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.

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.