The disappointment of missing the game in the Arena Națională in Bucharest was unexplainable. Through no fault of ours, we didn’t get to the game, and it disrupted our travels, but I was on my way to watch the return leg between FK Partizan Belgrade and Steaua Bucharest.
I came in from Timisora, Romania, after an early hungover start in the morning twilight, on yet another scorching Balkan day. After a short walk, I was in central Belgrade and meeting my host. After the formalities, I explained that I was hoping to go to see Partizan Belgrade game in the Champions League. My hosts eyes lit up! He too was going, and was a passionate Partizan fan. He’d organise the tickets for me too, but no promise of the famous South Tribune with the Ultras: there was high demand for tickets in that section. We arranged to meet a few hours before kick off, with his friends, drink some beers and the local liquor Rakia. Perfect!!
Belgrade, a ramshackled city at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, offered plenty to do between then and the game. When I met up with Stephan, he had a bottle of water and offered me some, whilst also informing me that it was not water, instead Rakia! I swigged away, the taste strong, but refreshing, I remember the taste still as I write. We wondered around the neighbourhood of Dorcol, eventually popping into a hotel bar, taking a local 8% beer, and a subtle swig of Rakia.
A friend turned up with little English ordering a beer. We conversed, with Stephan translating. Our conversation moved, I was asked whether I knew that some of the countries I had travelled were once unified? I knew. I was explained that the current day, 5th August, was very poignant for Serbia, as it was the 20th Anniversary of Operation Storm, a huge offensive from the Croatians against Serbia as part of the wars and battles as Yugoslavia broke up into its succinct parts. Music wasn’t to be played in bars. I’d noticed Belgrade, that day, was more sombre in mood and atmosphere, with a lot of Police on the streets. I was told this wasn’t for this Champions League clash.
We chased our beers down and departed with Rakia, swigging a little along the way. We discussed the best route to the stadium, a short bus journey, then a walk: a memorable walk the two could remember from their youth, their days with the Ultras, where they’d march in there thousands towards the ground, drinking, revelling, chanting. I was told stories of those days, the antics, the debauchery, the other side, the less familiar side to me, but so familiar to them, the jokes and laughs erupted.
I asked them about the future of Partizan, and they seemed optimistic, their new hero, Živković, was just 19 years old and had huge potential, Chelsea were sniffing around, as were the Milan clubs and others too. Their squad was well developed, a mix between Serbian youth, foreign imports and the old guard, they were national champions and in a better position than local rivals Red Star Belgrade.
We came to a footbridge that crossed the highway, where I was educated, that this bridge would be a meeting point, where fans from all over the city would meet up, before ascending a rather steep hill to the stadium. Some friends were encountered as we started the ascent, yet more drinking ensued and I was feeling a little drunk…
We kept the pace of the drinking pretty high, too high, but to hell with it. I can handle the pace, and I can handle… the… pace.
We were entering the stadium pretty late, but not late enough. I entered the Partizan Stadium with my new friends, definitely in the drunk zone. The stadium was crammed, the volume was already loud, despite there being no roof. All the fans were stood up. After some phone calls and meerkat style searching, we suddenly, assertively, darted off, clambering over the seats towards the much louder set of fans on the South Tribune. We clambered over people and seats for what seemed like forever; darting, ducking jumping…
There were some 15 friends of Stephan’s here. I was introduced, and familiar questions arose, including who my team was. The answer greeted with jeers and cheers. With a minor language barrier, further conversation ensued. Of course, today, my team was FK Partizan.
Then… yes… there it was… Handel’s Zadok the Priest (the Champions League anthem), blasted out. Things were about to get started. I was thrust forward and on top and at the front of a plinth, by the group.
The game tentatively poised from the first leg at 1-1, started. The noise just incredible. Every space was crammed with people. The thunderous chanting, eruption and echo of noise.
Partizan were definitely on the hunt from the off. A deflected Partizan cross drifted high towards the keeper, and a defender darted towards the ball too. Neither commanding enough, and the ensuing confusion spilt the ball loose, with Stephan Babović able to apply the simplest of left foot sweeps in. The place erupted. The fans went crazy, I was jostled forward and backwards, left and right.
Steaua reacted, immediately on the prowl. With possession in attack came a lofted volleycross by the byline. A miss timed jump, completely missing the ball. A miss timed header, pushing the ball into the path of the unmarked Muniru Sulley. Which was followed by a perfectly timed low volley into the bottom corner.
Queue brief silence. 1-1 on the night, 2-2 on aggregate. Barely ten minutes on the clock.The Partizan fans responded, some nervousness, but alas, the volume hadn’t dipped.
Partizan seemed a little on the back foot. Steaua approached play a little more conservatively. They would be in the ascendency with another goal, but there was a lot of time left on the imposing stadium scoreboard.
Close to the half hour mark, a counter from Steaua opened space on the right. The full back darted onto the ball and squared the ball into the box. Jugurtha Hamroun’s clever delayed run gave him space to stoke a side footed finish into the bottom right hand corner. Advantage Steaua. Partizan would have to score two now. The stadium was a little more hesitant in it’s reaction.
There was little reaction from Partizan. Some neat interchanging play. But soon the whistle of the referee brought an end to a dizzying half of football.
During half time, I discussed with group about their experiences and why Partizan are different or unique. An intriguing story unfolded, that the fans from Partizan are more like the English Hooligans. No flares and only huge banners that would fill a stand, very rarely would they be on poles. And very thunderous loud ass chanting. Red Star were different, they were more Italian, they had flares, and would wave flags on poles, their chanting was more like singing, a different way of doing things.
The game was again underway; the second half started. And within the first two minutes, Partizans Darko Brašanac burst through the back line towards goal after a defensive mistake, and the Steaua goalscorer from the first leg, Varela, brought him down. Red Card. Penalty. Game changer.
Only with TV replays could you see that foul was outside the box, therefore a freekick, not penalty. After confusion as to how Varela should leave the pitch, Valeri Bojinov, the former Premier League hot talent, stepped up, stroked the ball with power… the keeper had gone the right way, the ball beat him. But, the post is rattled and the ball is back in open play. A miss. Bojinov was substituted five minutes later for 37 year old club hero Saša Ilić.
Disappointed, but not giving up, Partizan kept the pressure on, they are trailing, need at least two goals to fight the curssed away goals.
With half an hour was remaining on the clock, Marko Jevtvić received the ball in acres of space, he lines up a shot, a 35 yard long range effort, it takes a Frank Lampard style deflection off a defender, before agonisingly looping past the outstretched keeper… The delay in the ball moving towards goal emanates through to the atmosphere… and in it goes. 2-2. 3-3 on aggregate. Steaua will go through as things stand.
A few minutes pass. Steaua are weakening, Partizan pile the pressure on, the roar of the fans raised a level. I am in an euphoric (and drunk) state… This is what I had come to experience on my eastern European journey, the thunderous melodic deep rhythmic chanting, the atmosphere all around the stadium, the Ultras, of course, taking it to another level, the old era football stadium… The pressure of the game, and the money associated, leaving everyone in the stadium on tenterhooks, the floodlights casting artificial light, whilst the silhouette of the city scape falls behind the roofless stadium.
Partizan still searching, another goal required. Pressing high, Steaua are defending deep.
The prodigal son, Andrija Živković , received the ball on the left of the penalty area, three players around him. No space. Suddenly a sweet shimmy of the feet creates enough, and he needs not to gain balance or back lift as he strikes a venomous shot with elegant technique across goal. His shot, like Bojinov’s, rattles the post, the difference is the rebounding trajectory takes the ball into the net. The stadium goes… off… the… hook. Jostled back and forth, up, down, left, right. I’m hugged from anyone in the vicinity. Stephan grabbing me by my sweat drenched shirt and screaming in my face. This was what I wanted from the games I was going to. I am getting goosebumps now as I write, thinking back to this moment. Pure ecstasy.
There are still twenty something minutes left on the clock. Partizan become a little more defensive, but no substitutes, whilst Steaua make a more offensive change, their coach more animated.
There was little fanfare from Steaua, the difference in players showing. A good chance for Steaua doesn’t trouble the Partizan keeper.
With the clock ticking down in injury time, Živković, right before us, again creates space away from the defender, darts down the flank, before swinging a cross in, which Nikola Trujić does well to meet, forcing his header low to the ground, the keeper stunning it with his feet, but the scrapes fall to Trujić as he stumbles to the ground after his header, who calmly guides the ball past the keeper. Game over. The stadium bursts with relief, young Trujić, just on as a substitute, darts beyond the advertising hoarding and over towards the fans to celebrate. The Steaua players hang their heads. The tie is over.
Just minutes of nothing as the referee blows to end this fascinating Champions League qualifying tie. FK Partizan Belgrade through to the next round, to fight for a place in the Champions League group stages, where they haven’t been since 2010…
We left the ground, heading back into Belgrade. We walked all the way by foot, grabbing a beer along the way to celebrate. I thought back to the game, and then to what I was searching for on this eastern European quest. Pure passion, a full stadium, the drama of the game, the dramatic twists, with red cards, missed penalties, the prodigal son saving the day, the emotion, the fans I was lucky enough to meet and the history. This was all of it!
This was the pinnacle!