The Last Word: This is a result of ignoring hooliganism for 20 years

Serbia has no financial strength, its clubs collude with 'ultras' and fans can travel without visas – so its problems are unlikely to go away soon.

The chance to see one of world football's great derby matches was irresistible, even though my Belgrade guide looked shocked when I said I wanted to watch Red Star play Partizan. She said she would not risk joining me, but showed me around the outside of Red Star's "Marakana" stadium the day before the match to enable me to get my bearings.

I started to understand her reaction when she pointed out a mansion overlooking the ground. It was a former home of Arkan, the notorious paramilitary leader and Serb warlord, who had it built after taking control of the Delije, Red Star's feared "ultra" supporters, in 1990. The Delije went on to supply some of Arkan's most ferocious fighters in the Balkan wars.

The following day's match was a tea party in comparison with other Belgrade derbies – there was the odd running battle in the streets but not much more than flare-throwing during the game – but this was largely down to the presence of an extraordinary number of riot police. For hundreds of yards the approach to the stadium was lined with officers, sometimes standing up to 10 deep.

If the rioting that forced the abandonment of Tuesday's European Championship qualifier against Italy in Genoa brought home to a wider audience the extent of Serbia's hooligan problem, it will have come as no surprise to anyone who has followed football there. Serbia's recent experiences make most of the hooligan excesses in England of the 1970s and 1980s look tame by comparison.

A Toulouse supporter died last year after being attacked by Partizan fans at a Europa League match, while in April a Red Star supporter was shot and seriously wounded during a local derby against OFK. Previously a 17-year-old was killed by a flare launched from one end of the stadium to the other and a Red Star supporter was sentenced to 10 years in prison for attempted murder after assaulting a police officer with a burning flare.

If the players perform badly they can become targets of their own supporters. When Nemanja Vidic, now at Manchester United, captained Red Star, his car was reportedly destroyed after he appeared in a fashion shoot with his Partizan counterpart. Vladimir Stojkovic, Serbia's goalkeeper, was the focus of last week's rioting because the former Red Star player joined Partizan on loan. A flare was thrown on to the team bus before the match and Stojkovic sought sanctuary in the Italian dressing-room.

Italian police later searched a coach carrying Serbia fans and found bags containing 600 fireworks and explosive devices. They also identified an alleged ringleader, who was wearing a mask inside the stadium, by his tattoos. The police made the fans remove their shirts in order to examine their tattoos and eventually found their man in the engine compartment.

The old Yugoslav league had a history of hooliganism, but it was in the 1980s that the problem escalated as football grounds became hotbeds of nationalism. One of the biggest fights occurred in 1990, when Dynamo Zagreb's home match with Red Star was abandoned as thousands of fans clashed in a portent of the approaching war between Croatia and Serbia.

Arkan, who was eventually murdered by gunmen in a Belgrade hotel in 2000, was brought in by Slobodan Milosevic's government to control and channel the violence of the thugs to the benefit of the Serbian regime. To this day, far-right groups, capitalising on youth unemployment and the economic hardships that followed the Balkan wars, are inextricably linked with the football hooligans.

Many fans who rioted in Genoa are members of the same political organisations who were behind the violent clashes with police in Belgrade last Sunday at a gay pride parade. Other sports, such as basketball and handball, also had to deal with hooliganism.

Until now the problem has largely been contained within Serbia, but under new agreements with most EU countries, supporters can travel without visas. The fact that the national team competed as Serbia and Montenegro until 2007 meant the trouble was generally restricted to club football, but that has changed in the wake of Montenegro's breakaway.

Savo Milosevic, Serbia's most capped player, said the country was paying the price of 20 years of failure to deal with hooliganism. "The problem goes beyond football," the ex-Aston Villa striker said. "These young men wreaking havoc wherever they go are the consequence, not the root, of the problem." His voice echoed that of Ted Croker, the former secretary of the Football Association, who was summoned to meet Margaret Thatcher in the wake of the Heysel Stadium disaster in Brussels 25 years ago. Upset by what he saw as her animosity towards professional football, Croker famously told the Prime Minister: "These people are society's problems and we don't want your hooligans in our sport."

English football, which was praised last week by Sepp Blatter for the way it has dealt with hooliganism, introduced all-seater stadiums and tighter security, but Serbia does not have the same financial strength. Another difficulty is that some of Serbia's top clubs have long colluded with their "ultras", even providing them with offices at their stadiums. The authorities are at last starting to act – legal moves have begun to outlaw 14 fan organisations, most of them connected with Red Star and Partizan – but the roots of the problem are deeper than they ever were in England.

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