FK Rad’s home stadium in the Belgrade suburb of Banjica is a strange, two-sided venue that comes to life whenever Crvena Zvezda or Partizan make the simple mile-long journey south for a derby in the Superliga. In March 2009 a visit for a match against the former had largely been spent ducking firecrackers thrown between the rival supports when, around an hour in, the tone shifted from tense to sinister.
As the away side readied the dreadlocked Brazilian substitute Jeff Silva the projectile sparring stopped and the sound that replaced it, once experienced, does not fade easily from the memory. Silva’s introduction was being greeted by “monkey” noises from a sizeable minority of the home support and the shock to these naive ears cannot be registered on the same scale as the impact on the player who, just for a second or two, turned round and stared the bank of offenders down.
It was a powerful, if profoundly unsettling, image and one that came to mind during another conflicted spring in Serbian football. A country that tends to surpass itself in terms of player production only to underperform on the pitch has genuine hope of a World Cup appearance next year, recovering quickly from a disastrous Euro 2016 qualifying campaign blighted by the infamous “drone” match with Albania, and for players such as Nemanja Matic and Dusan Tadic it would be a change of international stage that their talents merit.
The problem is that other things do not seem to be changing at all. A deeper healthcheck on the sport in Serbia is less positive and, when another incident involving FK Rad made international headlines in February, it was hard not to wonder where the previous eight years had gone.
This time it was another Brazilian, the Partizan midfielder Everton Luiz, receiving prehistoric treatment and the abuse led to his leaving the Stadion Kralj Petar I pitch in tears at full time. Rad publicly condemned the offenders but stopped well short of affording them full responsibility for their actions, describing them as reacting to Everton’s “provocations”, and pointed out that he had shown a middle finger to the crowd – an action that prompted a mêlée after the final whistle.
Had Everton’s emotions not risen to the surface it is doubtful that the incident would ever have reached foreign news-stands. The chants aimed at Silva had never done so and, in a league where attendances outside the bigger clubs often languish in the hundreds with one camera and two or three journalists, often loyal to the clubs they cover, it is hard to assess confidently the problem’s extent.
The state is totally absent in solving these problems
It certainly raised eyebrows when Rad’s Twitter account pronounced after the Partizan game that “this has never happened before”. But on this occasion the Football Association of Serbia (FSS) was suitably disquieted by widespread coverage of an issue that frequently dogs perceptions of the country to assure inquisitors that the situation would be dealt with decisively.
“We want to make a statement that this is something we will punish very hard, so people will think twice about what they do,” the FSS technical director and former Tottenham defender, Goran Bunjevcevic, told the Guardian while the case was being considered. “I think the punishment will be very hard and fair.”
Rad’s eventual penalty – a three-match stadium closure and two-game ban for their away support – was at best halfway up the sliding scale of severity but the FSS was not done. Exasperatingly Everton was fined 120,000 dinars (£833) for his part in proceedings. It felt like a monumental, if predictable, own goal: even if some regular Superliga viewers will suggest Everton has an antagonistic style, offering any kind of mitigation for the crowd’s response could be viewed only as apologism. “The FSS always protects the clubs and players get maximum penalties,” said Mirko Poledica, president of Serbia’s Sindikat Fudbalera – its PFA – when contacted afterwards.
Politics plays a part and the background to such reprehensible events is more complicated than it might seem.
Serbia’s lengthy rap sheet precedes it – the appalling abuse targeted at Danny Rose during an England Under-21 fixture in Krusevac five years ago is among the highest-profile incidents – but nobody with any genuine knowledge of the country would suggest racist attitudes are widely held or that extreme groups are running amok at every turn. That is not remotely true and there is the sense that those who are attempting to modernise – the FSS president, Slavisa Kokeza, and members of his staff including Bunjevcevic were appointed on that ticket in May 2016 – are being restrained by factors far beyond them.
According to Poledica, people who work at Serbian clubs are “powerless and frightened” and, although Bunjevcevic is slightly more moderate, he strikes a similar tone. “You always have these examples of people that want to be higher than the system, higher than the players, higher than the clubs,” he says of the elements that cause problems inside stadiums.
At Rad the group in question is named United Force and is well-known for its far-right leanings; in cases like these political views were behind their formation, with football as the vehicle. United Force was formed in 1987 by former members of the Delije, the ultras group of Crvena Zvezda. The Delije can broadly be described as patriots and nationalists, without straying into more questionable territory.
In this case their offshoots cross that line and the lack of any hard-hitting controls on their behaviour appears to be a relic of the 1980s and early 1990s, when state security apparatus routinely infiltrated organised football support. Some question whether a heavier touch would be of any benefit to those in power and one school of thought is that, to any government of a semi-authoritarian bent, fan groups have the potential to function as a form of reserve army.
“The state is totally absent in solving these problems,” Poledica says and it seems an unfortunate blind spot for a country that is still negotiating future admission to the European Union. It appears that, even in an era when organised ultras groups are on the decline in Serbia, a tiny but poisonous faction exists for whom no number of “Say no to racism” banners or education seminars will cut any ice.
Until that changes, people with worthier intentions will keep missing out. Had Rad fans been allowed to watch their home match against Javor Ivanjica on 4 March, those coming for the football would have seen their side equalise with a marvellous free-kick by the promising 20-year-old midfielder Filip Bainovic. The goal told of the technical excellence Serbian footballers routinely produce; the empty stand Bainovic shot towards meant something entirely different.
While Serbia’s national team hope their own gifts will be on show to the wider world 15 months from now, their cause would be furthered substantially if there was not the sense that forces back home might trip them up at any turn.