Hooligans of the big football clubs in Belgrade have more than just love for the teams. For some of them, it’s also a way to money, organized crime, and political influence, expert explains.

Belgrade: The smell takes you back to New Year’s Eve. When the clock strikes midnight and the rockets and batteries are ignited, leaving only the smell of gunpowder and smoke behind.

”When I was around 13, I could go to the Red Star games alone. But because of the violence today, I wouldn’t dream of letting 13 year olds go alone to a game,” says Slobodan Georgiev.

Except this wasn’t the last night of the year, but in the beginning of April. It was the last match of the season between one of Belgrade’s top football teams, Red Star Belgrade, and Novi Sad.

For a few seconds, the hooligans from Red Star Belgrade were from the smoke bombs.

First reappearing through the smoke, was one of the many posters plastered to the fence. It stated “Crazy North”, and exactly that part of the tribune is the north side, dedicated to the hooligans also called “Delije”, referring to a strong, brave, young man.

And it’s not by chance that the hooligans have nicknamed their place Crazy North. Because north is of special significance for them. Just take a look at the streets of northern parts of the centre of Belgrade.

That’s where the hooligans from Red Star rules in real life.

Divided city

Going for a walk around the blocks in the northwest of Serbia’s capital city, makes it clear. This is Red Star territory. Looking at the tags on the walls in the streets, the city is tagged in red. The hooligans have marked their territory.

But if you cross the street Dusanova, the colour of the city changes. On the lower side of the city, the area is tagged in black and white. The same colours that belong to FK Partizan, the other big football club in Belgrade.

“For the hooligans it’s life, and they consider themselves the owner of the football club, and the rivalling hooligans don’t like each other,” Georgiev says.

The taggings across Belgrade, means more than just showing loyalty to a specific club, Slobodan Georgiev, a Serbian journalist who has covered the two fan clubs in Belgrade in depth, explains.

For these hooligans ownership of the city equals money.

“Many of them are criminals by day, and hooligans by night,” he says and continues:

“The hooligans are deeply involved with organised crime, selling drugs and being in charge of security. If they’re the doormen at night clubs, they can also sell drugs to the people partying. That’s good business”.

From paramilitary to organised crime

That the hooligans have made it a day trade dealing drugs on the streets, is common knowledge for the people living in Belgrade, Georgiev states.

“30 years ago, when Yugoslavia was dissolving, the hooligan groups were used as recruiting groups for paramilitary units. When the wars ended, the hooligan groups slowly entered into organized crime and drugs, since the fan clubs have people all over the city, which is ideal for that kind of work.”

It’s however far from all the hooligans in the two Belgrade clubs that have direct ties with the mobs. The rest are called “followers”, the younger teenage hooligans, who do the actual crimes, states a document named “Serbian soccer fans: Hooligans or gangsters?” from the US embassy, and published by Wikileaks.

Despite 22 high level hooligans, supporting football clubs across Serbia, have been killed between 2016 and 2017 the Serbian police has had difficulties finding solid proof linking hooligans to organized crime, with only few arrests having been made.

Standing together

Rivalry and dislike amongst different groups of fans other is not an uncommon phenomenon, says Jens Sejer Andersen, international director of the think tank Play The Game, that works for strengthening the ethical foundation of sport:

“Very often, football has a self-enhancing effect on nationalism and enemy pictures. Football can be used to draw an image of all the things you don’t like about the others.”

And the group dynamics can add fuel to the fire between groups, Andersen explains.

“In many countries, football matches are one of the few places where we gather in larger groups. And the group itself, gets its own ego and self-perpetuating energy. You get caught by the feeling of being part of a community. And that gives a power to the football enthusiasm, that has a political potential,” he says.

The political potential is something the fan groups are making use off, due to the structure of the clubs, Georgiev explains.

The largest football clubs in Serbia, as Red Star Belgrade and FK Partizan, work like NGO’s, he says.

There’s no official owner, and everyone who pays a member’s fee are a part of the club. The members all have a vote in deciding the board and the president of the club. But with so many members, independent organs are created to control elections within the club, giving the fan groups more power, and the football clubs’ management less, Georgiev explains.

“The people in government are interested in what happens in the big football clubs, and who the fans are. They have to be, otherwise the ties to organized crime will get free play. If the hooligans are chanting against the government, the politicians think they have a problem, because they see the hooligans as representatives for the people.”

Euroviews tried to get a comment from Red Star Belgrade and FK Partizan about the hooligan culture in their clubs, but without any reply.