On a bitterly cold evening in late October 1988, Belgrade’s JNA Stadium erupted with noise.
Over 40,000 FK Partizan fans, packed in against the elements, thundered with appreciation each time Nebojsa Vucicevic jolted past Antonio Tempestilli, howled with jubilation as Miroslav Dukic twice found the back of Franco Tancredi’s net, shrieked in ecstasy as the usually so formidable Rudi Voller suffered a hapless night, and, most astonishingly of all, cheered in exultation as, with the score at 2-1, a 24 year-old Chinese international was brought on as the team’s first substitute. The ultimate 4-2 UEFA Cup victory over Italy’s AS Roma would prove a worthy zenith in a difficult season for the Yugoslavians, but the quality of Partizan’s play would perhaps be the least of their reason to celebrate.
That night remains as the one of the pinnacles of an off-field journey that had begun over six months previously, becoming a trailblazing symbol of anti-racism and cultural integration within the footballing world. At this time, pictures of Liverpool’s John Barnes back-heeling a banana off the pitch led to chants of “Everton are white” from their Merseyside rivals, Chelsea’s Paul Canoville being racially abused by his own fans and Heerenveen manager Fritz Korbach referring to two opposition players as “a short f****** negro” and a “coffee bean”. Yet, 4 years before the No to Racism campaign was launched, Partizan decided, against all the risks that come with such a move, to take a stand of their own.
Jia Xiuquan (pictured above in his current role as coach of China Women’s team) and Liu Haiguang arrived in Yugoslavia from China in February 1988 as part of a “cultural exchange” in a bid to progress sporting cooperation between two nations at very different points in their respective footballing journeys. Amidst a backdrop of nationalist political rhetoric and hostility which had a seen a sharp drop in ethnic multiculturalism since the death of Josip Tito less than a decade previously, it seemed almost inevitable that the pair were destined to meet a baptism of fire, brimstone and all the racial slurs and discrimination that went between in the Yugoslav First League.
Prejudice and enmity reared its particularly ugly, blinded head and roared, as Yugoslav politics became engulfed in chauvinistic bigotry and fascism began to perniciously resurface after three decades forced underwater. Yet, football, with the same customary insurgent non-conformism that had seen it defy Nazi Germany half a century previously, decided to roar back.
Instead of becoming the exiled outcasts they could and were perhaps prophesised as becoming, the duo went on to wear Partizan shirt 57 times between them. Jia impressed by marshalling the defensive line and appearing 16 times in the league between March and December 1988, whilst Liu broke the record fastest goal scored in the Yugoslav League, coming after just 45 seconds.
Such standout performances warmed Partizan’s diehard fanbase two their newfound talent, and there remained little or no sign of any abuse coming from the stands. The pair’s value to the club became such that Partizan refused to release them to play for China in the 1988 Asian Cup, forcing them instead to stay in Belgrade. For Yugoslavia, this had become an exercise as much about transcending racial boundaries and beating down barriers as it was about the globalisation of one of the country’s leading football clubs.
As 21st century football continues to grapple with the problem of racism, lurching from Italian ultras to the infamous fallout between Anton Ferdinand and John Terry, as the Kick It Out campaign declares how much work still needs to be done, it’s sometimes worth remembering and drawing home from the fact that, amongst the hatred and the intolerance, occasionally, like Partizan Belgrade did in 1988, someone will get it right.