The scent of revenge is in the air, and it smells a lot like beer.
Fans of the Red Star soccer team are pouring into a Belgrade stadium, where their squad will shortly face its archrival, Partizan. The last time these Serbian teams met, a fan was shot and killed with a flare gun.
A policeman frisks everyone at the entrance, checking for weapons, drugs, and alcohol, or any object that might be heaved at the players, such as the plastic bottle of mineral water in my pocket, which is confiscated. The ban on alcohol has, perversely, accelerated the drunkenness among the team’s hard-core fans, who are proud to be known as hooligans and wave British flags on occasion; they have consumed enough pregame beer to stay inebriated through the rest of the year.
Inside, the stadium is one part rave, one part Colosseum. Some kids light up fat joints (their marijuana comes from Albania), and the blissed-out, hyped-up behavior of others indicates that they are molecularly familiar with ecstasy and cocaine. The Red Star cheering section, where almost all the fans are male, feels like a Balkan frat party.
This let-the-good-times-roll ambience proves transitory, though. Fights break out, but of the tune-up variety, between Red Star fans who throw a few chemically laced punches before realizing they should save their best stuff for later on. The stadium begins to shake as the fans roar in unison at the Partizan cheering section at the other end of the stadium. Their shouts have a rolling, thunderous sound, like the battle cry of ancient Greeks at the gates of Troy, though with little of the Homeric dignity:
“Pussies and thieves! Pussies and thieves!”
“You’re choking/ You’re choking/ You’re choking/ On our dicks!”
The teams take to the field. Someone throws a red flare onto the pitch. It becomes clear in the coming minutes that flares are the preferred instruments for wreaking havoc at soccer games.
Alexander is a 26-year-old computer geek dressed in the team colors, red and white. He is mild-mannered for a Serbian soccer fan, and he is doing his best to explain what is going on.
“Is something like a civil war,” he says.
A yellow smoke bomb explodes among the Partizan fans, who, enraged, begin tearing up their seats and throwing them onto the track circling the field. Partizan is the visiting team, and this is no way for visitors to behave.
“We fuck your mother!” Red Star fans chant.
For most Serbs, violence is a member of the family. In the early nineties, the ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia was initiated by the Serbian warlord Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic-eventually indicted as a war criminal-who was also the leader of Red Star’s official (and feared) fan club; its nationalist hooligans were his fiercest soldiers. But in the past few years, instead of fighting on behalf of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, they turned against his regime, which had led the country into global isolation and economic misery. The first time most Serbs heard the opposition slogan, which roughly translates as “Slobo, kill yourself and save the nation,” was during Red Star games, when thousands of fans howled it with such in-your-face gusto that riot police tried to silence the troublemakers, wielding their batons like cleavers in an abattoir.
Nine days before this match, a popular rebellion ended Milosevic’s 13-year rule. His ouster has been cause for national celebration, but Red Star’s fans–who were among the frontline protesters storming the federal Parliament and other government strongholds–remain on the warpath because Partizan has been headed by Milosevic loyalists. Not all scores have been settled.
The game begins. Red Star controls the ball and moves toward the Partizan goal. Several flares are fired onto the field, in front of the goal, narrowly missing the players, who dribble around them as they blaze away, throwing off smoke and heat and light.
“Is something normal,” Alexander explains.
The Partizan fans are becoming frenzied. A small fire has started in their section, and now they are hurling their chairs onto the field in earnest, a hail of jagged edges. The Partizan captain, Sasa Ilic, jogs off the field and onto the track, trying to talk some sense into his fans, but they will not listen, and he retreats before he becomes the target of their fury.
The hooligans on both sides are like stallions smelling brood mares in the distance, snorting and pawing the ground. Partizan fans are the first ones to climb the fence meant to prevent them from reaching the field. They rush ahead, lobbing flares, and as they do so, Red Star fans climb over their fence and surge forward, into battle, wildly.
“You see, it starts,” Alexander says, a touch of awe in his voice.
Mayhem. Players and coaches from both teams sprint toward a tunnel that leads off the field to safety, dodging punches and kicks along the way. The tunnel is flanked by a gauntlet of Red Star hooligans, so Partizan players duck and wrap their arms around their heads to absorb the blows. The important thing is to keep moving, because if they fall, the hooligans will swarm over them, saying hello with steel-toed boots.
Alexander watches the riot from the stands. He is not a hooligan, though he has, like most members of the fan club, engaged in violence from time to time; it is unavoidable, he says, when the other side attacks. He knows that tonight’s game, just three minutes old, is over, and he doesn’t much like the spectacle now taking its place.
“This is bad, this is bad, the whole situation,” he whispers. It’s not clear whether he means the game or the state of the nation.
A new chant arises from the Red Star supporters.
“Let’s go, let’s go! Everyone attack!”
The home team does not lose riots. Red Star fans pour onto the field. Ilic, the Partizan captain, is a marked man; by the time he staggers to safety, he has several broken ribs. Ljubisa Tumbakovic, Partizan’s coach, is a few steps slower than his players, and he loses a couple of teeth in the maelstrom and flees the field with a nasty gash on his forehead. He will later tell reporters the riot was the worst moment of his career.
Once the teams have disappeared from the field, the hooligan-on-hooligan violence intensifies. Red Star supporters are beating the daylights out of injured Partizan fans who have fallen to the ground in fetal heaps. It is brutal stuff, one kick after another delivered to crumpled, sandbag bodies.
“Look, they are coming now, the blues,” Alexander says.
The police, known as the blues because of their uniforms, had been staunch defenders of Milosevic’s regime. They were staying out of the stadium because they didn’t want to incite the fans. But the fans got incited anyway, so the blues are wading into the Partizan section, which is being ripped apart. They club anyone within swinging distance-crowd control, Serbian style.
The blues, with helmets and shields, venture onto the field too, chasing Red Star fans from their wounded prey, and as the victorious hooligans return to their seats in the northern section of the stadium, they are cheered by their comrades. Some remove their shirts and raise their arms in triumph; they are young and muscled and bloodied and thrilled.
On the field, doctors and nurses in white coats treat the wounded, who are stretchered away. Dozens are hospitalized.
The field is clear. The police herd Partizan fans out of the stadium but hold back the Red Star contingent; if both sides exited at the same time, they would continue fighting outside. An announcer informs the crowd that the game has been canceled and tickets will be refunded at a later date.
After a half-hour, Red Star fans are allowed to leave. I ask Alexander and his friends whether they are going to have a drink somewhere. They are not. They are subdued, as is the rest of the departing crowd, which quietly walks past the garish house across the street from the stadium, where Arkan, the warlord who once led the fan club, used to live. Arkan was assassinated in Belgrade a year ago-a mob hit.
The thrill that everyone felt at the apex of the riot has faded. A sense of hollowness takes its place as fans realize they don’t have much to show for their efforts. In the coming days, Serbia’s soccer association will ban fans from Red Star and Partizan’s next two matches. The teams will play before empty stadiums.
The riot is like the wars Serbs fought in the past decade in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia-convulsive, brutal, worthless. There are no more wars being fought now. But the culture of violence that Milosevic nourished has not been vanquished with his regime. The games go on.