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.

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.