Serbia v Northern Ireland: Fans are real stars in Belgrade ghost game
When Nigel Worthington and his squad arrived at Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade on Thursday afternoon, they were advised to put their watches forward an hour.
Less than an hour later, they could have been forgiven for wondering if they were actually travelling back in time to 30 years ago.
The Serbian capital has emerged from the smoke and flames of the Bosnian War little more than a decade ago.
Physical scars are still for all to see but the plush Continental Hotel — the team’s base for less than 48 hours before last night’s Euro 2012 qualifier — was a far cry from some of the sights en route.
High-rise flats in a state of disrepair catch the eye before the mind is quickly tuned into the rather unique style of driving in a city which would run the M25 close for volume of traffic.
The Green and White Army — well 246 of them — managed to get their hands on tickets for what was being billed as the ghost game with Serbia fans banned from the match after crowd trouble before and during their last qualifier in Genoa saw the clash abandoned after only seven minutes.
As the hours ticked down towards kick-off, a steady stream of fans appeared at the team hotel to collect the much sought-after match tickets.
Little did they probably know that the very lobby they queued in was the scene of the assassination of Serbian warlord, Arkan, in January 2000.
The paramilitary leader was shot as he sat chatting with two of his friends whilst he filled out a betting slip. Around 20,000 people attended the funeral with a large section of the public even fearing him after his demise.
The country has, thankfully, moved on but the only army of notable interest last night was the 246 lone voices inside the 55,000-capacity FK Crvena Zvezda Stadium — or the Marakana as it is known to the natives — home of Red Star Belgrade.
Riot police were scattered around the ground prior to kick-kick with fans and media alike, forced to show personal identification before gaining entry. They were happy to pose for photographs with the fans.
Inside the stadium meanwhile, the hosts were slightly confused as they practiced what were probably the quietest pre-match formalities since the stadium opened in 1963.
As the national anthems got an airing, there was a slight mishap when the official on the sound system mixed up their Irelands and The Soldier Song got an airing.
Thankfully the ever-alert diplomatic corps of the broadcast media made a quick call to the Irish FA officials and the mistake was rectified.
The teams entered the pitch, to a huge roar from the Green and White Army, who were seated in possibly the highest, and furthest place possible from the pitch. An eerie ‘atmosphere’ was slightly lifted by the visiting fans doing the Belgrade bouncey. The wittiest of the chants was surely, “Where are ya?” — with only 400 friends and family of the Serbia side permitted into the stadium.
Even when Gareth McAuley put Northern Ireland in front the normally deafening roar associated with the Green and White Army was somewhat lost in the celebrations around the empty tabernacle stadium.
Lee Camp saluted his new fans but both the nervous city and heart-breaking result are things he will want to forget when he looks back on his international debut in years to come.