It was a strange scene last night at the Red Star Stadium here in Belgrade. Northern Ireland came to town for a Group C Euro Cup Soccer Qualifying Match. No one except for 200 VIP Northern Ireland guest supporters were allowed in the stadium. The normal packed scene of lines of fans around the stadium was eerily empty. The only people we saw the press corp and plenty of police and military personnel to keep spectators and hooligans away. (photo below) The Serbian Football Federation was serving a 1-game penalty for fan behavior in October’s match in Italy. The match couldn’t start because of a group of hooligans and Italy was awarded a 3-0 forfeit victory. Last night’s game was the second part of the sanction.
It was an entertaining match. I was surprised because Northern Ireland plays a defensive style and after scoring a beautiful goal off a set play in the first half, (screen shot above from the Serbian television station RTS – Radio, Television of Serbia) I thought it would be more boring delay tactics with nine men in the box for the visitors. Fortunately, Serbia kept on pressing and in a dominant second half, scored two goals to win 2-1. It was odd to watch on TV and hear individual voices of players and coaches.
The first round of games in the group are complete. Despite the forfeit, closed stadium, losing their coach, and suffering many injuries, the “White Eagles” are tied for second place with Slovenija in their group behind Italy. The top two teams qualify for next summer’s European Cup hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine. They have 5 more games with the next game being in Talin, Estonia on Tuesday. Hopefully the momentum of the victory will carry them through a probably cold and dreary game in the far north of the European continent.
Note that the “Gazprom” painting on the seats is the owner of the Red Star professional soccer club in Belgrade. Gazprom is the Russian National Petroleum company. Earlier in the week, Vladimir Putin was in Belgrade and the stadium. Red Star played an exhibition match in his honor with a Russian team.
I can’t wait to go to the next Serbian in September against the Faroe Islands. I think it is good that FIFA penalized the Serbian Soccer Federation. They need to invest in the stadium and clean up those disaffected youths that give the country a bad name. I also feel that the Serbian government is also to blame in that it does not have a good economy to provide opportunities for these young men to put their energy towards making Serbia better and establishing careers.