Belgrade and the Babes
The Europa League, for all it’s drawbacks, does guarantee trips to the more obscure parts of Europe, and the 2019/20 group stage draw didn’t disappoint. Sandwiched between a trip to Alkmaar, north of Amsterdam, and a 3,000 mile trek to Astana in Kazakstan, was a meaningful return to Belgrade.
United have only played in Belgrade twice in their history, with matches against the city’s two biggest teams, Red Star and FK Partizan, both games being played at Partizan’s ground to accommodate the increased crowd. The first match, against Red Star in 1958, plays a big part in United’s history, as it was the journey home after the 3-3 quarter final match that resulted in the crash at Munich.
United returned 8 years later to face Partizan, with the match once again being played at the Partizan Stadium. That is perhaps one of the pulls of this trip, it being the backdrop to the famous final line up of the Busby Babes. The semi final tie in 1966 ended in defeat, with Partizan going on to lose to Real Madrid in the final. We’ve never returned to Serbia since, though Red Star were opponents in the 1991 Super Cup Final, played at Old Trafford, a 1-0 win courtesy of Brian McClair.
Belgrade is of course an interesting trip anyway, given the ferocity of the support from the Serbs. Both Belgrade teams were formed after World War Two in 1945, with Partizan formed by the military and Red Star by the police force. They since won 27 and 30 league titles respectively, across the various leagues of Yugoslavia, Serbia & Montenegro and now independent Serbia. As such their rivalry is intense, a derby that transcends more than just Belgrade, full of flares & fireworks, riot police and even stun grenades.
Travelling to Belgrade
Flight options to Belgrade around the time of the draw were priced close to £200, with no direct flights from Manchester and most options through Lufthansa and via Germany. My slight delay in booking, on account of moving jobs in October, meant the route was slightly more expensive at £256. I’ve collected Lufthansa ‘miles and more‘ points for the past few years and had around 5,700 miles due to expire – putting these towards my Belgrade flight saved a massive £13!
The £243 flight from Manchester, via Munich on the way out and Vienna on the way back, wasn’t too inconvenient, with just short layovers on both legs. The return flight with Austrian airlines (part of Lufthansa) had a slight delay from Belgrade and meant a minibus across the runway from one plane to the next, cutting it fine but showing the benefit of booking multiple legs with the same airline.
Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport (paying homage to the Serbian national, one of the inventors of electricity) is situated 12 miles east of the city. The airport bus to the city centre (£2) was pretty convenient, around a 45 minute journey, whilst taxi’s were capped at around £13; I’d usually have used the bus in both directions if it wasn’t for a 7am return flight, but it really wasn’t that expensive anyway, as the rest of the trip highlights.
The City of Belgrade
Serbia is a country full of history, from the formation and break up of Yugoslavia, Nazi occupation and ultimately independence. In Belgrade there are many reminders of this, with war damage still visible in places, whilst the formidable fortress that sits at the top of the city is full of references to the country’s past.
The immediate city centre of Belgrade was fairly small and therefore easy to navigate, meaning we didn’t need to use any public transport to get around (other than to the stadium and airport). Staying at the 3-star Vila Terazije, which was opposite the much more luxurious Hotel Moscow, we were pretty well situated to most of the sights in the city and the main pedestrian area of Kneza Mihaila.
Off this main street there were plenty of bars and restaurants where most reds gathered for much of the trip. Eastern Europe cuisine is often meat-heavy and Belgrade was no different, lot’s of grilled pork and lamb and all really reasonably priced (around £5 mains). The beer was in good supply with pints of the local Jelen or Lav as cheap as £1.60, and we were encouraged to drink the Serbian brandy Rakija, which had a real kick to it as you’d expect.
Just off Knez Mihailova Street was a notable landmark for travelling United fans, the Majestic hotel. A fairly modest 4-star hotel, host to the Busby babes in 1958 for their trip to the city. There were a few photographs of this visit in the lobby, with more memorabilia on display on the match of the day, a lovely tribute from the locals.
Either end of this pedestrian street lie Republic Square, home the statue of Prince Michael (Mihailo), and to the north Belgrade Fortress. Sat strategically overlooking the intersection of two rivers, the Sava and Danube, the site of the fortress dates back to 200 BC with some of the sections still standing over 500 years old. It certainly provided a picturesque spot to sit and have a beer, especially in the glaring 27 degree heat.
It would be amiss not to mention the city’s churches too; the impressive Church of Saint Sava south of the city centre, one of the largest churches in the world, and the Cathedral Church of St. Michael the Archangel, in which Nemanja Matic got married (amongst other sacred events).
We met on the day of the game with United fans from all over, even friends from Macedonia who made the 5 hour drive to see United play a “local” match. With just 1,400 tickets for the game it was a popular ticket, especially given the history surrounding the game; United have provided useful information and transparency this season on European credits, particularly in a group stage where we’ve had relatively small allocations of tickets.
The local police opted to shuttle bus us to the ground, a practical choice given the Partizan stadium is around 2.5 miles away from the city centre. We’d been advised not to take public transport to the ground and, whilst it’d had been relatively quiet in Belgrade during the day, the atmosphere really cranked up. With the ground in sight, the police decided to march us the final few hundred yards from the buses, but at a snails pace which meant Partizan fans gathered and hurled abuse and small missiles, but couldn’t really get close to our penned in away area.
Once security had taken any coins or lighters off us (I must have had the equivalent of a penny but that was deemed a weapon) we were into the ground, whilst unsurprisingly wasn’t selling beer. It was a warm evening for a change so at least it was nice enough to stand out in a t-shirt. That was about the end of the pleasantries though. The match was understandably a big occasion for the locals and they definitely put on a show.
FK Partizan’s main ultra group, the Grobari (Gravediggers), were situated behind the goal opposite our end, with very few spaces in the 33,000 capacity stadium. The Ultras, after throwing hundreds of toilet rolls onto the pitch, never stopped bouncing and singing all game. Another group were in the main stand to our left, with an ‘exorcist’ banner (similar to Moscow in 2015), as well as lads on megaphones leading the chants all games.
A further group immediately next to the away end threw their flags up about 15 minutes into the game; there was noise coming from every direction, and a steady stream of coins and lighters launched into our section too. There was also a rogue Red Star fan trying to plant a flag in our end, and being mistaken for a home fan for quite a while, whilst Partizan made attempts to run at our end to tear down United flags tied to the railings. All good fun.
The United end competed with chanting at times but we were largely drowned out, however we were the first to have anything much to cheer about after the impressive Brandon Williams was taken out in the box. Despite a really poor season of penalty taking, the returning Anthony Martial slotting it away just before half time. Both sides had chances and hit the post but a young United team with a host of changes didn’t offer much, though playing in such a hostile experience will have been experience for all of them. Our first away win, in all competitions, since the trip to Paris in March!
We even made it onto a few official tweets:
Of course, the fun wasn’t over at the final whistle. One of the longer lock ins we’ve experienced at over 70 minutes, with the Serbian police seemingly wanting to wait for even the ground staff to leave. It was a really fascinating trip, with so much to learn about the country and it’s battles around nationality. As always, an Eastern European trip brought spoils in the form of cheap drink and great food, whilst the autumn sun was a welcome surprise.
A trip full of United history too, and a memorable visit to one of the final calling points of the great Busby Babes. Our current youngsters are a nod to the youth that has always been a spine of United team’s, and whilst we’ve a long way to go it does feel like Ole is leading us in a positive direction. No trip to Astana, Kazakstan, for me for the final group game, but we’ve qualified now for the knockout rounds; fingers crossed for another top-drawer Europa tie.
Total travel costs: £258
Miles travelled: 2,566
Accommodation: £33/night (double room – £17pp)
Match ticket: £16 (РСД2000)
Average cost of pint: £1.80
United allocation: 1,400
Result: FK Partizan 0 – United 1
Match played 25/10/19