I wrote this back in 2008, and it remains one of my most intriguing matchday experiences. At the time I was living in Vienna and Austria were to take on a Serbian side including Branislav Ivanovic, Milos Krasic and Dejan Stankovic in a FIFA 2010 World Cup Qualifier. The Austrian national team had suffered a slow fall from grace from the glory days of Toni Polster and Andreas Herzog with a tame showing at the recently concluded Euro 2008 indicating that pessimism was the order of the day amongst the home fans.
At the behest of my Serbian friend Alex, I decided to show up to the cavernous Ernst Happel Stadion, ticketless without any knowledge of Serbo-Croat vocabulary past ‘hello’, ‘ how are you doing’ , ‘really?’, I love you’ and ‘**** your mother’ . Securing a ticket was going to be a challenge. Luckily, Alex turned up soonish and we scoured the 50,000 or so people mulling around outside the stadium for ticket touts.
From this evening, I learned the following:
- When aiming to purchase a football ticket, or any commodity from someone who you believe you can haggle with, NEVER name a starting price. Expecting to pay 50 euro or more for a ticket, I offered a tout 30. He smiled from ear to ear, muttered something to Alex, took my money, and disappeared into the crowd. Turns out he would’ve sold it for 20 and would use the extra 10 on alcohol and cigarettes.
- Serbians are very, very nationalistic. Once in the stadium, Serbian men, women and children sang at the top of their lungs for 90 minutes about how Kosovo represents the heart of Serbia, explained in great detail by a 14 year old joint-smoking ruffian beside me. This was further emphasized by the fact that the three guys in front of me all had pictures of Arkan (Serbian paramilitary leader, folk hero of the Yugoslav wars and leader of Red Star Belgrade’s militant ultras group, the Delje) as their smart phone backgrounds.
- Never get too close to a gang of masked hooligans in the Serbian end beating up a harmless overweight fan with metal poles. Austrian police will be too scared to intervene.
- Serbian fans love signal flares, and anything that goes boom. When Milos Krasic opened the scoring with a fantastic long range strike, the hair on the back of my neck was singed ever so slightly by a bright red signal flare held up behind by a group of Red Star fans. After attending matches in the UK where simply standing up warrants a telling off from a steward, this was really a sight to behold. Throughout the game, dozens of these flares were lit up, covering the pitch in wafts of thick smoke.
- The noise of 10,000 Serbians can raise the dead. Especially when their team leads 3-0 at half time.
- Serbian fans could not look more different to Austrian ones. Austrian families attended the match quietly, dressed head to toe in red, with silly hats and a general happy, we-dont-care-if-we-win-we’re-just-having-a-nice-family-outing-complete-with-hot-tea-and-cookies outlook. Marc Janko’s consolation goal on 80 minutes was met with tame cheers and failed attempts at synchronized clapping. Serbian supporters on the other hand were mostly young bachelors or gorgeous women waving huge Serbian flags – the men with a serious, primal desire to sing their guts out for the motherland or attempt to go home with as many girls as possible once the 3-1 final score had been sealed.
A few weeks after the game, my other Serbian friend, incidentally also called Alex invited me to his home city for a match: ‘Brate, you HAVE to come to Belgrade for game with France! 50,000 fans in Red Star stadium! Crazy!’
I wish I had done. That game finished 1-1 in a heated tie that all but secured Serbia’s place in South Africa. I expected much more from them at the competition itself – especially after finishing ahead of France in qualifying – but they were unfortunately eliminated despite defeating a lackluster Germany 1-0. Both Austria and Serbia failed to qualify for Euro 2012, and it is the Marc Janko-inspired Austrians who look much more likely to make it to Brazil next summer, battling for a place in the play-offs with Sweden.