Belgrade’s Red Star and Partizan were founded at the end of World War II. Rooted in this chaotic era, one historically tied to Anti-Fascist Youth League, the other to Tito’s army, these bitter rivals stand a few hundred metres from each other, along Bulevar Oslobodjenja.
Each has made the final of the European Cup, Red Star famously winning it in 1991. An outstanding side created from players across Yugoslavia soon dispersed as war broke out.
As capital of tourist-friendly Yugoslavia, Belgrade had been the only Eastern European capital to have staged a European Cup Final, in 1973, and a European Championship Final, in 1976.
As capital of Serbia, shunned (and even bombed) by the West, Belgrade stood outside of the international football family for five years.
At home, from 1945 to 1992, and in the weaker, stand-alone league from 1992 to the present day, Red Star and Partizan have dominated. As Yugoslavia, only one other club from Serbia managed to win the league. Post-Yugoslavia, the one exception came in 1998, when little Obilić, backed by former Red Star fan leader and paramilitary commander Arkan, won the title by intimidation.
Now in Belgrade’s local leagues, Obilić have a 90-year history dating back to the beginnings of a national championship after World War I.
Football was first organised in Belgrade under the Sokol movement of the 1890s. Similar to its Slavic counterparts across the region, this was a society for sport and debate among the young.
The SK Soko football club was formed in 1903 and played in leafy Topčider, south of the city centre. Soon afterwards, their left-winger, footballing pioneer Danilio Stojanović, formed their first rivals, FK Sumadija.
Stojanović, the father of Serbian football, was also behind SK Dušanovac, today’s FK Voždovac, a top-flight team based at the stadium of the same name. In addition, he helped found the Beogradski Sport Klub (BSK), in 1911. In 1913, Stojanović, along with other dissident BSK members, founded SK Velika (‘Great’) Srbija.
After World War I, given the union with Croatia and Slovenia, Velika Srbija became SK Jugoslavija, coached by Stojanović, and forerunners of Red Star.
BSK were their bitter rivals, finishing just ahead of Jugoslavija in the first two Serbian Football Championships after World War I, dominating the subsequent pan-Yugoslav league from 1923 and providing most of the Yugoslav squad at the inaugural World Cup of 1930.
By 1950, these squad players came from Red Star and Partizan, plus Dinamo Zagreb and Hajduk Split, the four clubs who would monopolise the post-war league.
Partizan occupied BSK’s ground, and rebuilt their stadium there. BSK evolved into OFK, Romantičari, ‘The Romantics’, Belgrade’s de facto third club until the arrival of Obilić.
With domestic domination, the opening of Red Star’s huge ‘Marakana’ Stadium in 1963 and modern fan culture, derbies between the big two became more fervent affairs. By the 1980s, clashes were characterised by colourful, Italian-style displays, combined with a hooligan element copied from England.
Some of Red Star’s fans, the Delije, followed their leader Arkan for paramilitary operations in Croatia and Bosnia. In 2000, after Arkan was gunned down at the Belgrade InterContinental hotel, many fans of both clubs turned against Milošević and his régime.
A week later there was little solidarity to offer on derby day – only a mass fight from the terraces to the pitch.
In football terms, what remains is a weak domestic league whose young stars head abroad. Red Star-Partizan is the only game in town, an often violent clash with a heavy police presence.
Nearly half the current SuperLiga is comprised of teams from Belgrade. Along with the big two, OFK and Voždovac, FK Rad play at the King Petar I Stadium in Banjica, while Čukarički, privately owned since 2012, made the Europa League in 2014.
Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport is 18km (12 miles) west of town.
Minibus A1 (every 20min, 30min journey time, RSD300/€2.50) runs to the main train station and downtown Trg Slavije, city bus No.72 (every 24min, 35min journey time) to Zeleni Venac, by focal Terazije. Bus tickets are RSD73/€0.60 at a kiosk, RSD100/€0.85 if valid for 75min, and RSD150/€1.25 on board A 24hr ticket is RSD280/€2.35. The same is for all public transport of trams, buses and trolleybuses.
A taxi should be booked from the information desk, a ticket issued and approximate price given – it should be about RSD1,800/€15 into town. To call one, try Beo Taxi (+381 11 197 00).
Further along Bulevar Oslobodjenja from the Red Star Stadium, and close to Rad, the Hotel M is handy for the airport if you’re not spending much time in town.
More convenient for both Red Star and Partizan are the Vila Marija, a comfortable, homely B&B with rooms in the €50 range; and the more upscale Crystal Hotel Belgrade, its terrace offering a spectacular view of St Sava Cathedral.
A pleasant stroll to Partizan, the mid-range, friendly Vila Senjak offers a little pool in summer, tucked away in greenery.
In town, landmark hotels include the four-star Balkan, from the Orient Express era, with a themed café to match; and the equally historic Hotel Moskva, now with a spa. The Hotel Slavija Garni is ideally located between the city centre and the main two stadiums while the classic Hotel Majestic at Obilićev venac in the city centre is the last place the Busby Babes slept before the fateful flight to Munich in 1958 – note the framed photo of Matt Busby talking to his players gathered at the restaurant.
By the station are several lodging options, of varying degrees of quality. The Belgrade City dates back to 1895 and owes its four-star status to a contemporary makeover.
Belgrade is party city, especially in summer, when floating clubs on the river come to life. The downtown area is dotted with bars, many with terraces. The local beer is Jelen.
The long-established expat pub is the Three Carrots, ticking all the boxes with TV football, live music, pub grub and Guinness. With a more Serbian feel, the Marshall Pub (Cirila I Metodija 2) attracts local students.
In similar vein, the Old London Pub goes big on football coverage and live music.
The excellent Bridge Pub (Jug Bogdanova 5) displays badges of top European clubs on its ceiling. Don’t be put off by the somewhat ramshackle exterior – inside is homely, with a big screen, complemented by a terrace, with loungers, in summer.
Tucked away in a courtyard, as its name suggests the Sport Café at Makedonska 4 is sport TV heaven – in comfortable surroundings. The Zlatna Moruna also provides match broadcasts but in more pub-like surroundings near the Hotel Moskva.