AGONA Flashback: A Friendly Like No Other
Exactly 20 years have passed since the historic friendly match between Partizan and AEK FC in Belgrade, and in honour of the anniversary, our new series, the AGONA Flashback, takes a trip down memory lane.
The NATO bombings, which stretched for 78 days in 1999 (March 24-June 10), is a black spot on Serbian history. According to Human Rights Watch, around 500 civilians perished in the air strikes, however different sources claim the death toll was higher.
Belgrade was facing regular attacks, but that didn’t prevent AEK from displaying one of the most admirable shows of solidarity ever seen in world football.
Current AEK FC owner, Dimitris Melissanidis, came up with the idea of travelling to Belgrade for a friendly against Partizan to express compassion with the suffering Serbs. Taking into account the danger to life in Serbia, it seemed an incredibly risky thing to do, but the club’s players and management were in full favour of the proposal.
Following successful negotiations, it was agreed to hold a friendly game between the two teams on April 7, 1999, with the Greeks flying to Hungary before moving into Serbian territory by bus.
The risk attached to AEK’s gesture cannot be downplayed. As a result of the bombings conducted by NATO, several innocent civilians were losing their lives, and there was nothing to say AEK were going to be kept safe. The level of the compassion shared by Serbians and Greeks can never be underestimated though, and in Greece, the Orthodox Church had been calling on the country’s citizens to support their brothers from Serbia. Protests against the NATO bombings were also witnessed on Greek streets.
Serbia couldn’t guarantee the safety of the AEK travelling party, but despite the obvious threat, the Kitrinomavri convoy consisting of players, coaches, well-known figures such as Manolis Glezos (the man who tore down the swastika from the Acropolis with Apostolos Santas in 1941) and fans arrived in Belgrade on Wednesday morning.
When arriving in Serbia, AEK were greeted by joyous cheers, and the hosts offered bread and salt as a symbol of their hospitality. Reports state that 25,000 supporters attended the friendly in Belgrade, with chants against NATO and the USA heard.
Upon entry to the playing field, the two teams held up a banner stating “NATO Stop the Bombing, Stop the War,” while on the scoreboard, a message saying “Stop the Bombing, Stop the War” was also shown.
The match began with Partizan scoring first as Mateja Kezman registered a goal at point blank range, but 13 minutes after conceding, AEK equalised with Paris Zoumpoulis heading home.
The match was abandoned in the 68th minute after the best pitch invasion possible. All of a sudden, fans came bursting onto the field of play from the stands, hugging each other and embracing the players. An emotional moment which will forever keep its rightful place in the history of both Partizan and AEK.
After the game finished, Belgrade’s citizens prepared for another night of bombing, while AEK had to cross the border back into Hungary before dark.
AEK defender Michalis Kasapis spoke to the club’s press-office about the unique experience: “This was the initiative of Dimitris Melissanidis. When we crossed through the border to Serbia, we understood that war was still very much ongoing. We saw property which had been bombed. Upon arrival in Belgrade, where we were warmly greeted, we realised just how much danger they were all in. We heard sirens when returning to the Hungarian border on the bus. Was there fear among us? Yes, especially when we saw the extent of the bombing in Serbia. Our friendly match had a big impact, it was a great act and I am proud to have participated in it. AEK is my family.”
Recently, there were talks to relive the friendly between Partizan and AEK and honor the 20-year anniversary of this historic occasion, but due to fan issues, these talks unfortunately fell through.
Here are some more pictures and videos from the unforgettable event in Belgrade: