Soccer City: Belgrade – emerging with a football duopoly

BELGRADE has played its part in the development of European football and its major clubs are still names that evoke images of great games and occasions, passionate crowds and highly technical players. The city has hosted one European Cup final, in 1973, and three years later, staged the European Championship final, the famous game that brought the world the iconic “Panenka penalty”.

But like most countries outside today’s leading markets, Serbian football has had to find its place in the modern football world. In addition, and most importantly, the former Yugoslavian states, reshaped by war and politics, have had more critical problems to deal with than football.

Belgrade is a curious city, a heady mixture of Soviet-influenced relics, all grey and occasionally brutalist, and elaborate art-nouveau buildings such as the famous Hotel Moskva. It has been at the heart of European history and has had to endure 40 overhauls in the aftermath of destruction. Such a turbulent back story has undoubtedly moulded the psyche of Belgrade’s population. There may another less intimidating period of positive change when Serbia joins the European Union, which should be in 2024.

The city is awash with football clubs, but to most people, there are only two: Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade) and their fierce rivals, FK Partizan. The popular belief is that the clash between these clubs, the eternal derby, is the most heated and violent in European football. A recent book by James Montague, 1312: Among the Ultras, tells the story in forensic detail.

It goes beyond a battle between two football teams, it is also about different political and social characteristics. Red Star, for so long seen as a symbol of “Serbdom” are said to be popular with 48% of Serbia’s population. As war raged in the former Yugoslavia, Red Star, who were European champions, were hit by the UN sanctions on Serbia in 1991, which effectively brought to an end Red Star’s golden age. The Sunday Times wrote: “It is the one sanction that really hurts…for the man in the street, Red Star’s disintegration has been more devastating than any other effect of the UN sanctions.”

The origins of Red Star and Partizan can be traced back to the years after the second world war when Red Star were formed by the United Alliance of Anti-Fascist Youth and Partizan came out of the Yugoslav People’s Army. You can take it back further in examining the rivalry between BSK Belgrade and SK Jugoslavijain. “People who were in the army were Partizan fans, but all others from Serbia were cheering for Red Star,” said Serbian journalist Darko Nikolic in conversation with the BBC. Amid the creation of Red Star and Partizan, BSK’s facilities were taken over by a newly-created club, Metelac, who had Tito as their honorary president. The club went on to be acquired by the secret police and became OFK Beograd.

Partizan’s stadium is in Autokomanda, an urban area around 1.5 kilometres from the centre of Belgrade. It was formerly known as the Stadion JNA after the Yugoslavian Army. At its peak, the stadium held 50,000 but today’s all-seater limit is less than 30,000. Red Star’s Rajko Mitic Stadium, also known as the Marakana, is just one kilometre away from Partizan’s arena. Red Star’s attendances, averaging 19,000 are far in excess of the Serbian Super League’s 2,300 (2021-22), while Partizan’s average is less than 4,000.

These two clubs have dominated Serbian football since their formation including the old Yugoslavian league. In fact, they have won 60 league titles between them and since the Serbian Super League was formed in 2006, they have won eight titles apiece. Nobody else has had a look in. In Belgrade’s shops and kiosks, it is very clear Red Star and Partizan (both who have played in European Cup finals) make the most noise, although like every country outside the “big five”, Belgrade’s football appetite is compromised by elite clubs ifrom Spain, Germany and Italy, as well as the Premier League.

While central Belgrade now resembles many central European cities and towns, there is still evidence of the conflict that tore apart the Balkans not so long ago. There are pock-marked buildings and sites that were once populated by offices or government offices, and in the Kalemegdan Fortress, there are military vehicles and weapons to remind the visitor of the past. Away from that, Belgrade is rapidly becoming a trendy place to visit, with a vibrant nightlife and a growing penchant for the type of café society seen in places like Vienna, Prague and Budapest. In a decade’s time, the city will undoubtedly look every different.

It is unlikely Serbian football’s dynamic will ever change – the Belgrade duo will never see a major challenge to their supremacy and no other Belgrade club will interrupt the rivalry of the eternal derby. The current Serbian Super League line-up includes three other sides from Belgrade and its environs: Čukaricki, FK Kolubara and Voždovac. Of these, Voždovac have been among the most durable of clubs. They play at the Shopping Center Stadium, as it is known, which is literally a ground on top of a huge shopping mall. They are not well supported and struggle to get more than 500 people at their home games. Čukaricki, who date back to 1926, are also short of spectators.

Outside the top level, some Belgrade teams owe their formation to industrial backing. IMT, for example, were fomed by agricultural machinery manufacturers in 1953 and are known as Traktoristi (The tractorists), while RFK Grafičar Beograd were the club of the printing industry. They are now a feeder to Red Star. Then there is Teleoptik, from the optical profession and, unsurprisingly, known as the opticians!

One name from the early days of European club competition, OFK, now play in the third tier of Serbian football, a far cry from the years when they reached the last four of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup and Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup. They play in the deteriorating Omladinski Stadion in the Karaburma municipality, which held almost 20,000 people but has a much reduced capacity at present. They are nicknamed the Romantics, but there’s nothing very misty-eyed about their current situation in the Serbian League, Belgrade section.

Serbia is a football country that faces continual challenges in a continually polarising European landscape. The European Super League project, should it go ahead, may inflict mortal damage on countries like Serbia and clubs like Red Star and Partizan, who have contributed to the rich heritage of the continent’s football, may find themselves forgotten. That must not be allowed to happen, for the sake of Serbia, Belgrade and the clubs concerned.

Big football names come in all shapes and sizes

BEFORE football became the plaything of broadcasters, governments and corporates, big clubs could be found in almost every country in Europe. A club wasn’t considered big by merely having a huge bank balance, but more by its place in society. Hence, any list of the world’s most influential clubs would include those that were systemic in their own market – in other words, a giant in their domestic league and a force in European football. Today, a club’s revenues, wage bill, brand power and social media presence are every bit as important. This shift, coupled with the collapse of state-supported clubs in the old communist bloc, has changed the pecking order in global football.

Eastern Europe, for example, once had a number of giant clubs that were feared opponents in the European Cup, Cup-Winners’ Cup and Fairs Cup/UEFA Cup. The names of these clubs have lived on, even if their position in the food chain has undoubtedly changed. This year, I undertook a river cruise down the Danube into eastern Europe, a trip that was delayed by covid, but one that would include five different countries and some famous locations. I had longed to visit some of these cities, most of which had been brought to my attention via football when I was a boy.

In particular, I was looking forward to venturing into Belgrade and Bucharest, the final stop on the journey. I always judge how much of a football city a location is by the amount of time it takes to bump into evidence of the game when you arrive. Before we landed in Serbia, we were in Osijek, Croatia, a city with a top flight club. I was expecting some grafitti extolling the virtues of the local team, but instead, there were plenty of “Bad Blue Boys” artwork, the ultra group of Dinamo Zagreb, the club that dominates Croatian football.

Into the Serbian capital, there was no doubt about the status of the big two clubs, Red Star Belgrade and Partizan. Although these two slug it out for bragging rights, year-in, year-out, I was told that something like 70% of the population of Serbia like Red Star. They are certainly seen as a flag-bearer for Serbian football, boosted by their European Cup win back in 1991, but the recent troubled history of the region has also played its part. I have to admit, I felt a little shamed at my lack of knowledge about the Balkan wars.

There is a plethora of countries where everyone you meet seems to be a fan of the most well-known club. The travelling Portuguese all seem to be Benfica supporters, which probably has something to do with the fact that many of them originate from the capital, Lisbon. As for Spain, clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona have fans all over the world, their fame spreading thanks to their success and the legend that grew around them – long before people were employed to develop and export their brand. Go to Spain and it doesn’t take long before you bump into Real, Barca, Atlético, Sevilla and Bilbao, it is one of the most naturally intense football nations in the world. Italy is similar and Juventus seems to appeal to fans all over the country, partly due to the industrial development of Turin, which drew workers from all corners.

In England, the two names with the greatest footprint are Manchester United and Liverpool, despite the efforts being made by the London clubs and Manchester City. Both became popular due to their exploits in Europe – United in the 1950s, a period sadly curtailed by the Munich crash and Liverpool in the late 1970s and 1980s. Today success is measured by how much energy is placed behind marketing a club, “growing the global presence”.

While broadcasting money has made some Premier League clubs “larger” than others that have long and fruitful European histories as well as huge fanbases, it is a sad fact that some football institutions that have been pivotal in the evolution of the game have a bigger “name” than their commercial appeal.

In Bucharest, the name “Steaua” appears on walls, tunnels and bridges, but the recent story of the only Romanian club to win a European prize is confusing. Ongoing disputes over use of the name mean there are two clubs claiming the heritage of Steaua Bucharest. Steaua, Rapid and Dinamo were all part of a vibrant football scene in Bucharest, but the possibility of these mingling with the Real Madrids and Bayern Munichs on a frequent basis would seem unlikely. Since Steaua won the European Cup in 1986, attendances in Romania have declined by 75%.

There is a correlation between national economies and the position of a country’s football. The top clubs in Europe today come from five of the top six economies: Germany, UK, France, Italy and Spain. Money, in the form of sovereign wealth funds, broadcasters, oil billionaires and financial institutions, has been drawn to market potential. Yet the challenged football markets of Europe still have clubs that once captured the imagination of fans around the continent. There was once a sense of mystery and romance about crack sides from the east, something which has been lost due to familiarity and globalisation. But you cannot take away their history or their place in the culture of their respective countries. And while they may not sit at the very top table, they should still command our respect.

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine.