Grobar: Partizan Pleasure, Pain and Paranoia by James Moor
Published by Pitch Publishing
The season long memoir has become a favoured format in the world of football writing in recent times and its apogee came with Tim Parks’ widely admired A Season with Verona. This new book from James Moor adopts the approach to cover one year in the life of Serbian giants Partizan Belgrade, admitting its debt to that earlier volume but building on some very juicy subject matter to produce a real page turner of an account.
Moor is not a professional journalist and indeed, this fact lends a great deal of the interest. Posted to Serbia on a diplomatic mission in 2011, the book is interlaced with a riveting dose of recent international history and politics while the author’s writing style and turn of phrase is excellent, leavening some occasionally grim subject matter with well-judged humour and great honesty.
It could be argued that the subject is a less gripping one these days. Serbian football, despite occasional highs such a win over Germany in the South African World Cup, is in a serious fug; the national team having failed to make much of an impact since their protracted series of splits with their countries that made up Yugoslavia. Indeed, Moor does look back to the occasional triumphs of the previous era – Red Star’s European Cup victory in 1991 presenting the highlight (although that’s obviously not an occasion which Partizan fans hanker bank to with much fondness).
The film-maker Emir Kusturica has bemoaned the violent break up of a more tolerant and multicultural Yugoslavia in the past and the division of the country into an at times alarmingly monocultural set of units is certainly to be regretted – although any chance of a ‘Greater Serbia’ to emerge once more has certainly been extinguished. Moor is excellent on the issue of Kosovo as well as the less than easy relationship between the Serb majority and non-Serbs still living within its borders.
This is evidenced by an awayday to see Partizan play against Novi Pazar, a club who hail from the Muslim dominated region of Sandžak, a Champions League qualifier against the Macedonian-based but Albanian-influenced FK Shkendia (one chapter takes its cue from a home fans’ chant, ‘Kill the Albanian’) and a couple of battles with Serbia’s third team, Vojvodina Novi Sad, the representatives of a patchwork region where people of Hungarian descent form a significant minority.
Despite Partizan’s reputation as the country’s standard bearer for left-wing ideals (Marshal Tito’s Partizans were the major force in the Yugoslav resistance to the Nazis after all), this is always presented in relation to Red Star, who are seen as incorrigibly favoured by the establishment, both before the fall of Communism and after – it’s to Moor’s credit that he takes all this with a pinch of salt. Indeed, anti-Croat, Albanian and Bosniak banners and songs are legion and his discomfort at having to share a stadium with the perpetrators is very well depicted.
On the pitch, the decline is easy to ignore given that Moor scarcely witnesses an adverse result – Partizan skipped to the 2011-12 Championship, finishing a mighty 12 points ahead of Red Star.
Closer examination, however, reveals a listlessness and an attitude of ‘just doing enough’. If you thought the SPL was lop-sided, it’s approximately fair to say that here, Partizan find themselves arraigned against teams of Blue Square Premier standard or lower while that famous humiliation by Shamrock Rovers in the Champions League is afforded all its gory detail.
Additional interest for English readers comes with the presence of now Bolton Wanderers midfielder Medo in the squad and he turns out to be one of the more talented, consistent performers, the status of former Portsmouth man Robert Prosinečki with their rivals (that Red Star turned to a Croat legend to helm the club provides a glimmer of hope among the inter-ethnic rivalries) and the curious decision to turn to Avram Grant to manage the team during the extensive winter break.
Grant duly delivers the Championship but commits the cardinal sin of losing three times to Red Star in league and cup while his tenure has given me another example for a piece I want to write on ‘dead in the water’ managers – bosses who were unwelcome from their first whistle of their first game. The decent Grant seems to have suffered this fate almost everywhere he has rocked up in recent times.
At this juncture, I’ll confess a keen personal interest, having holidayed for six days in Belgrade over New Year’s Eve 2013. The violence, racism and tension that occasionally erupt (the killing of a Toulouse supporter by a gang of Partizan fans in a bar off the city’s otherwise glitzy main drag Knez Mihailova a few years ago is a particularly awful example) was nowhere in evidence and we were given a very friendly welcome. The capital is far from a beautiful city although fans of John Grindrod’s recent book Concretopia will enjoy the brutalism of Novi Beograd and a visit to nearby Novi Sad, where Moor begins his Serbian sojourn, revealed a town of significant Mitteleuropa charm.
Indeed, the book evokes a fledgling country well, emphasizing the generosity of its citizens and the difficult process of coming to terms with a new identity very well indeed while the tales of rivalry between supporter factions, stadia both crumbling and brand new, and a nation still very much in love with its football are engagingly narrated. I’d definitely place this as one of the best soccer books of recent years.