Opinion

Liverpool, Serbia and the Autumn of 2018

From the moment Red Star Belgrade had been drawn in the Champions League group C together with Liverpool, to those of us following the Reds from Serbia it was immediately clear that the autumn of 2018 would be a special time.

Dogma

Long before the draw was made, the Official Liverpool Supporters Club in Serbia was granted the honour of hosting this year’s regional meeting of Liverpool fans. The usual suspects, namely Lazar Andrić, Stevan Tončić, Vladan Lakočević and several of their closest friends, sprang into action and organized the event. On Saturday, October 20th, fellow Reds from Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary, joined those in Serbia at the Dogma Taproom and Brewery in Belgrade for a day of socializing for the 8th time. There were around 500 people present.

I’ve written about these gatherings before – they are always magnificently organized and well-mannered. People come together to celebrate the club we all feel to be the greatest in the world, recently resurrected like a phoenix from the ashes of its glorious past.

Watching Liverpool play is a must, as I’ve reported before. This time, the game of the day was away to Huddersfield, the one Mo Salah settled with a single but excellent strike. Even though the game began at 18:30 CET, the event lasted throughout the day. The food was good, the in-house beer was unbelievably good; the colourful company even better.

Once again, the meeting had a charity note too. A substantial sum was gathered through the sale of a special occasion-printed tee-shirt which you could buy for €10 (RSD 1,200), as well as a lottery which saw the winner pick up a Liverpool shirt signed by the entire Liverpool squad, along with the belonging Certificate of Authenticity. Incidentally, the winner was a representative of OLSC Bosnia and Herzegovina. Upon receiving the prize, he thanked the hosts and added that the shirt would be framed and set upon a wall in their office, as a special reminder of this wonderful day.

For me personally, it was well-worth the 180km+ road trip from my hometown of Subotica, near the Hungarian border, and I’m sure those who travelled longer distances than that would say the same.

Red Star

Four days later, Liverpool welcomed the reigning Serbian champions and 1991 European Cup winners to Anfield.

The two-leg clash between the two sides in 1973 has recently been described as a turning point in Liverpool’s illustrious history, a slap in the face the club obviously needed at the time to find a proper way forward, resulting in the well-known subsequent successes.

Like Liverpool, Red Star have a rich history of their own, in a different setup and on a slightly lower scale. Even though they were founded in 1945, they are the club with the richest trophy cabinet in Serbia, as they indeed were in former Yugoslavia too. They are also the only club in these regions to have lifted the European Cup. Back in those days, their team boasted players like Dejan Savićević, Robert Prosinečki, Vladimir Jugović, Siniša Mihajlović and Miodrag Belodedić.

However, these days they are not even a shadow of their former selves. The decline in Serbian football has been unbelievable over the last three decades, which is not difficult to comprehend once you take a look at the fact that this is only the third time a club from the country has managed to qualify for the Champions League since its inception as such (Partizan did it in 2003 and 2010).

Therefore, it was to be expected that the resurgent Liverpool we are seeing today would bag six points over two games without major difficulties, and the Anfield game on October 24th delivered on the promise.

The Shaqiri Controversy

Despite the public outcry Jürgen Klopp’s decision not to take Xherdan Shaqiri to Belgrade caused in England, there’s really no place for politics in football and as controversial as it may sound, Shaqiri (along with Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka) really should have known better than to make politically provoking gestures in Switzerland’s win over Serbia at the World Cup earlier this year.

Embed from Getty Images

 

There was absolutely no need for that, just as there isn’t any need or much point for me to go into details about the whole Kosovo situation. There are three things I will say, however.

  1. The abuse Shaqiri would have possibly had to deal with had he travelled with the team wouldn’t have been due to his “Albanian heritage”, as a lot of media outlets in England claimed. The reason for it would be his provocative antics at the World Cup alone. And even though that in itself would still be wrong, there wouldn’t have been anything else.
  2. I’m fairly certain it would have ended with verbal abuse, possibly coupled with a few insulting banners (for which Red Star would have been subsequently punished), but there wouldn’t have been any real danger for his safety.
  3. Klopp made absolutely the right decision to leave him behind. In fact, he went beyond that and expressed deepest respect to Serbia in his explanation, while making sure Shaqiri himself didn’t feel like he was being punished or something.

It is to be hoped Shaqiri has learnt a lesson from all this and will leave politics outside the gates before entering a football stadium in future. The team sorely missed his influence on the pitch, and he will, hopefully, avoid getting himself in a situation like this again.

The respect the Liverpool manager, along with his team, showed to this country was something truly special. For the game, Klopp and his men wore the flower called “Natalijina ramonda”, or Natalie’s Ramonda in English, Ramonda nathaliae in Latin. The flower is a symbol of the struggles and victims the Serbian army suffered during World War I.

Note the little purple flower on Jürgen’s chest, right next to the LFC crest:

Getty Images / Srđan Stevanović

 

It was another strong indicator of Klopp’s human values. But now, it’s time to leave those matters behind and look on some brighter ones.

Belgrade

Finally, November 6th arrived to the delight of all Serbian Reds.

I hitched a ride with a couple of mates (Red Star supporters) who had some business in the capital that day and were also going to the game later. Arriving to Novi Beograd (New Belgrade) on the western side of River Sava around noon, I took a cab across one of the bridges to the city centre and walked down the dug-up Skadarska street towards the Casablanca Pub. As I came up to the door I saw a man standing there, leaning on the doorway and typing on his phone.

Mistaking him for a local, I spoke to him in Serbian, saying they had picked one hell of a day to dig the street up. The man lifted his head and spoke with a clear Scouse accent: “Do you speak English?” Thrilled to hear that strangely familiar accent in person for the first time in my life, I shook his hand and spoke with him for several minutes before going in.

Casablanca is a pub, the pub you might say, where Liverpool supporters from Belgrade hang out regularly. It’s actually the place where they come every week to watch the Reds play. The beer is excellent, the service is friendly, and the atmosphere is always great. If you ever come to Belgrade, make sure you pop in. Whenever. You won’t regret it.

Anyway, as I stepped in, there weren’t many faces to see. Only two tables were occupied: one was taken by Scousers, and the other by several people I’ve come to consider close mates. But as the day went on, the pub gradually filled up and eventually shook with loud voices singing Liverpool songs.

I really had a fantastic time, and I was especially glad to finally meet Mik, the FOAR crew member you all know as M. Wolf.

 

But it had to end sometime, and at 4PM, it was time to head out.

At the “Rajko Mitić” Stadium

 

Together with my 22-year-old nephew who is currently pursuing education in Belgrade, I took a tram from the city centre to the stadium. In front of the gates we met up with the mates I had left in Novi Beograd and we went in, looking onto the empty pitch and almost-empty stands. After all, there was still around two hours to go until kick-off.

 

I won’t be talking much about the game. You all saw what happened, and it doesn’t bear remembering for us Liverpool supporters.

The atmosphere was certainly loud, as loud, I’ll venture to say, as you’re ever likely to hear anywhere in the world. The support from a huge majority of the stadium carried the Red Star players, possibly even unnerved Liverpool a little as the visitors played probably their worst game since Klopp took over from Brendan Rodgers three years ago.

Having scored the two goals that sunk the European giants, Milan Pavkov has become something of a national hero, and his name is still being used to taunt Liverpool supporters here in Serbia. The Red Star fans are flying high at the moment, and nobody can blame them for being so excited. They have, after all, “created history”, at least for themselves. The humiliations they suffered at Parc des Princes and Anfield are long forgotten. What happens after their upcoming game in Naples remains to be seen.

For Liverpool, the biggest concern after the Belgrade disaster is the three points thrown down the drain, and it will now take good results against much stronger sides than Red Star to secure passage to the Champions League knockout stages.

As a small addition to this Champions League story, the Liverpool-Serbia connection went on for a few more days as the Reds welcomed Fulham to Anfield the following weekend. The Cottagers were led by manager Slaviša Jokanović, while striker Aleksandar Mitrović had a goal questionably disallowed for offside right before Mohamed Salah opened the scoring at the other end. Jokanović was sacked shortly afterwards, but Red Star supporters won’t be losing any sleep over either of them.

They both played for Partizan.

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