World Cup beckons for Serbia, but club football is left behind

SERBIA are on the brink of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, although they still have the daunting task of facing Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. They are unbeaten in their seven qualifiers so far, but the Portuguese have a game more to play. It could easily go wrong for the Serbs.

2021 was the 30th anniversary of Red Star Belgrade’s European Cup success, a remarkable achievement but a forgettable final for most onlookers. Red Star and their capital city rivals, Partizan remain two grand old names of European football, but neither can compete on the biggest stage. Serbian football would be one of the domestic leagues that would undoubtedly suffer should a European Super League ever take place.

The gulf between Europe’s top leagues and Serbia can be seen in the economic strength of the country’s biggest name, Red Star Belgrade, who are estimated to be worth just € 63.5 million, less than the value of a big-name player in the Premier League or La Liga. Moreover, Serbian clubs do not benefit from a major broadcasting deal, their current TV income is among the lowest in Europe. In total, Serbian football is thought to be worth less than € 400 million. Perversely, Telekom Serbia, which is partially-owned by the state, recently paid-out € 600 million for Premier League rights, a transaction that attracted great criticism inside and outside of Serbia. This merely underlines that Serbian domestic football has an ongoing battle to retain popularity when faced with the glamour of elite leagues.

Serbia has a population of less than seven million people. Since regaining independence, Serbia is seen as a relatively small country, hence it has limited appeal to major corporates across the continent, although the ubiquitous Russian energy firm Gazprom are Red Star’s shirt sponsors. Many clubs are propped-up by state support or government links. There is a lack of financial transparency at some clubs that breeds a certain mistrust among the public.

Belgrade, however, has a population of 1.2 million, meaning it is, effectively, bigger than British cities like Manchester and Liverpool. For a country of its size, Serbia does produce a lot of decent footballers. According to CIES Football Observatory, there are around 440 expatriate Serbs plying their trade around the world in 60% of major associations. Many of these do not make it to the top five leagues, but neighbouring countries like Bosnia and Hungary benefit from the Serbian production line and player-trading is an important element of club finances. Red Star have a very cosmopolitan squad, with 60% coming from Serbia and 40% foreigners. Partizan, however, has a squad that is 75% Serbian. 

People become very animated and highly emotional about their football in Serbia. Unfortunately, politics and hate are often not far from the surface and only a few months ago, a match between Novi Pazar and Partizan was halted after the latter’s fans began chanting slogans about the Srebrenica massacre and in support of Ratko Mladić, a convicted war criminal from the Balkan war. 

Football has often been linked to violent crime and more than a dozen prominent members of football supporters’ groups have been murdered in recent years in gangland-type killings. Sadly, hooliganism has been associated with nationalist outbursts.

Needless to say, this season’s title race is between the relative heavyweights Red Star Belgrade and Partizan. The two sides drew 1-1 in September, but Partizan are six points ahead of Red Star and have played 16 games to their rivals’ 15. Partizan remain unbeaten, Red Star’s only defeat was at Radnik Surdurlica at the end of October.

Red Star, whoe won the Serbian Super Liga in 2020-21, going through the entire campaign unbeaten, are faring well in the Europa League group stage, but they face a vital game in Braga at the beginning of December. The club’s European ties have attracted some good attendances, far higher than some of their league games this season. Partizan, who last won the league in 2017, are competing in the Europa Conference group stage.

It’s almost a certainty that one of the two Belgrade giants will win the title, at present, Partizan have the upper hand thanks to the goals of Ricardo Gomes and a cast-iron defence. If Red Star win their game in hand, the margin will be just three points. It should make for an interesting second half of the season in Serbia.

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