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.

Soviet power won the first Euros of 1960

THE European Championships have become the second most important international football competition after the World Cup, although you could argue that the UEFA Champions League is doing its best to overtake both. In the first of a new series, Game of the People looks at some of the great Euros, starting with the very first.

In 1960, with the cold war simmering away and tension building – culminating in the Cuban missile crisis and the erection of the Berlin Wall –  politicans were desperately trying to build unity across Europe. Two world wars had, after all, originated and had been at their most brutal, in Europe.

Some well-meaning individuals saw football as a means of bringing Europe together. The French, who had watched their country being torn apart during both global conflicts, were – understandably – at the root of many unifying ideas. Jules Rimet had been the instigator of the World Cup and other French administrators and journalists had been advocates of pan-European club competitions.

Henri Delaunay had first tabled the concept of an international competition for European national teams in 1927. It was not until 1954 that the idea took seed, though and once UEFA was formed, it was decided to kick-off the European Nations Cup for 1958-60.

The first European Nations Cup was affected by East-West discomfort

Not everyone wanted to join the party. There were still some old wounds to heal from the second world war. England – never quick to join in – Germany and Italy declined to take part. England were only 10 years into FIFA World Cup participation, and had made a mess of their 1950 campaign in Brazil.

The Soviet Union was keen to show that communist deals and commitment to health, sport and virility was superior to the west. Sport could be used as a propaganda tool. Only 17 nations took part in Euro 1960: Ireland, Czechoslavakia, USSR, Hungary, France, Greece, Romania, Turkey, Norway, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, East Germany, Portugal, Poland, Spain and Denmark. The competition was played on a knock-out basis.

It was clear from the start that the Soviets were taking the European Nations Cup seriously. Their first round tie was against Hungary, and was often the case, the Hungarians lost to their overlords. Over 100,000 people saw USSR beat Hungary in the first leg in Moscow, the second leg being a 1-0 win for the Magyars.

France, who had thrilled people in the 1958 World Cup, easily disposed of Greece, 7-1 in Paris, with Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa on the scoresheet. Both the USSR and France, along with star-studded Spain were considered to be favourites to lift the inaugural European Nations Cup. In Sweden, France had finished third while the Soviets had reached the last eight.

Almost half of the USSR’s team had featured in the 1956 Olympics, coached by Gavril Kachalin, a wily Muscovite who played for Dynamo during World War Two. Kachalin’s squad for the 1960 European Championship was built around Moscow sides, but he also included players from Rostov and Tbilisi.

There was plenty of energy and talent in the USSR side, but they also enjoyed some good fortune. In the quarter-finals, they were drawn to meet Spain. Then under the Franco regime, Spain’s football team was ordered to return home before facing the Soviets. Franco recalled that during the bitter Spanish civil war, Russians had fought against the army. Spanish football chief Alfonso de la Fuente Chaos tried to intervene, even suggesting a neutral ground for the tie, but Franco was firm in his view that the national team should not face the USSR. Spain, who had a team packed with talented players like Alfredo di Stefano, Paco Gento, Luis Suarez and Laszlo Kubala, duly withdrew, allowing Kachalin’s team to pass straight into the semi-finals. Spain missed the chance to really impress upon the continent the power of their football, at a time when Real Madrid were at their brilliant best.

France trounced Austria 9-4 on aggregate, including a 5-2 win in the Stade de Colombes, a game that saw Fontaine score a hat-trick. Yugoslavia and Czechoslavakia also reached the last four, beating Portugal and Romania respectively.

The semi-finals and final would be held in France. The host nation would ordinarily be classed as favourites, but they had been shorn of both Raymond Kopa and Just Fontaine through injury and retirement. They met Yugoslavia in a cliché-ridden “nine-goal thriller in Parc de Princes. France led 4-2 with 28 minutes to go, but three goals in five minutes – including two from Dinamo Zagreb forward Drazan Jerkovic, gave the Yugoslavs a 5-4 win. Meanwhile, in Marseille, the USSR easily disposed of the Czechs 3-0.

The final, played on July 10 1960 in Paris, was a meeting of the 1956 Olympic football champions and the team that would succeed them that year. Yugoslavia had no less than eight of the team that would win gold in Rome.

Partizan Belgrade striker Milan Galic gave Yugoslavia the lead in the 43rd minute of the game, but four minutes into the second half, Slava Metreveli of Torpedo Moscow equalised for the USSR.

The game went into extra time, and with seven minutes to go, Viktor Ponedelnik headed the ball past a static, and no doubt tired, Yugoslav defence to win the game. Back in Moscow and other Soviet cities, football fans listened to the triumph on the radio. Ponedelnik, speaking some years after the game, commented: “They said that in Moscow there wasn’t one dark window. In every city … nobody slept, the army never slept, citizens didn’t sleep, everyone sat and listened. When they told us about that, we literally had tears in our eyes.”

Some say that this was the Soviet Union’s greatest football achievement, and although the competition was in its infancy and still to gain credibility, the record books will suggest that this was indeed the pinnacle for the USSR. Between 1958 and 1970 they were certainly among the most consistent nations: 1958 WC QF; 1960 EC winners; 1962 WC QF; 1964 EC final; 1966 WC 3rd; 1968 EC 4th; 1970 WC QF.

Yashin: “The joy of seeing Yuri Gagarin flying in space is only superseded by the joy of a good penalty save” (from later in his career)

The 1960 team contained some legends of Soviet football. Lev Yashin was arguably one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time while Igor Netto, the skipper, to many commentators, represented “the heart and soul of Russian football”. Mikheil Meskhi, who played for Dinamo Tbilisi, was nicknamed “the Georgian Garrincha” and Valentin Ivanov of Torpedo was one of the greatest goalscorers in the Soviet game.

After the game in Paris, Real Madrid’s president, Santiago Bernabeau, who had been watching the final, brandished his cheque book and offered to sign half the USSR team for the undisputed leaders in European club football. But there was no way that any of the newly-crowned international champions were going anywhere – the KGB were always in close attendance.

Many people felt the Soviet Union could have done better on the world stage. Technically, they had some extremely gifted players and their teams were always well-drilled. But there was also a theory that the over-emphasis on the Olympic games hampered genuine progress on the football field. Furthermore, the fact that the football season in the USSR, mostly for climatic reasons, was out of sync with the rest of Europe, was also seen as a disadvantage.

That didn’t stop them being crowned the first European champions in 1960. The European Championship was underway!


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