League Focus: Serbia – black plays red again

SERBIAN sport has been in the headlines recently, although not always for the right reasons. Away from football, the debacle over tennis superstar Novak Djokovic and his entry into Australia, has effectively created an anti-vaccination hero. 

In football, Dragan Solak, a Serbian media magnate, has bought the majority of Southampton Football Club, while one of the most sought-after players in Europe is Fiorentina’s Serbian striker, Dušan Vlahovič, who could yet be one of the biggest deals of the current window, although at present, he could be priced out of the market. Furthermore, Serbia have qualified for the 2022 World Cup, finishing ahead of Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo.

As ever, Serbian domestic football is dominated by Red Star Belgrade (FK Crvena Zvezda)

and FK Partizan, the Belgrade duo whose stadiums are just 900 metres apart. Their rivalry represents one of the most intense in European football. They might claim to hate each other, but Red Star need Partizan and vice-versa.

This season’s SuperLiga title race is as predictable as ever, with Partizan on top and Red Star five points behind. Partizan remain unbeaten but Red Star have lost one game. Although there’s a long way to go yet, there’s a growing feeling of discontent about Red Star’s performance this season in the league. 

However, both Red Star and Partizan are enjoying good runs in European football. Red Star won through to the last 32 of the Europa League after topping a group that included Braga, Midtjylland and Razgrad, while Partizan are through to the same stage in the Conference League and have been drawn to meet Sparta Prague.

Partizan’s form in the SuperLiga has been impressive, 19 wins from 21 games and 57 goals scored, just six conceded. Their team is mostly very experienced, but also includes the raw promise of 19 year-old striker Nemanja Jović and winger Nicola Terzić (21). Partizan have a reputation for producing young players who can be sold in the market – Aleksandar Mitrović and Dušan Vlahovič both started their career with the club.

Partizan’s leading scorer this season is Ricardo Gomes, who has netted 18 goals in his first season back with the club. Gomes, who joined from UAE’s Sharjah last summer, had a setback recently when he collapsed in training with a suspected heart problem. 

Partizan have been the biggest spenders in 2021-22, paying out over £ 1 million to sign two 26 year-olds, Queensy Menig from Twente (£ 630,000) and Filip Holender from Lugano (£ 405,000). Red Star’s only major cash deal was in acquiring teenager Petar Stanic from Železničar Pančevo for less than £ 100,000.

Serbian players are very mobile, as evidenced by their national team, which for the World Cup in 2018 included only three players from domestic football. The rest of the squad were employed by clubs from 11 different nations. Given the status of the SuperLiga, it is no surprise players seek their fortunes abroad or that Serbian clubs rely on player sales to some extent to provide valuable income. Serbia has the fourth highest number of players working abroad, some 440 according to CIES Football Observatory.

A look at the average attendances underlines the imbalance in the domestic game and also how far behind Europe’s top leagues the SuperLiga remains. But this is a country with a population of just seven million people, so it is hard to expect big gates or huge commercial sponsorship. Red Star are averaging 17,500 this season, while Partizan draw around 4,000. At the bottom of the attendance list is Čukaricki whose crowds are less than 500. 

The current TV deal is very small compared to many leagues. Although Telekom Srbija recently paid € 100 million per year for English Premier League broadcasting rights, a figure that attracted no small amount of controversy, the SuperLiga has a new three-year deal that pays € 3 million per year for the next three years.

In February, Partizan and Red Star meet in the next instalment of the much talked-about “Eternal derby” at the Rajko Mitić Stadium. Violence, pyrotechnics and politics are all common features of this game. When James Montague, author of the excellent book, 1312, Among the Ultras, investigated this clash, his conclusion was very thought-provoking: “Going down the rabbit hole of Serbia’s ultras took you into every dark vice and conspiracy, one that made you doubt whether a derby considered the most heated was even real.”

It is easy to forget there are other Serbian clubs, although even third-placed Čukaricki, from a working class neighbourhood of Belgrade on the right bank of the Sava river, are way behind the big two. One of the most notable players to come from the club is Aleksandar Kolarov, who played for Manchester City between 2010 and 2017. Students of the game will also recall OFK Beograd, a club founded in 1911 from Karaburma, a neighbourhood of Palilula. They are now playing in the third tier of domestic football, in the Serbian League Belgrade.

Fourth-placed Vojvodina, from the city of Novi Sad, are trailing behind the big two. Their last league title of any sort was in old Yugoslavia, when they were champions in 1989. They reached the last eight of the European Cup in 1967, narrowly losing to eventual winners Celtic. 

Both Čukaricki and Vojvodina were soundly beaten in the UEFA Europa Conference League this season, the former losing to Hammarby of Sweden and the latter thrashed by Austria’s LASK in the third qualifying round.

Serbian football is very animated at times and the country is definitely passionate about its clubs, especially in Belgrade. In pre-conflict times, almost half of the Yugoslav First League comprised clubs from Serbia. Unfortunately, some of the less positive aspects of the Serbian football landscape sometimes cloud the fact that both Red Star and Partizan have very rich histories and were once among the top clubs in Europe – Red Star’s 1991 European Cup triumph will never be forgotten and back in the 1960s and 1970s, a European tie against either of them would have represented a tough hurdle for most clubs.

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