Saturday was a historic day for Torcida Sandžak, Serbia’s only Islamic ultras group. They’d witnessed their team, Novi Pazar, go a goal down in the opening fifteen minutes, miss a penalty and concede a second in first half stoppage time.
All of that came in one of the biggest games of the season, the home fixture with Partizan Belgrade; last season’s champions who had won their opening two matches 4-0 and 6-0. Novi Pazar, by contrast, had lost their opening game at home to newly promoted Javor Ivanjica. And yet somehow they emerged victorious, recording their first ever win over Partizan.
It was largely due to a sensational twenty minute barrage in the first half. Far from capitulating after Partizan’s 13th minute opener, Novi Pazar responded with a series of surges through the Partizan defence.
First Vladimir Radivojevic was played in behind the Partizan backline and forced a smart save from Zivko Zivkovic, who just a few minutes later had to turn Predrag Pavlovic’s long distance effort round the post. Partizan repeatedly failed to clear the ball from their own half and another direct run at their goal by Stefan Askovski was only halted by a trip from Sasa Lukic, giving Novi Pazar their first penalty of the afternoon. Pavlovic despatched it with authority.
The equaliser pricked Partizan into life and goalscorer Nikola Trujic was soon presented with an even simpler opportunity to score than the one he’d taken earlier but somehow miscued from inside the six yard box. Minutes later, Askovski was tripped inside the penalty area again only for Zivkovic to make a brilliant low save from the resulting spot kick.
Novi Pazar continued to pour forward at every opportunity and, less than five minutes after equalising, took the lead from an Askovski header. Two more shots whistled over the Partizan bar before thirty five minutes had been played. The first half had been a whirlwind of chances for both sides and just as calm threatened to descend, Partizan found an equaliser of their own in first half stoppage time, Nemanja Kojic bundling the ball home at the back post.
As the second half wore on, normality found its grip tightening. Novi Pazar’s explosive first half energy was replaced with second half dogged defensiveness as Partizan edged closer to a winner. A superb last ditch tackle by Milos Tintor and two hasty, snatched at shots were all that prevented a third Partizan goal.
A looming sense of dread for Partizan’s inevitable winner was growing when suddenly a Miroljub Kostic tackle on the halfway line rebounded dramatically upfield and straight into the path of Irfan Vusljannin, his route to goal unimpeded and with Pavlovic in support. They were far from clinical with their opportunity. Vusljannin slipped as he attempted to pull the ball back into Pavlovic’s path leaving the pass behind him.
The striker’s reached for shot still managed to beat a diving Zivkovic but cannoned into the chest of Milos Ostojic, desperately defending the Partizan goal line. The ball ran loose into the path of the one man who’d sprinted to join the fray; Stefan Askovski. The Macedonian, himself on loan from Partizan, stretched to reach the ball, making enough contact to send it rolling into the Partizan net for his second and Novi Pazar’s third.
Pandemonium erupted in the Novi Pazar City Stadium. The dancing blue and white stripes of the home side merging with another familiar football pattern, the dark blue and yellow of Fenerbahce worn by many on the Novi Pazar terraces. The two clubs’ ultras groups share a friendship, and have attended matches together in both Novi Pazar and Istanbul.
Fener fans from other Balkan cities with Turkish populations like Prizren in Kosovo and Kicevo in Macedonia also travelled to the game to support Novi Pazar. This display of Muslim unity is anathema to many other Serbian ultras groups whose more nationalist tendencies lead them to view Turks with disdain; still intrinsically connected to the oppressive invaders of their Ottoman ancestors.
Not that these groups have ever had much time for Torcida Sandzak, whose very name is in defiance of the Serbian state. ‘Sandzak’ derives from the Ottoman term ‘sanjak’, used to demarcate regions within the Empire. The sanjak being referred to in this case is the sanjak of Novi Pazar, which in Ottoman times spread across large areas of what is now Southern Serbia and Northern Montenegro.
On both sides of the border, this region is largely populated by muslims, the descendents of both Islamicised Slavs and migrants to the Balkans during Ottoman rule. An aspiration for independence for the region under the name the ‘Sandzak republic’ exists throughout this Islamic community, although not one which has yet led to any kind of armed revolt.
It has though, led to tension and violence in football stadiums. FK Novi Pazar have been a dramatic addition to the Serbian Super Liga since their promotion in 2011. The flag of the Sandzak republic, which features both the Bosnian Fleur-de-lis and Islamic crescent moons, is often flown by supporters of Novi Pazar, both at home and away.
It’s been a red rag to a bull for many of their Serbian counterparts who have frequently responded with vitriolic displays of Serbian nationalism and chants of ‘ubi ubi ubi turčina’ (kill, kill, kill the Turks). Home matches quickly became scenes of endless scuffles between sets of supporters and the police, especially in games against teams from Belgrade.
Eventually away fans in Novi Pazar were banned, meaning not a single member of Partizan’s ultras group Grobari witnessed their club’s first ever defeat to Novi Pazar. Not that their absence diminished the intensity of the atmosphere, the ferocity of which seemed to upset visiting manager Zoran Milinkovic who stated afterwards that he would “never understand such hatred from the stands”.
His comments drew a bullish rebuke from Novi Pazar’s general secretary Recep Korac, who claimed the crowd had created a “real football atmosphere” and suggested Partizan were perhaps unaccustomed to such atmospheres outside of Belgrade as Novi Pazar is one of the few Serbian cities to support their own side instead of one of the big two.
The attendance of over 5000 fans certainly dwarfed that at every match played in Serbia that day. Each of them witness to a historic moment in the unfolding story of FK Novi Pazar.