The first organised groundhop in Serbia got underway with an unexpected bonus match with the fixture gods having a Friday match as Radnički Niš against Novi Pazar was being broadcast by one of Serbia’s pay per view channels. An extra day of mini bus use was hastily arranged and the group headed south on the two and a half hour drive to Niš.
Niš is the third largest city in Serbia after Novi Sad and the capital Belgrade and the club was formed in 1923. Radnički translates as “Workers”. The club were always a consistent member of the top division of the old Yugoslavian League and in 1981/2 they reached the semi final of the UEFA Cup having eliminated Napoli, Grasshoppers, Feyenoord and Dundee United. They were drawn against Hamburg SV and Radnički won the first leg 2-1 in Niš. The second leg at the Volksparkstadion saw the Serbs collapse to a 5-1 defeat. Legend has it that the club accepted a bribe of a set of floodlights from the Hamburg chairman to throw the second leg.
A shock relegation in 1985 bought an end to a golden era for the club. Serbia’s independence following the Balkan War saw the club in the top division of the new league but by 2008 they dropped into the third tier regional Srpska Liga East. Happily by 2011/12 they were back in the top flight and this coincided with a return to the home stadium Čair, their home since 1963, which had undergone an €11 million revamp.
Tonight’s match against Novi Pazar sees the hosts in fifth place in the Jelen Super Liga while their guests occupied twelfth spot. What followed were two teams completely cancelling each other out and the 0-0 result was somewhat inevitable. Some local fans who were surprised by the English presence in their stadium told us they suspected the result had been agreed in advance between the two clubs and they feared this was common place among the smaller clubs in Serbia.
Friday 18th March 2016 – Jelen Super Liga
FC Radnički Niš 0
Novi Pazar 0
Att: 2,000 (at Gradski Stadion Čair)
The evening was concluded with a quick stroll around Niš Fortress before getting sustenance in the lively bohemian quarter of the city. As JJ Burnel once (nearly) sung it really was “So nice in Niš”. The party then headed back to our headquarters in Belgrade’s Slavija Square.
Saturday’s busy schedule started early with a 10 am kick of at third division BASK (Beogradski Akademski Sportski Klub). The club were formed in April 1903 SK Soko as a football wing of a long established gymnastics club. That formation date means BASK are the oldest club in the kingdom of Serbia.
Initially the club used a tight field on Jugovićeva Street but this was too confined so they moved to a new field known as Bara Venecija but after a few years of use this was completely destroyed when the mighty River Sava burst its’ banks. SK Soko then moved to a new ground in Topčider but after 27 years this was lost to railway expansion. Having changed their name to BASK in 1933 the club moved to yet another new venue behind an electrical plant in Novi Beograd. Ironically after World War II this venue became home to today’s opponents, Radnički Novi Beograd.
In the early post War years BASK merged with Senjak and gained use of the current stadium in Topčider Park close to the former home of SK Soko. The club has enjoyed great success at the Stadion Careva Ćuprija and as recently as 2009/10 and 2010/11 they achieved a double promotion from third tier to the Super Liga. However the BASK board decided the top flight would be too much of a financial risk for the club and they sold their place in the Super Liga to FK Novi Pazar.
The black and whites are now back in the third tier and their stadium now boasts a 3G surface and a large pitch length stand down one side and a more modest cover behind one goal. The adjacent hotel houses player from Super Liga club Spartak Subotica, in town for the match against Red Star, and a few of them drift in to watch the game. The hosts grab an early lead with a deft left footed drive from Dejan Pajović. The visitors from Novi Beograd, in second place in the table, spend most of the game trying to score but just as they appeared to have given up they snatch the points with two very late goals.
Saturday March 19th 2016 – Srpska Liga Beograd
BASK 1 (Pajović 11)
Radnički Novi Beograd 2 (Stajić 89, Dalifi 90)
Att: 161 (at Stadion Careva Ćuprija)
We then head over to the suburb of Karaburma and next up is the 2pm kick off at the once mighty Stadion Omladinski, home of OFK Beograd. Omladinski Fudbalski Klub Beograd were formed as Beogradski Sport Klub in 1911 and won five national championships before World War II. The club became Metalac in 1945 before reverting five years later to BSK. In 1957 the club became OFK with Omladinski translating as “Youth”. The club won the Yugoslav Cup four times in the 1950’s and 60’s and were rarely out of the top six in the league. They were regulars in European competition until the mid 1970’s and hold victories over the likes of Napoli, Juventus, Feyenoord and Panathinaikos. In 1962/3 they reached the semi-final of the Cup Winners Cup but fell to Tottenham Hotspur.
Then almost without warning the Romantičari fell from grace and spent two decades flitting between the first and second levels. Only in the 2000’s did European competition return to the Omladinski. The club has always struggled for support living in the shadow of Red Star and Partizan, but in 2016 it finds itself in dire straits. The stadium looks much older than it’s’ 58 years and its poor state of repair and lack of investment is evident for all to see. The club has been toward the bottom of the table all season and with relegation a real possibility what support they had has all but deserted the club amid stories of current players deliberately losing matches.
Only 300 people gather for this match with Vojvodina from Novi Sad and only one side of the stadium is open. A bulldozer sits on top of a terrace and is working on footing for floodlights, a luxury the stadium has never sported previously. Hopefully this will mark some much needed refurbishment at stadium that can hold some 20,000 people.
If OFK players are deliberately losing matches this season then they disguise it well today as they work extremely hard against a compact and tidy visiting team. A sustained spell of OFK pressure in the second half produces a towering header from Vuk Martinović to secure three much needed points for the hosts.
Saturday March 19th 2016 -Jelen Super Liga
OFK Belgrade 1 (Martinović 71)
FK Vojvodina 0
Att: 300 (at Stadion Omladinski)
A pleasant interlude was then spent at a restaurant on the Danube where fish soup and cevapcici was eaten before the main event at the Marakana, home of the famous Red Star Belgrade. It was also great to catch up with legendary Zvezda fan Nenad Mijaljević who many of you will know as the editor of match programmes for Seaham Red Star, Jarrow Roofing and South Shields.
I had been to the Marakana (or Stadion Crvena Zvezda or Stadion Rajko Mitić, take your pick) before for the legendary Eternal Derby against Partizan so I was more than interested to see what support, particularly that from the ultras “Delije”, for an ordinary league game when the hosts have a 30 point lead at the top of the table. The crowd might have been a quarter of the gathering for a derby match but the noise and support from the north stand was loud and relentless and carried on long after Zvezda cruised to a 4-0 win against Spartak Subotica. Of course there was pyro galore illuminating the night sky at regular intervals.
Red Star, and indeed Partizan, were formed in 1945 when several existing clubs were dissolved by Marshal Tito as they had played matches during the war without permission. One such club was SK Jugoslavija who had played on the site of the current stadium since 1927. The new club, Crvena Zvezda, were given the stadium of the old Jugoslavija while the club formed by the Yugoslav People’s Army (the JNA) were appeased with a piece of land not half a mile away which would in 1951 be ready for use and is still the stadium FK Partizan use today.
The old Jugoslavija Stadium held 20,000 and after Red Star’s ill fated match against Manchester United in 1958 had to be moved to Partizan’s ground to cope with demand, it became clear to the board the popularity of the “people’s club” meant a much bigger stadium was needed. The old Jugoslavija Stadium was razed to the ground and Zvezda decamped to Partizan’s ground for a few seasons.
By the time the stadium was ready for inauguration in September 1963, people eagerly clambered the vomitories to see the vast new bowl which could hold 110,000 people on its terraces. The locals at once declared “It looks like the Maracana” after Rio’s famous amphitheatre and so the nickname was created. It’s all time record attendance was set in 1975 when 117,000 people watched a match against the Hungarian club Ferencvaros. Nowadays its all seater, though seats are removed from the away end for derby matches, and has a more manageable capacity of 55,000. To date Zvezda have won 26 championships and, of course, were crowned European champions when that magical side which included Dejan Savećević, Darko Pancev, Robert Prosinecki, and Vladimir Jugović defeated Marseille on penalties.
It is great to see this famous club back on top of the table and in the Marakana they still have one of Europe’s most iconic stadiums. In the Delije they have some of the best ultras in the world.
Saturday March 19th 2016 – Jelen Super Liga
Crvena Zvezda 4 (Ibanez pen 45, pen 65, Ristić 47, Oliveira 59)
Spartak Subotica 0
Att: 12,173 (at Stadion Crvena Zvezda “Marakana”)
The evening is wound down with a night in a typical Serbian kafana, Restoran Klopka on Stanislava Sremčevića, where quite frankly preposterous amounts of meat were consumed.
With many of the party still a little listless from the previous nights gastronomic excesses most a grateful for a slightly later 11 am kick off for a third tier game at FK Dorćol. Their ground is down on the banks of the Danube and the first surprise is that they now only use their own pitch, replete with an ornate stand, for training and now share the pitch of their immediately adjacent neighbours GPS Polet.
The ground is fairly unremarkable except that it is back dropped by the vast Kalemegden fortress which is bathed in beautiful hazy morning sun.
FK Dorćol were formed in 1952 and as recently as 2002 had a one season spell in the second tier.
Today’s match sees them take on FK Brodarac 1947 and the unseasonably warm weather sees both sides having to work hard to create chances on what is a pretty poor and heavily rutted pitch. It’s no surprise that the game is decided by a penalty in the visitors’ favour which is converted by their goalkeeper, Milos Lazarević.
In a special treat for us we are hen introduced to Ljupko Petrović, legendary coach of Red Star’s 1991 European Cup winning side. The veteran coach was more than happy to pose for photos.
Sunday March 20th 2016 – Srpska Liga Beograd
FK Dorcól 0
FK Brodarac 1 (Lazarević pen 59)
Att: 179 (at Stadion Polet)
A brief spell is spent wandering around Kalemegden fortress and the Pobednik statue which regally overlooks the beguiling confluence of the two great Serbian rivers of the Sava and the Daunav (Danube). It is ridiculously warm and shirt sleeves and ice cream are the order of the hour.
Next we travel half an hour south of Belgrade to a small Vrčín, this is co-organiser Aleks’ secret ground. We are warmly welcomed by the club president into what can only be described as a delightfully ramshackle ground. The clubhouse has a viewing gallery where a bunch of real characters sit to cheer on the team/harangue the referee (delete as applicable), some of our party who will remain nameless join them an get rather pickle on some indeterminate local poteen.
On the far side of the pitch is the concrete carcass of a large stand started in 1993 when Vrčín were in the third tier of the old Yugoslav third tier. The municipality then pulled the funding for it and now it has a couple of hundred plastic seats acquired from FK Partizan bolted to it.
Vrčín have had an awful season with just eight points gained from 15 matches and they sit bottom of the table with the visitors, PKB Padinska Skela, in tenth. A healthy crowd gathers to cheer on the team (or look at the strange group of British interlopers) in what is a must win game for the club.
Luckily for us we catch Vrčín on a good day and the hard working giant of a centre forward, Vanja Savić nets a well deserved brace of goals to lift this super friendly club off the bottom of the table.
Sunday March 20th 2016 – Beogradska Zone
FK Vrčín 2 (Savić 53, 73)
PKB Padinska Skela 0
Att: 154 (at Stadion Želežnički)
The tours final match is another Super Liga encounter between “the Hillmen” of FK Čukarički and FK Partizan. The hosts were formed in 1926 and spent many years in the amateur ranks. By 1971 they had reached the Yugoslav Second Division and twelve years later they climbed into the top division for the first time.
Since 2012 Čukarički have been owned by Dragan Obradović, a construction magnate, and heavy investment saw the club finish third last season and gain a Europa League place. They beat Slovenian side NK Domžale in the first qualifying round but then succumbed to the Azerbaijani side SC Gabala.
Stadion Čukarički was opened in 1969 and is also known as the Stadion na Banovom Brdu. It has undergone massive improve in recent seasons but is still a relatively small two sided venue.
The hosts take a shock lead after 47 seconds when Bandalovski turns a cross into his own net and Partizan’s poor season looks set to continue. However, urged on by their flare wielding, tribal drumming ultras, the Grobari, Partizan turn it around with the winning goal being scored by the ex Manchester City and Bulgaria striker Valeri Bojinov, who looks to be carrying a fair amount of weight these days.
Saturday March 20th 2016 -Jelen Super Liga
FK Čukarički 1 (Bandalovski og 1)
FK Partizan 2 (M.Stevanović 49, Bojinov 67)
Att: 1,500 (at Stadion Čukarički)
The evening is spent in the bohemian quarter of Belgrade called Skadarlija in the upmarket restaurant Tri Sesira where the food is once again top notch.
Tastes of Belgrade
Sights of Belgrade
So there it was the first ever Serbian groundhop superbly hosted by our good friends Aleks Peković and Bogdan Mitrović. After such an excellent time few would bet against a second groundhop occurring in 2017!