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Belgrade Soccer Takes New Meaning

April 7, 1999

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) _ It’s wartime in Belgrade, so the soccer match Wednesday between the top Yugoslav team and a Greek powerhouse was much more than a game.

With NATO attacks steadily intensifying against Yugoslavia since March 24, Greek players from the AEK Athens team decided to come here to show solidarity with their Partizan team soccer colleagues.

Greece and Serbia share a common Orthodox Christian religion and cultural and historic ties. Athens has been the only ally to Serbia among NATO countries and is not taking an active part in the allied military campaign.

Officials and media in Greece have widely condemned the attacks and Greeks were among the first to start street protests in support of Serbia.

This game was unusual in several aspects. Skinheads and other rowdies often fight at soccer games, but here many embraced before the opening whistle.

In another show of unity, fans from both teams chanted ``Stop the war, stop bombing!″ U.S. and British flags were set ablaze.

And it was clear that the final score was less important than the fact the two teams were there: The game ended 16 minutes into the second half, with the score 1-1, when players from both sides cleared the benches to spill onto the field and hug each other.

A Greek lawmaker was cheered by the crowd of 15,000 after he announced that he had brought an olive tree, the symbol of peace, to be planted just outside the stadium.

``Sports gives people peace,″ said Sofia Sakorafa, the 1982 javelin world record holder, who attended the match with Greek lawmakers and other officials. ``We need more events like this, which unite people against the war.″

Few typical soccer slogans were chanted. Instead, the emphasis was on the airstrikes.

``The Orthodox people fight together against the devil’s bombs,″ read one huge banner held by fans who half-filled Partizan Stadium.

``People from NATO countries could change their opinion when they see such games,″ said 24-year-old Partizan fan Dragan Radicevic. Like many Belgrade residents in recent days, he sported a metal bull’s eye button on his shirt.

Stadium security guard Goran Mihailovic was bemused.

``One wouldn’t believe that in peacetime these guys would fight until death,″ he said. ``Now, during the war, they embrace like brothers.″

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