It’s not every day you see a tank on a football pitch.
Again, Red Star Belgrade is not an everyday football club. And the Rajko Mitic Stadium – or the Marakana, as you may also know – is not an everyday football pitch.
Formed by a group of anti-fascists shortly after World War II, they were for a time one of Europe’s top footballing institutions and producers of talent. The 1991 European Cup-winning side, in particular, would ultimately provide the continent’s richest teams with a steady stream of ready-made geniuses: Dragan Stojkovic, Robert Prosinecki, Dejan Savicevic, Darko Pancev.
Therefore, with barely a day in Belgrade before AthleticismThe relentless crew of Planes, Trains And Automobiles have to go to another city, the Marakana is the place we decide to absolutely visit.
Well, most of us.
As we made laborious progress on our six-hour coach journey from Zagreb to Belgrade on Sunday evening, Manchester United basically exploded. Alejandro Garnachois the last winner against Fulham and the strong words of Bruno Fernandes on the world Cup were quite dramatic, but that was before the club’s most famous substitute opened his mouth.
The strong entry of Cristiano Ronaldo and Piers Morgan in the “Pair Of Blokes You’d Least Like To Be Stuck On A Six-Hour Coach Ride From Zagreb To Belgrade With” contest raised one or two issues for United correspondent Laurie, meaning he was basically tied at his desk most days.
While Nick and Martino were out having fun, he was punching the phones, trying to get to the bottom of what was going on.
Still, a dog called Minnie lay on his lap while he worked, so it wasn’t all bad.
We stroll outside the Marakana, and through a combination of the morning coffee coursing through his veins and the sheer giddiness of being in this historic stadium again, Martino decides we just have to get in.
We first try the bar, which overlooks the field. The staff there can’t let us in, but what they can do is serve us rakija, the Balkan spirit that you suspect is responsible for some of the best and worst nights in the lives of many people. It’s a powerful choice for barely noon on a Monday, but a group of young women begin to laugh at us as a brief moment of post-order regret creeps across our faces. No turning back now.
Down the hatch, fine. The thorns quiver. The eyes widen. This stuff will put hair on your chest.
Martino then disappears into the bowels of the stadium and begins to charm the club staff into paying us an impromptu visit. Some time later, he emerges triumphant, having gained backstage access.
We start in the museum, and it takes all of our restraint to stop blowing raspberries at the man at the door, who’d glanced at our camera gear and curtly told us to get lost.
It’s quite a place, filled with trophies, with this 1991 European Cup which sits at the top of an extraordinary circular showcase. There’s even a bunch of trophies on the floor, making it look like they have so many they have nowhere to put them.
Hidden to the left is a small screen dedicated to the 1958 European Cup tie between Red Star and United, which was of course the game the Busby Babes were flying home from when their plane crashed outside Munich airport.
Then it’s on the ground. It doesn’t feel like a particularly big stadium and there’s a reasonable gap between the stands and the playing field. But you can see, even empty, why it’s so intimidating.
It’s a stadium with walls that have stories, the equivalent of a rough and tough old character that has lived many lives. Antonin Panenka did his thing here in the 1976 European Championship final. Red Star beat Bayern Munich here in the 1991 semi-final, a night often remembered as one of the most intense atmospheres there has ever been at a European meeting. A decisive match for the 2006 World Cup between Serbia & Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina took place here: not exactly a quiet night at the library.
On a television in the bar, Dragan Stojkovic, now coach of the Serbian national team, gives a press conference about his World Cup squad.
It’s poignant in some ways: he is one of five Red Star Stars – essentially the five greatest figures in the club’s history, his portrait displayed in the main entrance. But he is not welcome there after falling out with the club’s current hierarchy and, perhaps more pertinently, a group of club ultras, the ‘Delije’.
Stojkovic served as club president for a few years but left in acrimonious circumstances in 2007, blamed for his precarious financial situation.
The dispute persists: just this year, during the Serbian Cup final between Red Star and city neighbors and bitter rivals Partizan on the pitch, Delije unveiled a banner that told him without equivocal to stay out of their business.
These ultras are rather fond of the club’s current captain, and potentially of one of the stories of this next World Cup, goalkeeper Milan Borjan.
Born in Croatia to Serbian parents, who fled to Canada during the Yugoslavian war in the 1990s, Borjan is now Canada’s starting goalkeeper and Milos, a Red Star fan we meet later, shudders at the conflicting feelings that could arise if Serbia and Canada meet in Qatar.
The extremely patient staff who allowed us to essentially invade their stadium show signs of waning enthusiasm, so off we go.
It’s back on the road, with just enough time to grab a cevapcici, a local dish that’s basically a form of kebab, served in delicious pitta-style bread.
Stomachs are lined and constitutions are strengthened for another voluminous road trip, this time about 250 miles (nearly 400 km) by car to Sofia.
When we reach our hotel in the Bulgarian capital, we are reprimanded at length by the doorman for the unforgivable crime of briefly leaving our rental car right outside his front door during check-in.
Maybe we should have brought that tank.
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