They’ve become known simply as ‘The 200’. A group of Northern Ireland fans determined to defy security warnings and a UEFA edict in order to attend their country’s Euro 2012 qualifier in Serbia.
It’s 1.15pm on Friday 25th March and FourFourTwo dashes across Budapest airport on a mission to join these steely souls. I reach the gate just as it closes and collapse in a sweaty, panting heap on the connecting flight. Next stop Belgrade - home of the most feared football hooligans in Europe.
Violence at Serbia’s last qualifying match in Italy led UEFA to rule that the game against Northern Ireland at Red Star’s ’Marakana’ Stadium should take place behind closed doors. After protests from the Irish Football Association (IFA) the authorities grudgingly agreed to admit travelling fans who booked their trips prior to the ruling.
There is speculation in the Northern Irish press that Serb Ultras aren’t happy and intend to wreak revenge on visiting supporters. FFT peaks out the aircraft window and sips a drink. Let Operation ‘Certain Death’ begin!
Friday 25th March, 4.15 pm:
Three hours later and the pace has slackened, with FFT’s taxi stuck in Belgrade Friday afternoon gridlock. “There is a problem”, explains the driver, “you bombed our bridges”. The passengers protest their innocence. “Nato destroyed the bridges”, the Serb admonishes, “now the traffic is bad“.
Just twelve years ago Serbia was bombarded from the air by the west. Our visit coincides with the anniversary of Nato’s intervention in the Kosovo War. No wonder some Serbs are a little touchy! We decide it’s quicker to walk.
We’re en route to the Intercontinental Hotel, headquarters for the Northern Ireland squad and IFA officials. There we will be given match tickets and hush-hush details of a pre-game meeting point. Serbian police will ensure our safety before a convoy of buses leaves for the ground.
An atmosphere of caution and secrecy has shrouded all the arrangements for this match. In October Northern Ireland fans’ travel plans were plunged into chaos after hooligans rioted in Genoa and UEFA handed Serbia a supporters’ ban for its next qualifier. The IFA sought refunds for fans who had already shelled out money, but it quickly became apparent that many of the ‘Green and White Army’ intended to travel to Belgrade anyway. The Association and supporters’ representatives changed tack and lobbied UEFA to reverse Serbia‘s punishment.
Eventually the authorities decided that a small number of Northern Ireland fans could attend the game after all, but Serbs would still be locked out. It was a reluctant concession. UEFA even offered free tickets to the Europa League final in Dublin, to tempt potential travellers not to make the trip. Northern Ireland supporters are made from sterner stuff than that. The vast majority chose to stick with their original plans and two months later they’re forming an orderly queue for tickets. They number just over 240, with UEFA revising its estimate of 200 upwards to accommodate all but a small handful who booked after the deadline.
Kristijan has travelled from Macedonia to meet supporters from the internet forum ’Our Wee Country’ (OWC). He explains that the notorious Serb warlord Arkan was gunned down right here in the Intercontinental’s lobby, back in 2000. The Red Star fanatic recruited many members of his Tigers paramilitary group from among the club‘s hooligan element. They subsequently became notorious for their brutality during the war in Bosnia.
A sobering thought and another reminder of Serbia’s troubled recent history.
Back in central Belgrade things are relaxed. Most Northern Ireland supporters ignore warnings to keep their colours hidden. This isn’t a typical away trip though. The Green and White Army likes to gather en masse in a city centre square to drink and meet locals, but today small groups hurry to bars and keep things low key.
FFT joins one set of supporters in Bar Red on Skadarlija, a Bohemian street in the heart of old Belgrade. Two policemen sit inside watchfully, resisting fans’ attempts to buy them beer. It seems to be an unnecessary precaution, because the Northern Ireland contingent are getting on famously with locals. A TV crew stops to interview travelling fans and ply them with slivovitz, the local plum brandy. They film Gordon McKeown from Portadown downing a shot and turning an alarming shade of purple. “It’s an interesting mix of flavours”, he concludes diplomatically.
We chat to a group of Montenegrin Serbs who describe themselves as ‘Ultras’. They’re miffed to be locked out of the game but they take our banter in good part. A drunk guy at the bar is going to attend. He describes himself as a journalist and pulls out a sheaf of press passes. “Are you working?” asks an incredulous FFT. Apparently so. That’s one match report which should be worth reading!
Supporters in University Square board a fleet of buses. Access is strictly ticket only and a burly security guard frisks passengers for bottles or cans. For an hour or so fans have gathered in the square, mingling with early evening commuters and surrounded by heavily armed police.
The convoy jolts into motion, flanked by motorcycle outriders with sirens wailing. Each junction is manned by traffic policemen to ensure that there are no delays. An occasional passer-by waves or makes a thumbs down gesture but it’s hardly ’welcome to hell’ stuff.
FFT asks Marty Lowry, owner of the OWC forum, about his experience in Belgrade so far. “It’s been great”, he confirms, “everyone’s been exceptionally friendly, though the local supporters like to tell some hair-raising tales”.
“We visited the two main club grounds yesterday, which are less than a mile apart. We bought some souvenirs at the Red Star shop and the staff warned us to keep our bags well hidden if we were walking anywhere near Partizan.”
The ‘Eternal Derby’ between Red Star and Partizan Belgrade is one of the most fiercely contested in world football. Marty clutches a bunch of white tulips in an obscure tribute to Partizan. FFT doesn’t accept the offer of a flower to carry into the Red Star Stadium!
Our bus pulls up outside the ground amid a media scrum. Disembarking Northern Ireland supporters are met by rows of armed police in body armour and, with every conceivable access route closely guarded, there are more officers than spectators. There isn’t a Serb fan in sight and photographers scramble to snap partying supporters beside frowning policemen. For riot police these guys are pretty tolerant though and they don‘t complain as 240 fans crowd round to jostle for photographs. A familiar face, Gerry Armstrong, hero of Northern Ireland’s 1982 World Cup squad, looks on with bewilderment.
The last few supporters pass through security after a long and occasionally ill-tempered wait. The novelty of the searches has long since worn off and a UEFA delegate chivvies the stewards along. A rigorous frisk is followed by a once over with a metal detector. Supporters ditch little mounds of coins which are eagerly snapped up by some Serb children who have slipped through the ranks of policemen.
Inside the Marakana Stadium FFT takes in a surreal scene. The Northern Ireland contingent is housed in Red Star’s VIP section, a phenomenal distance from the pitch. Green and White foot-soldiers lounge in enormous, cinema style chairs facing a row of security guards. The rest of the 53,000 seat arena is empty - save for a packed press gallery (just imagine how it might look whenever West Ham moves to the Olympic Stadium).
Northern Ireland supporters have a boisterous reputation and as kick off approaches they do their best to create an atmosphere. In this cavernous stadium, though, it feels like their chants simply drift off into the chilly Belgrade night.
When the teams line up and Northern Ireland’s anthem is played over the PA there is a palpable sense of relief. Early arrivals witnessed a rehearsal where the Republic of Ireland’s anthem was played instead!
Mayhem in the VIP section as Gareth McAuley connects with Chris Brunt’s free kick to head the opening goal. It’s Northern Ireland’s first first-half strike in two years and the fans are almost in raptures again when Kyle Lafferty squanders a glorious opportunity to nick a second.
Munching a choc ice in the bar at half-time, Richard Oliver from Ballymena is apprehensive, despite the score-line. “Knowing Nigel Worthington (the Northern Ireland manager) he’ll try to shut up shop. There’s a long 45 minutes ahead”, he warns FFT. It’s a prophetic analysis. The fans become frustrated after the interval, as Northern Ireland drop deeper and deeper. “Attack, attack, attack!”, becomes the most frequent chant, replacing, “shall we sing a song for you”, and, “big ground, no fans”.
When the equaliser finally comes, the press gallery, which tonight contains more than 100 “accredited journalists“, explodes with delight. The Serbs’ second is inevitable and it’s greeted with delirium by a small group of bus drivers in our section. The Green and White Army belt out “2-1 and you still don’t sing”, but on this occasion there is a riposte. “Serbia! Serbia!”, ventures a lone driver.
Usually stoical in defeat the Northern Ireland supporters feel that Worthington’s negative tactics are to blame. Kenny Armstrong from Ballymena asks why Celtic’s “Derry Pele” Pat McCourt is not introduced. “The game’s crying out for his creativity”.
The match limps to a close and Northern Ireland are beaten 2-1. Dejected fans muster a final roar for their heroes who respond with applause. The Serb team also comes over to wave and receive an ovation from Northern Ireland supporters. It’s a nice touch.
In normal circumstances there would be a lengthy wait for home fans to vacate the stadium but tonight it’s straight back unto the buses for another police escort. The streets are quiet, without any sign of celebrating Serb fans. Back at Bar Red, though, our Montenegrin friends are triumphant. “Even without any fans, Serbia wins. UEFA will be disappointed - they punish our supporters, but we win anyway“. They feel that their team has prevailed, despite an unfair disadvantage.
Saturday 27th March, 11am:
At Republic Square, in Belgrade City Centre, FFT contemplates the previous day with fellow Northern Ireland fans.
After all the horror stories, Serbia has confounded expectations. There’s disappointment about the result but overwhelmingly everyone’s impressions are positive. The principal regret is that home fans weren’t there to complete a memorable experience. “Can you imagine 50,000 Serbs in that stadium”, enthuses Gavin Nixon from Belfast, “the atmosphere would be incredible”.
Last night green and white were the prevalent colours but this morning it’s just green. A small group protests against Nato’s action in Libya, waving posters of Muammar Gadaffi, who provided aid to Serbia after it was bombed in the late 1990s. They’re particularly keen to hand out green Libyan flags to tourists. It’s a fitting image. Belgrade has proved welcoming, exciting and, contrary to its reputation, surprisingly beautiful, but history and politics are never far away.