|Photo Simone Pierotti|
On one hand they conquered Europe in water polo, yet they seem to refuse Europe and its institutions. Sports and history are ironic as ever for Serbs. 2011 is definitely their year. It all began in late May, with the capture of Ratko Mladić, the Bosnian Serb war criminal accused of the Srebrenica massacre - 8,000 victims among Muslim civilians - in 1995. His arrest has always been considered a conditio sine qua non for Serbia’s accession to the European Union. But the reception of this supposed-to-be historical step is quite a controversial issue.
Only a week after the Mladić’s capture, Partizan Belgrade played the Water Polo Euroleague Final Four in Rome, facing Italian Pro Recco, Croatian Mladost Zagreb and Montenegrin Budva. The semifinal match, won against their arch-enemies Mladost, was the perfect stage for the so-called “Grobari” (Gravediggers), the Partizan fans.
Wearing black t-shirts, they started to chant in favour of Ratko Mladić. Serbian supporters also sang a song against the ustaše, the Croatian Nazis during the years of the WWII, and another stating “Kosovo je srce Srbije” (“Kosovo is the heart of Serbia”). Mladost fans were collocated in the opposite stand of the stadium, due to public order reasons, and did not react.
Meanwhile, the match was really rude and nervous. Many players engaged in hand-to-hand fightings, four of them were sent off for their foul behaviour and the atmosphere remained electric for the entire match. Sports appeared a perfect stage for showing, even parading, national pride.
The following day, in the bronze match between Croatians and Montenegrins, Partizan fans started to sing “Budva! Budva!” along with supporters of the team from Budvanska Rivijera. Separated after a referendum in 2006, the two countries returned to be an only entity just for booing Mladost players.
One of them is Serbian, his name is Vanja Udovičić. He is the national team’s captain, he grew up in Partizan but last summer he moved to Zagreb. Born of a Serbian mother and a Croatian father, he had double citizenship until a few years ago. It was unveiled that his real name was Franjo, and he had to change it after enduring bullying at school because of his name’s Croatian origins.
In the end, Partizan won the Euroleague, sublimely defeating Pro Recco in the final match. Their win came 34 years after their last triumph, and now Partizan sits among the most winning teams in the history of European water polo, equalling Mladost’s record seven wins. The symbiosis between Serbian fans and players was total.
Noisy chants and coloured smokes covered the monumental Stadio del Nuoto in Rome, while Partizan coach and two-times-Olympic-gold-medal Igor Milanović incited the Belgrade torcida. The team was one with its supporters, and it showed to be so by passing the Cup through its most loyal supporters, giving them a chance to touch with their hands the symbol of the triumph.
The same hand also revive the typical salute of the Četniks, the Serbian nationalist paramilitary organization active during the WWII. Three fingers up - thumb, index and middle - representing God, Homeland and Tsar. A strong demonstration of nationalism which was repeated three weeks later, when Serbia’s national team, mainly consisting of Partizan players, won the World League Super Final in Florence, qualifying for the London Olympic Games.
Meanwhile Mladić trial in The Hague got underway, with controversial recognition among the Serbian public. Belgrade made history in European sports thanks to its most glamorous waterpolo team.
But real Europe can wait. At least, according to Partizan fans.