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Letter from Belgrade: Graffiti on the walls but atmosphere may not be so hostile for Ireland

The Red Star Stadium has been an intimidating place to visit over the years, but the Serbian national team is going through a difficult period at the moment.

Murals at the Red Star Stadium.
Murals at the Red Star Stadium.
Image: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Ben Blake reports from Belgrade

DURING MY 36 hours in Belgrade, I’ve heard the venue for Ireland’s World Cup qualifier referred to as no less than four different names.

Known for its fierce atmosphere, the Red Star Stadium, or Stadion Crvena Zvezda in Serbian, has a current capacity of 55,000 but at one time could pack in 110,000 fans.

For that reason, it was nicknamed the Marakana after Rio’s famous ground soon after opening in the 1960s.

However, the official title was changed to the Rajko Mitic Stadium two years ago to honour a club legend, who both played and coached there before taking up the Yugoslavia job.

A view of Stadion FK Crvena Zvezda ahead of Ireland training A picture of the stadium taken yesterday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Located in the affluent urban neighbourhood of Dedinje (not to be mixed up with ‘Delije’, the name given to Red Star’s ultras) on the south side of the city, the building’s most striking feature upon arrival is the abundance of graffiti which covers the walls both outside and in.

Dozens of murals contain words and imagery about a broad range of topics such as fan loyalty, conflict and the break-up of Yugoslavia, a disdain for Uefa and tourists as well as the use of knives by hooligans.

Soccer Balkan League Graffiti inside the ground. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Raw, unapologetic and in need of redevelopment, it’s immediately clear that this is a structure steeped in both character and history.

A tunnel stretching over 100 steps long takes you from the bowels of the ground out into the arena. There, you’re met by a running track before eventually reaching the pitch — which was cutting up at an alarming rate during Ireland’s final training session last night.

Johan Cruyff, Fabio Capello and Dino Zoff all graced the surface in 1973 as Johnny Rep’s early goal saw Ajax get the better of Juventus to lift the European Cup.

Three years later, Antonin Panenka scored one of the most famous penalties of all-time there to hand Czechoslovakia victory over West Germany in the European championship final.

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In more recent times, it has witnessed scenes of violence all too often. The Eternal Derby between Red Star and rivals Partizan, who play their home matches ten minutes up the road, is known around the world and both sets of supporters regularly clash when the clubs face off.

A teenage fan was killed when a firework was shot into the Red Star section in 1999, while just last year 41 arrests were made during one game as the throwing of missiles and fighting in the stands delayed kick-off and left 35 police officers injured.

Source: Stimmen der Kurve/YouTube

You would think then that the Marakana will be a cauldron of hostility for the Irish players tonight, but that may not be the case.

Serbia’s poor recent form and the failure to qualify for the last three major tournaments means the team’s popularity is at a considerably low ebb right now.

With many of the Red Star and Partizan fans choosing not to support the international team and others deciding to stay away for various reasons, a crowd of around 25,000 is expected to attend for Slavoljub Muslin’s first competitive game in charge — and that’s with 10,000 free tickets going to schoolkids.

But the Green Army will be depleted too. After legions of followers made the trip to France this past summer, it is thought that only a hardcore group of about 400-500 have travelled to Belgrade.

Others are probably still repaying their Euro 2016 debts.

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Ben Blake

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