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.

Red Star Belgrade 1973-74 – the team that changed English football

IN 1978, Chelsea chairman Brian Mears, desperate to change the fortunes of his ailing club, started to court Miljan Miljanić the Yugoslav coach rated among the best in Europe.

Miljanić sat in the Stamford Bridge stands, dark glasses shielding him from the autumn sun and watched a calamitous first-half display by Chelsea against Bolton Wanderers. For a man used to rubbing shoulders with Europe’s footballing elite – he had coached Real Madrid between 1974 and 1977 – the prospect of fighting relegation at a club that was clearly in decline was not enticing. Chelsea came back to win 4-3 and Miljanić told Mears, “With spirit like that, you can get out of trouble.” Miljanić  had his escape route and within weeks, he was appointed manager of Yugoslavia’s national team. He was wrong about Chelsea, though, for they endured five years in the old Football League second division.

The fact that Miljanić was Chelsea’s target was not just a publicity stunt – it was the second time in three years that a London club had been seduced by his methods. Arsenal, when they were looking to replace Bertie Mee, had toyed with the idea of installing him as coaching supremo at Highbury. English football was not quite ready for such a bold and forward-thinking hiring, but if he had joined either Arsenal or Chelsea, he might have had the sort of lasting impact that Arsene Wenger had two decades later.


He made his name with Red Star Belgrade, a club that enjoyed a reputation in the cold war years of being one of the trickiest eastern European teams to play against, especially on their own turf. Red Star won the European Cup in 1991 amid the troubled region the Balkans became, but in the 1970s, under the charismatic  Miljanić, they were more influential than many people realise.

In some ways, Red Star were distant and cautious relatives of the Dutch/German Total Football axis. Given the politics of the time, they were never going to be as revered as the pseudo-hippy Dutch or the ruthlessly efficient Germans, but Yugoslavia was considered to be “user friendly” Communist – people “even” went on holiday there, stepping into the unknown with their Ambre Solaire, telling themselves it was a cut-price Italy.

In 1970-71, football pundits, including the much revered Geoffrey Green from The Times, predicted a Red Star win in the European Cup, a victory that would have made them the first eastern bloc team to lift the trophy. The team had shown some quality in beating Hungarian champions Ujpest Dozsa 4-2 on aggregate, coming back from a 2-0 defeat in Budapest, UT Arad of Romania 6-1 and Carl Zeiss Jena of East Germany 6-4 on aggregate. In the semi-final, they were paired with Greek champions Panathinaikos, who were managed by none other than Ferenc Puskas. The media expected Red Star to reach the final, especially after a Stevan Ostojic hat-trick helped them to a 4-1 first-leg win. But in the second leg, Red Star capitulated and were beaten 3-0, allowing Panathinaikos to win on away goals. Most people agreed that Red Star versus Ajax would have been a far more interesting final than the emerging Dutchmen against the Greeks.

Generally, Red Star didn’t travel well away from home, but in Yugoslavia, they won the league title four times in six years between 1967-68 and 1972-73. They also lifted the Cup three times in that period.

It was a two-legged tie with English champions Liverpool in 1973-74 that really woke people up to the technical brilliance of Yugoslavian players. The national team had always been seen as a team of “nearly men” that could challenge the more fancied nations like Germany, Italy and England. In 1968, they had reached the final of the European Championship, with England beaten 1-0 in the semi-final. The players who knocked England out, Dragan Džajić, was a Red Star hero and finished third in the 1968 European Footballer of the Year voting. Even the likes of Pele enthused about Džajić: “He is a Balkan miracle, a real wizard. I’m just sorry he’s not Brazilian, because I have never witnessed such a natural footballer.” In 2013, he was named the greatest Yugoslav player of all time.

Yugoslavia missed out on both the 1966 and 1970 World Cups, but they were in Germany in 1974 and hosted the 1976 Euros. Consistency was always their problem, but as far as raw skill and ability was concerned, Yugoslav players were among the best. Not for nothing were they nicknamed “the Brazilians of Europe”.

Džajić didn’t play in the two games with Liverpool in the autumn of 1973, but Red Star were built around the pace and trickery that he brought to the team. Miljanić’s team relied on swift counter-attacking and precision passing. It was largely Serbian, but also included Montenegrins like Nikola Jovanovic, later of Manchester United,  and Macedonians.

Miljanić was a big fan of Rinus Michels’ Ajax and the West German team of 1972. He bought into the “total” aspect of their ethos: “It is necessary that the player in possession of the ball finds himself as often as possible with a very rich choice of several solutions. This can be done only when a team’s players all take part in the attacking play and in defence.” He was also a scholar of English football, in particular the Tottenham “double” winning team of 1961. Following the 1966 World Cup, he spent quite a bit of time with Bill Nicholson, manager of Tottenham, to study the Spurs way.

Miljanić’s approach was perhaps a little more defence-minded than the Dutch and Germans, but Red Star could produce devastating football when they stepped up a gear. Liverpool were beaten twice by 2-1 and Bill Shankly and his backroom staff were devastated. Red Star had been too “smart” for Liverpool. The 4-2 aggregate defeat prompted Liverpool to reassess the way they played in Europe. What followed was a more patient, passing style that might not have always entertained, but demonstrated a more continental, “game management” style that would shape Liverpool’s football for 15 years and raise the bar for English football.

Red Star, after beating Shankly’s men, went out of the competition in the next round. But the games with Liverpool did bring Red Star’s players to the attention of other European clubs. Yugoslavia introduced a new market economy in the late 1960s and although the concept of buying and selling footballers was alien to a Communist bloc nation,  players were permitted to travel abroad when they were 28, so as the Red Star team reached their more advanced years, they were snapped up by French clubs – Ognjen Petrovic (Bastia), Kiril Dojcinovski (Troyes), Slobodan Jankovic (Lens), Stanislav Karasi (Lille) or, like Vladislav Bogicevic (New York Cosmos), Petar Baralic (Tampa Bay Rowdies) and Vojin Lazarevic (Toronto), they went further afield to North America.

Miljan Miljanić left Red Star in 1974 to take up a lucrative offer from Real Madrid. A few years earlier, he had received an offer of USD 50,000 from Brazil to prepare the great team of 1970 for the Mexico World Cup, but he elected to continue the work he had started at Red Star, where an academy had been established that yielded almost 150 players. At Real, he won La Liga in his first two seasons but after 1976-77 ended without silverware, he resigned.

History will look at Red Star’s 1991 team as the pinnacle of the club’s history, but the line-up from the early to mid-1970s taught a wily and opinionated old Scot how to reshape his team for an assault on Europe’s top prize. They still talk about that night in Liverpool in November 1973 as a catalyst for a new era for English football. From 1977 to 1984, English teams won the European Cup seven times. Prior to 1977, it had happened once. Red Star Belgrade and Miljanić clearly taught us something.