The emotions stirred up every time Belgrade’s two great rivals cross paths are perhaps best encapsulated by the supporters’ chants, with cries of "Red Star are my life, nothing else matters” and “I’d give my life for Partizan” among the standards that can always be relied upon to raise temperatures on derby day. Add political, social and cultural rivalries into the mix, as well as a pair of stadiums a few hundred metres apart, and it is easy to understand why Serbia’s two great juggernauts have long been the best of enemies.
Although the quality on show during the ‘Veciti Derbi’ (Eternal Derby) has slipped since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the regular exodus of the brightest talents, the rivalry itself has perhaps even intensified to compensate for fan frustrations on a sporting level. Thus, to this day Red Star’s ‘Delije’ (Heroes) and Partizan’s ‘Grobari’ (Gravediggers) continue a tradition over 60 years old of trying to outdo each other in lighting up the occasion.
Founded a few months apart, Red Star and Partizan both owe their existence to political entities, as was often the case in Eastern Europe after the second world war. Red Star came into life on 4 March 1945 and represented the Yugoslavian Communist Party, while on 4 October that same year Partizan were established by the army. Echoing the duels between Steaua and Dinamo Bucharest, and Levski and CSKA Sofia, the tussles between the ‘Crveno-beli’ (Red and Whites) and the ‘Crno-beli’ (Black and Whites) in the Yugoslavian championship quickly became a struggle for power between the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defence.
Despite the battle for influence, it was the quality of the football that truly gave the Belgrade derby its reputation. The level of the professional game in the region was for a long period among the highest in Europe – perhaps not surprising given the tendency of local youngsters to exhibit natural technique in a wide range of sports – and both clubs could count upon true footballing artists. The rivalry then became even more acute after the dissolution of the Yugoslavian league, with Hajduk Split and Dinamo Zagreb departing for the Croatian championship.
Facts and figures
The first meeting between the two sides came in January 1947 and ended in a 4-3 victory for Red Star. It was Partizan who finished the season having the last laugh, though, as they collected their first league title and maiden cup success. In fact, ‘Crvena Zvezda’ had to wait until 1951 to get their hands on the championship crown, although they did sweep up a trio of cup wins between 1948 and 1950. As things stand now, Partizan boast 21 titles, including 11 won in the former Yugoslavia, and Red Star have amassed 25, 19 of which came in the old Yugoslavian championship.
The head-to-head record favours Red Star too, with the Red and Whites having recorded 57 wins, 43 draws and 37 defeats in 137 league meetings between the two clubs. They likewise lead in goals scored, having notched up 207 and conceded 168.
Recent history has nonetheless gone Partizan’s way, as the Black and Whites remain undefeated in the last six derby encounters.
Tales of derbies past
The fans play a crucial role in any great rivalry and the Belgrade derby is no exception, with Red Star’s Delije having actually come up with their counterparts’ nickname themselves. They began likening Partizan supporters to gravediggers back in the 1970s, drawing a link between the colours of the team and those worn by undertakers, but instead of taking offence the Grobari have embraced the label and revel in its intimidating overtones.
In competitive terms, Partizan long prided themselves on being the first club from Eastern Europe to reach the final of the European Champion Clubs’ Cup, going down to Real Madrid in 1966, but that all ended when Red Star lifted the trophy in 1991. Since then, and the Toyota Intercontinental Cup triumph that followed it, the Delije greet each derby encounter with the line “Red Star, from Serbia to Tokyo”, which is automatically followed each time by “Partizan, from Serbia to Serbia.”
Former Red Star defender Milan Bisevac, now with Valenciennes, retains strong memories of Belgrade derby matches. “In the week before the derby there’s a unique atmosphere and the pressure starts to rise from Monday onwards,” he said. “It’s a huge match played in a magnificent atmosphere. At the 'Marakana', you can hear the fans from the dressing room before the game has even started. It gives you goose bumps.”
Indeed, the Red Star stadium, nicknamed the Marakana after the legendary Brazilian venue, found room for no fewer than 100,000 spectators for its opening match and once crammed in 108,000 for a game against Partizan.
The 138th league fixture between the two clubs could hardly be coming with higher stakes attached. With just three games to go this season, defending champions Partizan remain unbeaten in their quest for a third consecutive title, yet they stand just one point clear of their city neighbours. Victory on home soil at the Stadion Partizana would leave the Black and Whites almost certain to clinch their 11th Serbian crown, while Red Star are desperate to lift the trophy they last hoisted aloft in 2007. That represents an eternity for the club’s fans – but no more than a chapter in Belgrade’s eternal rivalry.