Serbia’s Pro-Putin Ultras Target England Fans: A Terrifying Warning

Serbia’s Pro-Putin Ultras Target England Fans: A Terrifying Warning

Red Star Belgrade, champions of the Serbian SuperLiga, are at home tonight, but I’m glued to the action away from the pitch — in the human bearpit known as the North Stand off to my left.

Flares and firecrackers light up the night sky, giant plumes of red-tinted smoke drift across the stadium while, to the relentless sound of drumming, a crowd of young men in black mix hymns of praise to their team with chants of ugly nationalism. 

These are the Red Star ‘ultras’, a thuggish army of superfans with one of the most fearsome reputations in Europe. They call themselves the Delije, or ‘strong boys’, although it’s not mere strength they’re known for.

Aside from smashing heads at football games, the Delije specialise in gang warfare, political violence, organised crime and racketeering.

Opposite the turnstiles sits a Russian-made T-54 tank, now de-commissioned but thought to have been used by the Serbs during the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The club put it there in 2019, saying that its army of fans would be ‘stronger with a combat vehicle’.

Balaclava-clad ringleader Ivan Bogdanov was at the heart of the violence in a Euro 2012 qualifier between Serbia and Italy

Red Star Belgrade fans in the North Stand at the Rajko Mitic Stadium during a home game in 2024

Red Star Belgrade fans in the North Stand at the Rajko Mitic Stadium during a home game in 2024

British football supporters have encountered the Delije before, notably last year when Manchester City supporters in Belgrade were set upon by 30 Red Star hooligans armed with wooden stakes. And there will be a fresh meeting next Sunday, when England play Serbia in Gelsenkirchen in their opening game of Euro 2024.

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Police are on high alert for the game. The German authorities have announced detailed searches for weapons and fireworks and promise a special command centre to co-ordinate riot police and ‘tactical response’ units.

Serbian fans have form for mixing it at international games, including a notorious stadium punch up with supporters of Brazil at the World Cup in 2018.

Some of their violence has been truly sinister. The Euro 2012 qualifier against Italy in Genoa was abandoned after just seven minutes. Kick-off had already been delayed by 40 minutes as Serbia fans attempted to invade the pitch. Then, when the match got going, they threw flares at home supporters and a section of the security fence was torn down.

Mystifyingly, some Serbian ultras attacked their own team bus. The Serbian goalkeeper, Vladimir Stojkovic, reportedly was hit by a firework and withdrew from the game.

At the heart of the violence was balaclava-clad ringleader Ivan Bogdanov, who was seen using wire cutters to bring down the fence.

Why? Some suggested that Bogdanov had been paid, with his Red Star cronies, to stop the game, possibly by right-wing extremists who wanted to stymie the country’s bid to join the European Union. Or perhaps by those hoping to overthrow the then president of the Serbian football association.

The answer has never been clear, but Bogdanov spent more than two years in Italian and Serbian jails for this and other crimes. Soon after Bogdanov’s release in 2014, Serbia played Albania in Belgrade, a qualifier for the 2016 Euros. Refereed by English official Martin Atkinson, the match was stopped in the 41st minute at 0-0 amid a mass brawl involving fans and players. Once again, Bogdanov was spotted in the crowd.

Manchester City supporters were reportedly attacked by a masked group back in 2023

Manchester City supporters were reportedly attacked by a masked group back in 2023

City supporters could be seen trapped inside a pub in Serbia while hooligans attempt to get in

City supporters could be seen trapped inside a pub in Serbia while hooligans attempt to get in

The Red Star Delije are estimated to number 10,000, including 3,000 or so ultras. Three hundred or so are said to be linked to organised crime.

But there is no monopoly on violence in Belgrade. Red Star’s bitter rivals — the Grobari, or ‘gravediggers’ from Partizan Belgrade — have their own disturbing record.

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The troubling links between Serbian football hooliganism and politics, nationalism and thuggery were spelled out in a 2022 report by the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.

As one of the authors, Sasa Djordjevic, explained: ‘Hooligans in the Western Balkans are renowned for using violence, especially in derbies and against the police.

‘What is less known is that local politicians sometimes use hooligans to advance their interests and in some cases there are links between hooligans and criminal groups.’

The report cited a Partizan fan who claimed that, ‘some youngsters join ultras groups in the belief that membership is an opportunity to earn easy money selling drugs’. After they’ve been through a grisly initiation, that is.

The report suggests that, to become an ultra, youngsters must often show they are ready to commit bloodshed.

Three years ago, police in Belgrade arrested 17 people suspected of belonging to a gang of organised criminals led, allegedly, by a Partizan fanatic called Veljko Belivuk — known as ‘The Trouble’.

The Red Star Delije are estimated to number 10,000, including 3,000 or so ultras - 300 of which are thought to have links to organised crime

The Red Star Delije are estimated to number 10,000, including 3,000 or so ultras – 300 of which are thought to have links to organised crime

The trial, still ongoing, has shone a disturbing light on links between football ultras and the underworld, with allegations of murders, kidnappings, rapes and drug offences. Eight people were killed in hooligan-related incidents in Serbia between 2013 and 2018, most of them in Belgrade.

According to the Geneva report, the ultras frequently fight among themselves in a ceaseless internecine battle to control their own section of the ground.

‘This dominance brings financial and other personal benefits, such as international travel, control of businesses and providing protection for nightclubs and lucrative drug sales,’ note the authors. ‘Power over the stands also means control of the streets.’

Then there is the political violence. Nationalist politicians ‘can gain street credibility from their associations with an ultras group’, says the report, and access to ‘what can amount to a private army’.

The former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic ‘used football hooligans to fill the ranks of militias and whip up extreme nationalism, but in 1996 these same men formed part of the protest movement to unseat him’.

In October 2000, extremists from Delije and Grobari ‘were among the first to break into the Serbian parliament, disarming the police, and thus contributing to the overthrow of Milosevic,’ who died while on trial for war crimes at The Hague.

The ultras mix aggressive Serb nationalism with resentment of Europe’s Western-facing powers and a strong dash of pro-Putin sentiment. Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine has raised the temperature still further.

Serbia and Russia have long had close ties through a shared cultural heritage, Eastern Orthodox faith and closely-related Slavic languages.

It is no coincidence that Red Star’s main sponsor is Gazprom, Russia’s gigantic gas company.

The ultras mix aggressive Serb nationalism with resentment of Europe’s Western-facing powers and a strong dash of pro-Putin sentiment (pictured Russian president Vladimir Putin)

The ultras mix aggressive Serb nationalism with resentment of Europe’s Western-facing powers and a strong dash of pro-Putin sentiment (pictured Russian president Vladimir Putin)

Red Star Belgrade's main front-of-shirt sponsor is Gazprom, Russia's gigantic gas company

Red Star Belgrade’s main front-of-shirt sponsor is Gazprom, Russia’s gigantic gas company

Kosovo remains a favourite grievance for The Delije since their independence (pictured: Kosovo's president Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu)

Kosovo remains a favourite grievance for The Delije since their independence (pictured: Kosovo’s president Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu)

When they’re not chanting songs of love for Red Star itself, the Delije are barking demands for the re-invasion of Kosovo, the formerly Serb territory with a largely Albanian population.

Relations between Serbia and Albania have been tense since Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008. To the fury of Belgrade, Kosovo is today recognised by the United States, the United Kingdom and most members of the European Union. At least Russia backs Belgrade’s territorial claims.

Kosovo is a favourite grievance of the Delije. In the 2012 riot, a banner was unfurled saying ‘Kosovo is Serbia’.

Geoff Pearson, a professor of law at Manchester University and expert in football crowd management, takes a more optimistic view of next week’s England-Serbia fixture than some. He believes that Serbian ultras will be more bothered about their rivalries in Belgrade than fighting in Gelsenkirchen.

‘A lot of the violent groups are connected to club sides,’ he said. ‘It is quite rare for them to travel with their national teams.’

Rare, but by no means impossible. Many still remember the 2016 Euros in France when Russian hooligans attacked England supporters with chairs and metal bars in Marseille. One victim, 55-year-old Andrew Bache, was beaten into a coma and left paralysed.

England fans, of course, have their own disgraceful history. There are recent memories of the violence that marred the European Championship final at Wembley in 2020, when ticketless fans stormed the gates. An official inquiry concluded that the disorder could easily have cost lives.

The Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade, also known as the Marakana, was far from full the night we visited, though this didn’t seem to trouble the Delije, who sang and chanted non-stop for 90-plus minutes — all co-ordinated by a man with a megaphone.

Vast flags in Red Star’s colours were waved above the crowd. One shows a picture of Aleksandar Jacimovic, a Red Star fan who was stabbed to death in 2016 during a late-night fight in Cacak.

After being warned we wouldn’t be welcome in the North Stand, we’d bought tickets in the adjacent West Stand. Red Star won the game 3-2, beating Radnicki 1923.

Serbia open up their Euro 2024 campaign against Gareth Southgate's England in Gelsenkirchen

Serbia open up their Euro 2024 campaign against Gareth Southgate’s England in Gelsenkirchen

The Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade, also known as the Marakana, was far from full, though this didn’t seem to trouble the Delije

The Rajko Mitic Stadium in Belgrade, also known as the Marakana, was far from full, though this didn’t seem to trouble the Delije

England fans thinking they can take on the Delije in a fight were issued a chilling four-word warning

England fans thinking they can take on the Delije in a fight were issued a chilling four-word warning

After the final whistle, a Delije ultra in his early twenties agreed to a brief interview away from the stadium on strict condition of anonymity. Asked what message he had for England fans who think they can take on the Delije in a fight, his reply was a simple, ‘May God help you!

‘Of course we are proud because we are the best, toughest and strongest fans. No one can match the Delije in the Balkans.’

Improved stewarding, policing, intelligence and CCTV have largely curtailed the hooliganism that once marred the domestic game in Britain, a development not lost on this Delije ultra.

‘The England team has great potential,’ he said. ‘But as for the hooligan side, I think the English fans have gone backwards. They used to be role models for everyone but now they are not to be feared.

‘We don’t fear anyone but God.’

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