T-Mobile’s European data pack which I subscribe to AND would have warned me when I get to a certain threshold. But no – according to T-Mobile the use of apps like Google Maps (as used on Sunday morning) this data was not included.  Be warned!

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