Far Foreign Lands: The Diary of a Travelling Red – No2: Belgrade

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Article by Sachin Nakrani @SachinNakrani

 

It’s not just women in the workplace who are affected by sexual harassment; it’s also men at the football. I know because it happened to me. In Belgrade. By a fella who had no right to put his hands where he did. It was horrible. The swine. #MeToo

 

OK, so I may be exaggerating a bit, and in turn making light of a serious drive in the modern feminist movement. Hardly the best start to an article ever, but it’s true that I was manhandled prior to Liverpool’s 2-0 defeat at Red Star Belgrade on Tuesday, specifically during the most overbearing pre-game security check I have ever experienced.

 

It was a shitty start to a shitty evening and, as is always the case with this sort of thing, not only unnecessary but more likely to spark trouble than halt it. That much could be taken from the agitation that grew from a largely happy and excited group of people that began arriving at the Rajko Mitić Stadium around an hour before kick-off. All they – we – wanted was to get inside and watch Liverpool play. Instead they – we – were made to wait and get felt up.

 

Only two gates were made available to the 2,000 or so travelling supporters who arrived with tickets, which was less than ideal. But as we got off the coaches that had been put on to take us from the centre of Belgrade to Red Star’s modest, throwback venue located a few miles away, there was no fuss or fury among people who found themselves forming a quickly-expanding queue. Most of us had been here before – seen it, done it, brought the European away t-shirt – and so simply waited patiently.

 

The group of lads who had spent the entire journey on my coach singing the new Roberto Firmino song carried on with that while others chatted among themselves. But it did not take long for it to become noticeable how slowly we were moving, and by slowly I mean barely at all.

 

Why? Well, the lack of gates for one. But the other, more striking issue was the security checks. Arbitrary? Not half.

 

At each gate there was a fella who checked your ticket and behind him another who put his hands on every inch of your body to make sure you weren’t carrying a knife, or a gun, or, frankly, your dignity. The bloke who ‘did me’ was so thorough I thought I’d gone through puberty for a second time.

 

Seriously, it was ridiculous. Like nothing I had experienced before. Not in Naples, Rome, Porto, Madrid, Barcelona or, even, Moscow, where in comparison the stewards were as chilled out as a bunch of pot-smoking students.

 

The fella who checked me also undid my scarf, looking for God knows what, and then, having put his hands between my legs, asked to look in my wallet. And if wasn’t just a quick rummage. Oh no, he got in there. Checking every compartment, including the one carrying a scuffed-up photo of my daughter when she was a baby. The damage I could do with that, eh pal?

 

We shouldn’t have to put up with this. No travelling supporters should. For those of us arriving from England it’s obvious our reputation proceeds us, based on the hooliganism of the 1970s and 80s as well as the dickhead behaviour of some of those who travel with the national team currently. But most of us aren’t like that. Most of us just want to watch our team play football. Especially us Reds. And if foreign stewards showed us a little respect they would be pleasantly surprised by the respect they got back. We’d walk into the ground, cause no grief and walk out again.

 

Instead we get bussed in, bussed out, kept back and, as was the case in Belgrade, violated upon entry. One of the lads in front of me got into a pushing match with a steward having accused him of kicking him in the knee during his own search. Others were also wound up and frankly it was a surprise no real trouble was caused. But again, that’s because none of us are looking for that. We just want to watch the footie and be treated how foreign fans are when they come to England. Like adults, not animals.

 

Overbearing and unnecessarily long security check done, my mate Savva and I got inside the ground about 20 minutes before kick-off. As ever it was a case of stand where you like and we chose a row about halfway up in the away end. A good spec in what is the type of stadium neither of us had visited for some time, or indeed ever before. A low-hanging bowl-like venue which, with its running track and modest facilities, felt like a monument to previous times, when footballers played in tight shorts and people spoke about the Iron Curtain in the present tense.

By now you’ve probably heard about how wild and wonderful the home crowd were. I can report that the reports are correct – they were ace. A large number were in place way before kick-off, making a noise that grew in volume and was largely maintained during the game itself. And just before kick-off came a stunning visual display as everyone in attendance (travelling Reds excluded) held up small red and silver sheets to produce a sweeping welcome for the home side. It contained a message which I haven’t bothered to translate but which presumably read: “These are shit, lads”.

 

Liverpool’s performance. Good grief. After Naples I was convinced they couldn’t play any worse but here they were, getting out-run, out-fought and out-skilled by opponents who had been swatted aside at Anfield only a couple of weeks previously.

 

Maybe it was the atmosphere. Maybe it got to them, as Red Star defender Vujadin Savić said it would. “You cannot describe it, nor can you understand it. You can only feel it”, he had announced in the build-up to Tuesday’s game.

 

If so, that’s damning of a group of players who should be above that. These are seasoned internationals we’re talking about. Men who have played in all types of games, amid all types of atmospheres in all types of countries. No, watching on from the away end this smelt of complacency. And it stunk.

 

Liverpool’s supporters had travelled hundreds of miles and spent hundreds of pounds to be here and we deserved better. Not necessarily a win but, at the very least, a spirited, coherent display by a team who are now in seriously danger of sliding out of the Champions League before Christmas has come and gone.

 

Saying all that, are we right to expect more? As one of the lads on our coach back to town pointed out, Liverpool’s European away record has been poor for some time. Think back to last season – a draw in Moscow, the loss of a 3-0 lead in Seville, a defeat in Rome where, despite going into the game with a 5-2 advantage, we came dangerously close to not making it to Kiev. And then there was Kiev itself.

 

It was only in Maribor and Porto that Liverpool won away from English soil, and of those games only Porto can be taken as a notable achievement given Maribor were, and remain, bog-average to say the least.

 

Two seasons before, in our run to the Europa League final, Liverpool won only once away from Anfield – a 1-0 victory at Rubin Kazan. As the lad on the coach said, you have to go back to Rafa’s days for a decent string of away wins in Europe, and hearing that it made me wonder if Liverpool’s modern reputation in Europe is actually a bit of a myth and, actually, losing to teams like Red Star is not that shocking after all. Then I remembered how much money has been spent on our team and how much I had spent travelling to Belgrade to watch them and decided, yes, it was shocking. They should have won on Tuesday. The purple twats.

 

Given our display, it won’t come as a surprise to hear that the atmosphere in the away end was somewhat subdued. Some people, including the bloke to my right, was fuming, mainly, and quite rightly, with Jurgen Klopp’s team selection. Even now, the morning after and as I sit drinking coffee in a cafe around the corner from our city-centre hotel, I cannot fathom the manager’s thinking. Why rest Joe Gomez and Firmino for such an important game? And why make Naby Keita travel if you weren’t going to use him, even as a substitute at 2-0 down? Madness, Jurgen. Madness.

 

So it wasn’t the most rip-roaring of away ends. And it got worse for yours truly when, shorty into the second half, I went for a piss in one of the portaloos that had been temporarily installed at the top of the stand and, on the way back down, slipped on some piss. That led to me reaching for the fence that separated the home and away fans and, as I did, catching my left hand on a rogue wire, cutting my skin in the process.

 

Felt-up and bleeding as I watched Liverpool get beat in Belgrade. Football really is magic sometimes.

 

The bleeding was quite bad, actually, and would have got worse had the fella directly behind me not passed down a bunch of pocket tissues. A lovely gesture that curbed the blood and proved the precursor to one of the most enjoyable lock-ins I’ve ever experienced.

 

The fella with the tissues turned out to be properly sound, as did his pals. We all got chatting, as did the bloke in front of me in the red jacket. He was properly funny, properly witty, and the entire experience, which lasted for about an hour and 20 minutes, not only helped take the edge off a miserable evening but reminded me that despite the expense and frustration, watching Liverpool in Europe is a great experience.

 

Sat on the sofa at home, I would have been left to stew on Liverpool’s terrible display in Belgrade, but here, with my mate and fellow supporters, I was having a chat and a joke. It was nice. Sound.

 

Back in the city centre, Savva and I went for a post-match bevvy at a bar called Boutique, a plush venue located in the heart of Belgrade’s old town and where we found ourselves playing our very own version of Brewster’s Millions.

 

You see, everything is really cheap in Belgrade, which is great but also a tiny bit stressful if you’ve taken out close to £150’s worth of Dinar and know you’re going to struggle to change it upon returning to England. Massive meals and lunch-time beers had barely made a dent so here I now was, in a bar close to midnight ordering glasses of Jack Daniels like a fucking gangster. Savva got a glass of wine and a tiramisu (he absolutely loves tiramisu) and still we’d barely spent anything.

 

It’s no good, I give up, I’m going home with over 3,000 Dinar and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Savva and I had arrived in Belgrade on Monday afternoon and, having checked into our hotel, went out a late lunch/early dinner. We decided upon on an old-fashioned but welcoming-looking place called Konapau and inside were taken care of by the friendliest waiter I’ve ever come across. Duro was absolutely lovely and incredibly professional, a man who clearly takes pride in his work and has the rather sweet tendency of referring to two English men dining together as “gentlemens”.

 

The next day was all about gearing up for the match with an exploratory walk around the city and it turns out Belgrade is a small and perfectly-formed place. Easy to navigate and with a decent amount for tourists to take in.

 

Savva and I started at the Kalemegdan Fortress, which sits above the River Danube and dates back to the Celts, before making the short walk to the Cathedral Church of St Michael, which was built by Prince Milos in 1841 and, like most historic cathedrals, is beautiful.

We then stopped off at a bistro across the road called “?”. Yes – “?”. So-called after its 19th-century owner was prevented from calling it Cathedral Cafe by the diocese opposite. A lovely bit of retaliatory snide, I’m sure you’ll agree.

 

Inside, Savva made a hugely compelling case for why the Champions League should revert back to being a straight knockout tournament before we headed back to the hotel to chill out for a bit and decide where we were going to eat before the match.

 

We decided on DVA Jelena, another outdated but inviting eatery where Savva and I discovered that Serbians absolutely love cheese. It was in practically every dish, making our ordering of non cheese-filled dishes quite the achievement. (I had chicken drumsticks with rice and vegetables, in case you’re interested).

Grub and ale consumed, it was then off to what is locally known as Student Square in order to catch the coaches to the ground. And what nice coaches they were – not the usual shoeboxes Reds are ‘treated’ to on European aways but rather  the type of thing you’d see a group of well-to-do pensioners travel on as they headed to London for a night of fine food and a west end musical.

 

It was all very pleasant, all very encouraging for the evening ahead. But then came the security check and Liverpool’s garbage bag of a performance.

 

Thank God for the lock-in, another highlight of which was witnessing the rave that took place among the Red Star fans located at the far side of the ground. They well and truly revelled in their most notable European victory since winning the old European Cup in 1991, staying back for almost as long as we did while dancing and chanting in spectacular, coordinated fashion.

 

It was one hell of a sight, albeit one that caused agitation among some of those in the away end who, quite fairly, pointed out that the longer they stayed back the longer we would have to as well.

 

There followed predictions of a two hour lock-in. In the end it was some way shorter than that and Savva and I were back ‘home’ in good time. It was then a case of hard liquor before bedtime and reflecting on another dispiriting European away day.

 

Two games now without even a goal and it does makes you wonder if it’s all worth it. The travelling, the expense, the cuts and bruises. Having slept on it I decided it is, because life is about experiences and there are fewer better than following Liverpool around Europe, even if, by and large, the end result is not what any of us expect or want. As ever, it’s about more than that, it’s about spending time with mates, enriching the mind and having a laugh. Even after you’ve been felt up by a Serbian security guard.

 

So yes, I’m dejected and annoyed. But will I be in Paris? Yeah, probably.

 

Article by Sachin Nakrani @SachinNakrani 

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