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Tunnel vision

Few stadiums in Europe can match the Marakana for nerve-shredding atmosphere, and as Crvena zvezda’s iconic home ground celebrates its 60th anniversary, we spoke to club legend Dejan Stanković about its unique power

WORDS Chris Burke | INTERVIEW Paolo Menicucci | PHOTOGRAPHY Marco Mantovani

History
For the last 60 years, visiting players have felt a lump in their throats even before glimpsing the pitch at the Stadion Rajko Mitić. The home ground of Belgrade giants Crvena zvezda, and affectionately known as the Marakana by the club faithful, the stadium enjoys a reputation far and wide as one of the most intimidating venues in Europe. That’s largely due to the agonisingly long walk that teams must endure before kick-off, a disorienting journey through two seemingly endless tunnels underneath the vibrant stadium itself. With the walls shaking and the chants of the home fans absolutely deafening, it’s no wonder that countless sides have lost their nerve… and then the game.

First opened in 1963, the Marakana now holds around 53,000 spectators after undergoing substantial renovations down the years. Long gone are the days when Crvena zvezda regularly attracted crowds of more than 110,000, while over 90,000 witnessed Ajax’s 1-0 defeat of Juventus in the 1973 European Cup final, but the stadium has lost little of its raucous power. Club legend Dejan Stanković can attest to that, having experienced it as a fan, a ball boy, a first-team player from 1995 to 1998 and then as coach between 2019 and 2022. The talented midfielder also turned out for Lazio and won the Champions League with Inter in 2009/10, but ask him where he would prefer to play the game of his life and all roads lead back to those tunnels in Belgrade.

“The Marakana is different when you’re a Red Star kid, raised in the culture of a club that always wants to win. When you have the opportunity to play or, as in my case, also coach the team, it really makes a difference. It’s like having a 12th man on your side. At the Marakana, the opposition truly feel the fans. The tunnel is very long. When you touch that wall, you can feel it trembling during important matches. Then there’s a second, smaller tunnel that takes you on to the pitch itself. Even narrower than the first, it’s truly impressive. 

“For me, though, the opposition aren’t afraid of the Marakana. It’s just that the Marakana makes the Red Star players twice as strong. If you look at the games between Liverpool and Red Star in 2018, Red Star lost 4-0 in England but won 2-0 at home with the same players. That’s down to the skill of the coaches and the players but also the incredible support from the fans. Liverpool faced a team twice as strong as the one that had played at Anfield. And that’s just one example. 

“Opponents aren’t afraid. it’s just that the Marakana makes Red Star players twice as strong”
"But if the game had been played at the Marakana with 1,000 per cent home support, it would have been different."

“Personally, I experienced a couple of games like that as a player, when you feel invincible. It’s like a cauldron. I remember the [Cup Winners’ Cup] game against Kaiserslautern in 1996. There were 80,000 fans because it wasn’t all-seater yet, and it was 120 minutes of incredible support. We won 4-0 in extra time. Then we faced a great Barcelona team with Ronaldo, Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique, Giovanni, Rivaldo, Fernando Couto and Vítor Baía. Barcelona managed to escape with a 1-1 draw, but in the second half they couldn’t even get past the halfway line. 

“Those are just examples of how the Marakana can transform the team. It can elevate you by 1,000 per cent. I’ve experienced it as a player and also as a coach. It’s a stadium that always supports you if you give your all on the field, right up to the last drop of sweat. You never hear complaints or grumbling; the fans support you from the first minute to the 90th, or the 120th if necessary, and judgments are kept for the end. In the moment, only the club exists.

“The Marakana name comes from the Maracanã in Brazil because we also used to have 105,000 or 107,000 spectators in the stadium, like the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro. And then people started calling us the Brazilians of Europe. There are so many talents, so many players who started at Red Star and then made a difference at important clubs.

“I went a couple of times as a fan when I was little, but I was already a ball boy at the Marakana at the age of 12. I experienced the journey of the great Siniša Mihajlović, Vladimir Jugović, Dejan Savićević, Robert Prosinečki, Darko Pančev and that whole generation from behind the goal. I attended all the matches, and that’s when you start to feel the power of the Marakana. As a ball boy, you dream that one day the entire stadium will be cheering for you. That’s the dream of every Red Star kid who gets a taste of the Marakana’s atmosphere.

“There were great celebrations at the stadium after the European Cup win in 1991. I regret that, the following year, that same generation couldn’t play their home games in Serbia due to sanctions. They lost 3-1 to Sampdoria in the decisive match, but if the game had been played at the Marakana with 1,000 per cent home support, it would have been different. They would have gone all the way once again.

“When I was coach, I gave many young players their debut because I know the impact that shirt and that stadium can have on a young player. It remains with you for the rest of your life. At Red Star, you grow up with the goal of winning. You understand the pressure, you understand the importance of the club. The dream always grows, getting bigger and bigger. First, it’s your debut, then you dream of your first goal, then you dream of the first derby, of scoring in the derby, of wearing the captain’s armband. I managed to do all those things at Red Star in less than three years.

“I signed with Lazio in February 1998 and spent four months at Red Star with the transfer already agreed. Every game and every goal scored from then on was too emotional for me. I remember one goal in a derby from a free-kick. I knew it was my last derby and I ran to the north stand and took off my shirt. I was the captain. I was happy and sad at the same time because playing for Red Star is a great privilege. If I had to play the match of my life, the one I absolutely had to win, I would bring my opponents to the Marakana and have them pass through that tunnel. That’s for sure.” 

First opened in 1963, the Marakana now holds around 53,000 spectators after undergoing substantial renovations down the years. Long gone are the days when Crvena zvezda regularly attracted crowds of more than 110,000, while over 90,000 witnessed Ajax’s 1-0 defeat of Juventus in the 1973 European Cup final, but the stadium has lost little of its raucous power. Club legend Dejan Stanković can attest to that, having experienced it as a fan, a ball boy, a first-team player from 1995 to 1998 and then as coach between 2019 and 2022. The talented midfielder also turned out for Lazio and won the Champions League with Inter in 2009/10, but ask him where he would prefer to play the game of his life and all roads lead back to those tunnels in Belgrade.

“The Marakana is different when you’re a Red Star kid, raised in the culture of a club that always wants to win. When you have the opportunity to play or, as in my case, also coach the team, it really makes a difference. It’s like having a 12th man on your side. At the Marakana, the opposition truly feel the fans. The tunnel is very long. When you touch that wall, you can feel it trembling during important matches. Then there’s a second, smaller tunnel that takes you on to the pitch itself. Even narrower than the first, it’s truly impressive. 

“For me, though, the opposition aren’t afraid of the Marakana. It’s just that the Marakana makes the Red Star players twice as strong. If you look at the games between Liverpool and Red Star in 2018, Red Star lost 4-0 in England but won 2-0 at home with the same players. That’s down to the skill of the coaches and the players but also the incredible support from the fans. Liverpool faced a team twice as strong as the one that had played at Anfield. And that’s just one example. 

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“Opponents aren’t afraid. it’s just that the Marakana makes Red Star players twice as strong”
"But if the game had been played at the Marakana with 1,000 per cent home support, it would have been different."

“Personally, I experienced a couple of games like that as a player, when you feel invincible. It’s like a cauldron. I remember the [Cup Winners’ Cup] game against Kaiserslautern in 1996. There were 80,000 fans because it wasn’t all-seater yet, and it was 120 minutes of incredible support. We won 4-0 in extra time. Then we faced a great Barcelona team with Ronaldo, Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique, Giovanni, Rivaldo, Fernando Couto and Vítor Baía. Barcelona managed to escape with a 1-1 draw, but in the second half they couldn’t even get past the halfway line. 

“Those are just examples of how the Marakana can transform the team. It can elevate you by 1,000 per cent. I’ve experienced it as a player and also as a coach. It’s a stadium that always supports you if you give your all on the field, right up to the last drop of sweat. You never hear complaints or grumbling; the fans support you from the first minute to the 90th, or the 120th if necessary, and judgments are kept for the end. In the moment, only the club exists.

“The Marakana name comes from the Maracanã in Brazil because we also used to have 105,000 or 107,000 spectators in the stadium, like the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro. And then people started calling us the Brazilians of Europe. There are so many talents, so many players who started at Red Star and then made a difference at important clubs.

“I went a couple of times as a fan when I was little, but I was already a ball boy at the Marakana at the age of 12. I experienced the journey of the great Siniša Mihajlović, Vladimir Jugović, Dejan Savićević, Robert Prosinečki, Darko Pančev and that whole generation from behind the goal. I attended all the matches, and that’s when you start to feel the power of the Marakana. As a ball boy, you dream that one day the entire stadium will be cheering for you. That’s the dream of every Red Star kid who gets a taste of the Marakana’s atmosphere.

“There were great celebrations at the stadium after the European Cup win in 1991. I regret that, the following year, that same generation couldn’t play their home games in Serbia due to sanctions. They lost 3-1 to Sampdoria in the decisive match, but if the game had been played at the Marakana with 1,000 per cent home support, it would have been different. They would have gone all the way once again.

“When I was coach, I gave many young players their debut because I know the impact that shirt and that stadium can have on a young player. It remains with you for the rest of your life. At Red Star, you grow up with the goal of winning. You understand the pressure, you understand the importance of the club. The dream always grows, getting bigger and bigger. First, it’s your debut, then you dream of your first goal, then you dream of the first derby, of scoring in the derby, of wearing the captain’s armband. I managed to do all those things at Red Star in less than three years.

“I signed with Lazio in February 1998 and spent four months at Red Star with the transfer already agreed. Every game and every goal scored from then on was too emotional for me. I remember one goal in a derby from a free-kick. I knew it was my last derby and I ran to the north stand and took off my shirt. I was the captain. I was happy and sad at the same time because playing for Red Star is a great privilege. If I had to play the match of my life, the one I absolutely had to win, I would bring my opponents to the Marakana and have them pass through that tunnel. That’s for sure.” 

First opened in 1963, the Marakana now holds around 53,000 spectators after undergoing substantial renovations down the years. Long gone are the days when Crvena zvezda regularly attracted crowds of more than 110,000, while over 90,000 witnessed Ajax’s 1-0 defeat of Juventus in the 1973 European Cup final, but the stadium has lost little of its raucous power. Club legend Dejan Stanković can attest to that, having experienced it as a fan, a ball boy, a first-team player from 1995 to 1998 and then as coach between 2019 and 2022. The talented midfielder also turned out for Lazio and won the Champions League with Inter in 2009/10, but ask him where he would prefer to play the game of his life and all roads lead back to those tunnels in Belgrade.

“The Marakana is different when you’re a Red Star kid, raised in the culture of a club that always wants to win. When you have the opportunity to play or, as in my case, also coach the team, it really makes a difference. It’s like having a 12th man on your side. At the Marakana, the opposition truly feel the fans. The tunnel is very long. When you touch that wall, you can feel it trembling during important matches. Then there’s a second, smaller tunnel that takes you on to the pitch itself. Even narrower than the first, it’s truly impressive. 

“For me, though, the opposition aren’t afraid of the Marakana. It’s just that the Marakana makes the Red Star players twice as strong. If you look at the games between Liverpool and Red Star in 2018, Red Star lost 4-0 in England but won 2-0 at home with the same players. That’s down to the skill of the coaches and the players but also the incredible support from the fans. Liverpool faced a team twice as strong as the one that had played at Anfield. And that’s just one example. 

“Opponents aren’t afraid. it’s just that the Marakana makes Red Star players twice as strong”
"But if the game had been played at the Marakana with 1,000 per cent home support, it would have been different."

“Personally, I experienced a couple of games like that as a player, when you feel invincible. It’s like a cauldron. I remember the [Cup Winners’ Cup] game against Kaiserslautern in 1996. There were 80,000 fans because it wasn’t all-seater yet, and it was 120 minutes of incredible support. We won 4-0 in extra time. Then we faced a great Barcelona team with Ronaldo, Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique, Giovanni, Rivaldo, Fernando Couto and Vítor Baía. Barcelona managed to escape with a 1-1 draw, but in the second half they couldn’t even get past the halfway line. 

“Those are just examples of how the Marakana can transform the team. It can elevate you by 1,000 per cent. I’ve experienced it as a player and also as a coach. It’s a stadium that always supports you if you give your all on the field, right up to the last drop of sweat. You never hear complaints or grumbling; the fans support you from the first minute to the 90th, or the 120th if necessary, and judgments are kept for the end. In the moment, only the club exists.

“The Marakana name comes from the Maracanã in Brazil because we also used to have 105,000 or 107,000 spectators in the stadium, like the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro. And then people started calling us the Brazilians of Europe. There are so many talents, so many players who started at Red Star and then made a difference at important clubs.

“I went a couple of times as a fan when I was little, but I was already a ball boy at the Marakana at the age of 12. I experienced the journey of the great Siniša Mihajlović, Vladimir Jugović, Dejan Savićević, Robert Prosinečki, Darko Pančev and that whole generation from behind the goal. I attended all the matches, and that’s when you start to feel the power of the Marakana. As a ball boy, you dream that one day the entire stadium will be cheering for you. That’s the dream of every Red Star kid who gets a taste of the Marakana’s atmosphere.

“There were great celebrations at the stadium after the European Cup win in 1991. I regret that, the following year, that same generation couldn’t play their home games in Serbia due to sanctions. They lost 3-1 to Sampdoria in the decisive match, but if the game had been played at the Marakana with 1,000 per cent home support, it would have been different. They would have gone all the way once again.

“When I was coach, I gave many young players their debut because I know the impact that shirt and that stadium can have on a young player. It remains with you for the rest of your life. At Red Star, you grow up with the goal of winning. You understand the pressure, you understand the importance of the club. The dream always grows, getting bigger and bigger. First, it’s your debut, then you dream of your first goal, then you dream of the first derby, of scoring in the derby, of wearing the captain’s armband. I managed to do all those things at Red Star in less than three years.

“I signed with Lazio in February 1998 and spent four months at Red Star with the transfer already agreed. Every game and every goal scored from then on was too emotional for me. I remember one goal in a derby from a free-kick. I knew it was my last derby and I ran to the north stand and took off my shirt. I was the captain. I was happy and sad at the same time because playing for Red Star is a great privilege. If I had to play the match of my life, the one I absolutely had to win, I would bring my opponents to the Marakana and have them pass through that tunnel. That’s for sure.” 

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