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What the Egyptian Ultras and the Delije of Red Star Belgrade Have in Common

With all the talk lately about the Egyptian Ultras, the soccer hooligans/revolutionaries who have been actively involved in the Arab Spring uprisings, and who made recent headlines after a clash in Port Said, I was reminded of a somewhat similar case involving a small team called Red Star Belgrade.

You must forgive yourself if you’ve never heard of them; I hadn’t heard of them until I googled “football” and “communism” late last year—you know, as one does just for fun when one is unemployed. So then, on to the story…

On September 24th, 2000, Vojislav Koštunica appeared before the Serbian parliament and began his address as the newly elected president with a nod to the rebels who had sacked the State television station—and unearthed proof that Slobodan Milošević had attempted to rig the election in his favor—by saying: “Good evening, liberated Serbia.”

During the general strike that erupted after the fraudulent election results were first announced, anti-Milošević forces marched on Belgrade. Once in the capital, they were joined by unlikely but perhaps appropriate allies: the Delije (which means “heroes”), the rowdy, violent, and religiously devoted hooligan fans of Red Star Belgrade, the small Serbian soccer club that had achieved glory in 1991 by winning the European Cup.

Reportedly chanting “Do Serbia a favor, Slobodan, and kill yourself,” the Delije helped the revolutionary forces smash down the doors of the State television station, setting the building on fire. The crowd then moved to the parliament building, where fighting with police ensued. The Delije, used to clashing with police during soccer matches at the Marakana (their home stadium), knew how to handle these types of situations; they broke a line in the police phalanx and surged into the building, ransacking it as they searched for evidence that Milošević had tried to steal the election. The stuffed ballot boxes didn’t take long to find, and by the time the television station was back on the air, its reporters were referring to Koštunica as the elected president.

A week later, playing their cross-town rival Partizan at the Marakana, Red Star hooligans celebrated the only way they know how: by rioting. Partizan’s then-president had been a close ally of Milošević—something that had not been forgotten by the Delije, who hung banners on the north end of the stadium reading “Mirko to jail; Partizan tot he second division” and “The sun of freedom rises on our victory.”

“Admire them as I do,” writes Jonathon Wilson, football coorespondent, in his book Behind the Curtain, “it is impossible to discuss the Red Star side without reference to atrocity. Nowhere was football so entwined with the disintegration of the Communist regime, and nowhere was the disintegration so prolonged and so bloody. Their fans are widely condemned, pariahs of the European game, and, to an extent, their reputation is deserved.”

The Delije describe Red Star as a team that “represents the very soul of our capital,” a team made up of “rough guys or bohemians, young Belgradians who did not like the army or the Communist system, which [by 1945] had already begun to rot.” While their name—Red Star—belies such anti-Communist sentiment, at least theoretically, the team, as Wilson puts it, represents anti-federalist and anti-central-authority populism, having “always been a club for the poor and disaffected.”

This situation to me appears to be somewhat similar to that of contemporary Egypt: a regime in collapse, political factions locked in struggle during a revolutionary period, and soccer, as usual, as the venue for the resulting cultural and sectarian strife.