AS MUCH of Europe settles in for a winter break, the team that can go into the holiday season with a feeling of “job done” is Red Star Belgrade (Crvena Zvezda). Serbia’s most popular team has an astonishing 25-point lead at the top of the table after 20 wins from 22 games.
But there’s been plenty of activity in Belgrade as Christmas approaches. Red Star have just agreed to sell their most prized asset, midfielder Marko Grujic, to Liverpool for £5.1m.
Red Star were in dire need of the cash and appeared keen to push the transfer through as soon as possible. But Grujic’s father, a Belgrade-based journalist, seemed to be preventing the deal from going through by withholding his boy’s passport.
Red Star had also had bids from Anderlecht (EUR 2m), Stuttgart (EUR 5m), but Liverpool’s bid topped them both. Liverpool also loaned back Grujic until July and included a sell-on clause. Inter Milan had also shown interest in the 19 year-old.
The deal will come as great relief for Red Star, who are something like EUR 40m in debt and have been close to going out of business. At the very least, they could have suffered automatic relegation due to their financial situation. Grujic is not the only player they’ve had to sell, goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic was offloaded to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the close season.
The off-field problems do not seem to be affecting the team, who have been in excellent form all season. They are managed by Miodrag Bozovic, a dapper figure known as “the count of Montenegro”.
While Red Star appears to be falling apart, Bozovic has forged a team that doesn’t just beat opponents, but appears to pulverise them. They are averaging almost three goals a game and only Metalac and Radnicki have avoided defeat against them with draws, and that was back in July.
Since then, Red Star have won 19 consecutive league games and before the seasonal bunting was put up, they netted 15 goals in their last three fixtures, beating second-placed Cukaricki 7-2 away from home.
The current campaign has revived a club that has endured scandal, financial hardship and falling gates over the past decade. Red Star are the best supported club in Serbia – they average around 17,000 at home games – but they have won just two Serbian Super League titles, in 2007 and 2014. Serbian football has been dominated by Red Star’s bitter rivals Partizan.
Bozovic, who took over in May 2015, has built a team that has a mix of youth – four players are under 21 – and experience. Only two – goalkeeper Kahriman and skipper Aleksander Lukovic – are over 30. Most are Serbs, but left back “Lucho” Ibanez is Argentinian and leading scorer Hugo Vieria is a Portuguese signed from Torpedo Moscow this year. Midfielder Mitchell Donald is Dutch and was an Ajax youth player.
Despite their financial problems, Red Star are still talking big ambitions. They have shown an interest in Northern Ireland’s Kyle Lafferty, seeing the Norwich City striker as a player that can help make them become a European force. Of course, that’s exactly what Red Star were at one stage in their history, winning the European Cup in 1991. But then politics and war reared their ugly head.
Politics have emerged once more as Red Star prepare for 2016. They usually spend the winter break training in Turkey, but they have cancelled their plans “out of respect for Russia” after the shooting down of a Russian plane by the Turks. Apparently, Vladimir Putin visited Red Star in 2011 and is considered a friend of the club!