JACK ROBINSON recently visited the disputed region of Kosovo and examined the continuing relationship between Serbian football supporter groups and the spreading of nationalist ideology.  The following article is an extract from a book that is currently seeking funding. You can help get it off the ground by visiting Kickstarter HERE

As an English football fan, I’m surprisingly comfortable with the notion of congregating into the symbolic centre of a town far away from where I live and belting out messy, off-key renditions of self-written songs. Those obnoxious little ditties glorifying my own roots at the expense of others are usually characterised by puerile language and an awkward cocktail of self-deprecating humour mixed with the most ridiculously aggrandising boasting. Things along the lines of:

“We can’t read and we can’t write.

We wear gold and Nikeys.

We all come from Gillingham

and we’re all fucking pikeys.

Pikey army. Pikey army. Pikey army.”

Have that, unsuspecting residents of Chesterfield.

At first glance it might seem that ‘Delije’ – a supporters group devoted to Red Star Belgrade – might be indulging in similar rowdy antics as they gather around a statue built atop a roundabout in the centre of Gračanica, a small village home to FK Gračanica, who host the former European champions later that afternoon. However, it soon becomes clear that whilst the rambunctiousness is there, the levity present in most English football songs is completely absent in Delije’s choral performance. The first verse drowns out the surrounding traffic:

“Sa Kosova zora sviće, sviće, sviće novi dan

“The dawn rises from Kosovo, rises, rises the new day

Gračanica sva u sjaju dočekuje Vidovdan!

Gračanica in all its glory awaits Vidovdan!

Oj Kosovo, Kosovo zemljo moja voljena

Oh Kosovo, Kosovo my beloved land

Zemljo slavnih vitezova Lazara i Miloša!”

The land of great knights, Lazar and Miloš!”

Over the last 25 years Delije have become much more than a collection of football fans with a soft spot for Red Star, having nailed their colours to the mast in a crumbling Yugoslavia. In April 1990, Franjo Tuđman, a Croatian separatist who sought independence from Yugoslavia, was elected leader of the newly formed Croatian parliament. Less than two weeks later, Red Star travelled to Zagreb to meet Dinamo in a Yugoslav First Division match. Delije’s nationalistic chants during the match declaring Zagreb as Serbian and threatening Tuđman’s life were met with equally vitriolic nationalistic sentiment from Dinamo’s ‘Bad Blue Boys’, leading to a riot and violent clashes between the two supporters groups. The Croatian war of Independence started less than a year later. Outside the Maksimir stadium lies a statue dedicated to ‘the fans of the club, who started the war with Serbia at this ground on May 13, 1990’. The fight with Delije viewed as war with Serbia.

Leading Delije into battle on the terraces that day was Željko Ražnatović, a man more commonly known as Arkan. As the 90s progressed, Arkan went on to form a paramilitary group officially known as the ‘Serb Volunteer Guard’ but often referred to as Arkan’s Tigers, a group that have since been charged with an extensive list of war crimes involving kidnap, starvation, rape and torture. The commonly accepted narrative is that Arkan honed his leadership skills at Delije and recruited heavily from their ranks when creating his infamous militia. The group often met for operations outside Red Star’s Marakana Stadium and military victories were celebrated at Red Star home games. In 1992, a fully uniformed set of Tigers in the Marakana’s north stand silenced the notoriously volatile crowd at a Belgrade derby by brandishing stolen road signs from Vukovar, a Croatian town freshly captured by Serbian forces. Arkan then emerged to a hero’s welcome from the entire stadium, perhaps the only time Red Star and Partizan fans have been united.

Subsequent designations of cause and effect are frequently blurred when discussing these issues and football’s influence on the Yugoslav wars is often overstated. The notion that the nationalist ideologies and the horrific acts committed in their name that plagued the Balkans in the 90s were born and honed on the terraces is a fallacy that excuses the true villains. The conflicts in the stadiums and the ideologies of the fans mirrored ideals espoused and encouraged by political leaders across Yugoslavia. They were other expressions of these ideas, not root causes or formative events. It is, however, easier to blame dehumanised, mindless football hooligans rather than democratically elected leaders and wider society for these atrocities.

Regardless of the finer points of Red Star’s effects on the Yugoslav wars of the early 90s, the era had an indelible effect on the identity of both Red Star and Delije. Shedding any trace of its communist roots, the club and its supporters group became an icon of a violent brand of Serbian nationalism. The club have done little to discourage this new image in the time since. A former president said of the club: “To be a Red Star fan means to be a Serb! They tried to destroy us, to impose some Yugoslav clubs as a Serbian brand, to cheat on people. They didn’t succeed, because to attack Red Star means to attack Serbia, and the destiny of those who stormed Serbia is well known throughout history!”

Whilst tensions with Croatia and Bosnia remain, in 2015 the issue closest to most Serbian nationalists’ heart is Kosovo, the unilaterally declared independent state at Serbia’s southern border. In central Kosovo lies Gračanica, a small village built around a Serbian orthodox monastery. Opposite the monastery is a statue on a roundabout that on May 4th, 2015 was perched upon by around 100 members of Delije, all lurching into a second verse.

“Sve delije od Srbije, svako srce ponosno

“All heroes from Serbia, every heart is proud,

Voli i ljubi zemlju svoju Gazimestan Kosovo

Love and kiss their lands, Gazimestan, Kosovo

Oj Kosovo, Kosovo zemljo moja voljena

Oh Kosovo, Kosovo my beloved land

Zemljo slavnih vitezova Lazara i Miloša!”

The land of great knights, Lazar and Miloš!”

As may be apparent by now Delije have very little in common with English fans on an away day. These lads are definitely not on the piss nor having a laugh. Alcohol and laughter are conspicuous by their absence. They didn’t choose to swarm around this statue because of its proximity to a decent pub and the Lazar and Miloš evoked aren’t stalwart centre backs from a halcyon age. Instead, the performance is steeped in the Serbian nationalist narrative regarding Kosovo, a continuation of an over 600 year old story. The statue depicts Miloš Obilić, a Serbian knight who, whilst fighting under the service of Prince Lazar at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, slayed the leader of the Ottoman forces, Sultan Murad the first. The Serbian heroes, Lazar and Miloš. Despite ending in a defeat that condemned the Serbian people to nearly 500 years of Ottoman rule, the Battle of Kosovo has become a cornerstone of a certain view on Serbian identity. This image of the Serbs as a brave protectorate, battling the Islamic invaders to defend Christian Europe is one that has been adopted and exploited by many Serbian nationalists. That the largest physical manifestation of this image occurred on Kosovan soil is part of the reason that, for many Serbs, Kosovo is inextricably part of Serbian territory.

Whilst a video of Delije’s display is uploaded to a Red Star YouTube channel, the main target audience are passers-by in Gračanica itself. Since Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, residents of Gračanica have watched whilst a state has been constructed around them. A new currency, a new parliament, a new flag, a new football association have all come into being, created largely by the majority ethnic Albanian population with international assistance. Most of Gračanica’s population are ethnic Serbs whose interactions with this burgeoning new nation have been minimal. Serbian flags fly throughout the village, most shops operate almost exclusively using Serbian dinars and its football team FK Gračanica compete at the fifth tier of the Serbian football league system in the ‘Kosovo district league’ alongside seven other Kosovar Serb teams located south of the Ibar river in Mitrovice.

There are two very distinct visions for the future of Kosovo that attempt to capture the imagination of Kosovar Serbs. The first is the one backed by Kosovo’s international supporters as an independent state, including the United States and most, but not all, members of the European Union. This vision is of Kosovo as a new, stronger, multi-ethnic state independent from both Serbia and Albania. The newly created, EU-approved flag of Kosovo features a star for each of Kosovo’s ethnic minorities and its constitution declares rights and parliamentary representation for all minorities, particularly Serbs. It aims to neuter both Albanian and Serb nationalism and create a new identity, Kosovar.

The other vision is presented by the Serbian state, still largely immovable from the tenet that ‘Kosovo is Serbia’, a view reiterated by Serbian Prime Minister Aleksander Vucic on a recent trip to Tirana. Vucic, incidentally, was a passionate follower of Red Star Belgrade in his youth and attended that infamous match in Zagreb with Dinamo. Serbia’s orders to Kosovar Serbs are simple: reject any notion of a new state, continue to keep Serbian populated areas as enclaves of Serbia. A vision and philosophy that is reinforced by Delije’s third verse:

“Srbadija kliče cela ‘Ne damo te Kosovo’

“All Serbs shout: ‘We are not giving you away Kosovo!’

To je naše uvek bilo od davnina ostalo

It was always ours, through ages it stayed ours

Oj Kosovo, Kosovo zemljo moja voljena

Oh Kosovo, Kosovo my beloved land

Zemljo slavnih vitezova Lazara i Miloša!”

The land of great knights, Lazar and Miloš!”

The song is a Delije staple alongside other much less poetic chants referencing Kosovo, “You’ll get your fucking head stamped on like a Kosovan” rang around the Marakana throughout the mid-noughties. The sentiment has not been left in the past. A derby with Partizan last season saw the burning of an Albanian flag on the terraces. More recently, just two weeks before their trip to Gračanica, Delije responded to news that Kosovar Albanian minister for foreign affairs Hashim Thaçi was planning to attend an NGO-organised conference in Belgrade with chants of ‘Hashim cannot just wander into this town.’, followed by the assertion that ‘Kosovo is the heart of Serbia’. Thaçi’s appearance at the conference was cancelled.

A few days after Red Star’s visit to Kosovo, armed violence broke out across the border in Macedonia between an armed group of ethnic Albanians and the Macedonian police and armed forces. Ten members of the armed group and eight Macedonian policemen were killed. At Red Star’s fixture away to Čukarički the next day, Delije’s reaction to the deaths of the Albanians was one of jubilation. Their chants celebrating the ‘slaughter’ of Albanians rang around the ground so fervently that the referee was forced into suspending the match after only ten minutes. A tannoy announcement requested an end to the singing of ‘derogatory’ songs. It fell on deaf ears as Delije restarted the chant just ten minutes later. The referee allowed the game to finish, Red Star lost 2-0.

Whilst Delije deal in more explicit and crude expressions of this nationalist doctrine, Red Star Belgrade themselves spread the same values more tacitly. According to press reports in March announcing the visit, Red Star are in Gračanica for a charity match; 100 dinars (60p) for a ticket with all money raised donated to a maternity ward in the village under the catchy name ‘Let’s play for babies in Kosovo’. A sign of support and solidarity with Serbs in Kosovo. Over 420,000 Dinars (around £2,500) was eventually donated to the maternity ward. Unfortunately, I can’t claim to have helped this worthy cause myself as I found nowhere in the village to purchase a ticket before kick-off.

Although the match takes place on Kosovan territory, both FK Gračanica and Red Star neglect to seek permission from or even inform the Football Federation of Kosovo. This snub is hardly surprising, given both organisations are largely comprised of people who refuse to recognise Kosovo’s existence as an independent state. How can a country that doesn’t exist have a football association? How can that association hold jurisdiction over football matches played within its borders? This disregard of Kosovo’s autonomy doesn’t prevent the involvement in the match of two senior members of Kosovo’s political institution. Deputy Prime Minister Branimir Stojanovic and the Mayor of Gračanica (elected through Kosovar local elections as opposed to Serbian), Vladeta Kostic, have both heartily endorsed Red Star’s visit, offering assurances of security for visiting players and fans as well as attending the match in person themselves. Kostic especially was unwavering in his excitement for the event, declaring Red Star’s visit ‘a holiday for everyone’.

Walking to the match it’s hard to argue with Kostic’s statement. Gračanica is often a staid place, filled with the languor created by low levels of employment and an unease caused by its complex political existence. Most visitors alighting a bus in the village are greeted with wary stares from cramped café terraces. On the day of Red Star’s visit it is bustling. A curious local Roma population joining their effervescent Serbian neighbours, the paths leading uphill to the stadium are awash with smiling faces and the red and white of Red Star.

Being ticketless doesn’t deny me or numerous others entrance to FK Gračanica’s rustic stadium, which is open on three sides with a small terrace built into a hill on the other, very much the home of a fifth tier football club. I arrive just in time for the national anthem. That’s the national anthem of Serbia, of course. There are mixed reactions amongst the 4000 attendees, from those giving the three fingered salute and bellowing along to those shielding their eyes from the relentless late spring sun vaguely mouthing the words with disinterest.

In the stadium Delije stand above a banner unfurled by its Kosovar contingent welcoming Red Star with the message: “For the Serbs of Kosovo and Metohija you are the biggest joy! Welcome our only love.” They frequently serenade their beloved with a similar message “Zvezda Srbija! Kosovo, Metohija!” (Star of Serbia, Kosovo and Metohija). Even in these romantic statements of devotion lies an undertone of nationalism. ‘Kosovo and Metohija’ is a loaded term to describe these lands. It was removed from the Yugoslav constitution in 1974 during Slovene and Croat led reforms which aimed to devolve power further away from Belgrade to Yugoslavia’s constituent nations. The amendment granted Kosovo greater autonomy and discarded the term ‘Metohija’ as it was unused by the local Albanian population. A Yugoslav government led by Slobodan Milosevic redrew this constitution again in 1990, removing Kosovo’s autonomy and returning the suffix ‘and Metohija’. ‘Kosovo’ has autonomy, ‘Kosovo and Metohija’ is subjugated to Serbia.

If those are subtle undertones then three banners hung from left to right on a fence behind a goal are much more explicit. The first commemorates Dimitrije Popovic, a 17-year-old medical student murdered in a drive-by shooting by Kosovar Albanians in 2004. Next to this tribute are images of Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb who assassinated Franz Ferdinand in the name of Yugoslav unity, and Đorđe Petrović (also known as Black George), leader of the first Serbian uprising against the Ottoman Empire. The trio of iconography is completed by a map of Kosovo outlined in the red and white of Red Star, complete with silhouetted figures of Delije underneath their crest in the interior. A Serbian victim at the hands of Islamists, icons of Serbian resistance, claims on territory, the archetypal Serbian nationalist narrative.

As the first half begins and Delije embark on their wild, trademark displays of choreography, I enter conversation with a young Kosovar Serb from the neighbouring village of Badovac. He smilingly informs me he supports Red Star, his father passing them on to him as Gillingham were passed on to me by mine. I ask if he’s a member of Delije. The boy explodes with laughter.

“Of course not!”

“Would you like to be?” Even more vociferous laughter.

“No! They are crazy!”

Whilst Delije garner admiration from football fans all over Europe, their more extreme tendencies often excused due to their ability to utilise flares and coloured smoke in visually impressive ways, most other attendees of the match seem to hold them in the same regard as my young friend. A typically colourful and fiery display opens the second half but most fans around me remain unmoved, more people try to waft the smoke clear than reach for their camera phones.

On the pitch Red Star prove to be a much more compelling distraction. Their team is made up of fringe squad members and youth team players, the first team having competed in Serbian Super Liga match the day previously. Despite this and the unseasonal thirty degree heat, Red Star go about their business with an exceptional energy. FK Gračanica’s players, who themselves also played a league match during the prior weekend, were subject to endless harrying whilst in possession and were chasing shadows without the ball as Red Star carved open their defence at will. A brace of goals from Nemanja Ivanovic was added to by Nenad Gavric to give Red Star a three goal lead at the break. Any players on the home side hoping for a goal against Serbia’s most famous club to regale the grandchildren about were out of luck, as Red Star’s charity appeared to only extend to the future unborn infants of Gračanica. Their defence barely allowed a single shot at goal. A long range drive from Lazar Trifunčić completed the 4-0 demolition early in the second half, an acrobatic overhead effort from Gavrić the only other action to entertain the crowd.

Not relying on anything as intangible as the memory of their performance to leave a marker of their visit behind, Red Star distributed t-shirts to a number of people in the crowd. An outline of Gračanica’s famous monastery with the town’s name inscribed in Cyrillic underneath, all in Red Star red and white. FK Gračanica’s stadium is officially renamed after former Red Star left winger and ex-club president, Dragan Dzajic, an undoubtedly fine footballer but a man with little previous connection to Kosovo or Gračanica. He is also made honorary president of the club, reinforcing the connection and helping build a lasting monument to Red Star in the heart of Kosovo.

Busses containing the team, officials and members of Delije leave Gračanica via a police escort which tears through Kosovo’s new capital city Pristina in a blaze of sirens, as conspicuously as possible. Fortunately, they pass through largely ignored. No one can write another chapter referencing a clash involving Red Star fans as another episode in Serbia’s ongoing conflicts with its neighbours. This won’t phase Red Star or Delije. They didn’t come to Kosovo for war. They came to play for the babies of Kosovo, for whom they have left an improved maternity ward alongside memories and relics of Red Star Belgrade, seeds of their nationalist ideologies and the belief that Kosovo is Serbia.

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